Even as it’s becoming more commonplace nowadays, The Invitation is a 100% worse experience if you have seen the above trailer. The trailer suggests another horror romp like 2019’s one-percenter satire Ready or Not, but the new film by director Jessica M. Thompson (The Handmaid’s Tale) is way too much set up for a twist anyone who’s seen said trailer will see coming (And even if they haven’t, it’s probably pretty obvious regardless). Despite a strong cast led by Nathalie Emmanuel, who act their bloody hearts out, and a solid premise, Sony Picture’s latest horror film is a tone-deaf misfire lacking bite.
When struggling New York caterer Evelyn (Emmanuel), who goes by the name “Evie,” sends her DNA to the Find Yourself app, she’s surprised to find out she’s related to an old world English dynasty. Soon, she receives a first-class ticket to London for the “wedding of the century” involving her blood relatives, the Alexanders. What starts as a class clash between herself and her newfound British fam quickly turns deadly.
Or at least that is what should have happened. Ready of Not hit the ground running, setting up its premise within the first fifteen minutes. Unfortunately, what exactly the mysterious, wealthy Alexander family is up to isn’t revealed until the film’s final reel of The Invitation. The first hour of the plot focuses on rote and uninspired observations on race, class, and gender—more romance than horror. A stronger script could have made this section razor sharp, but Blair Butler’s screenplay is filled with racial stereotypes and tired tropes regarding stuffy English folks. Red flags started popping up with Evie’s best pal Grace (Courtney Taylor), who is, frustratingly, written with the kind of urban dialogue that would have been offensive two decades ago. Taylor does what she can, but it’s tantamount to the gay friend character in numerous 90s films.
Beyond the tired jokes and incessant jump scares, the real problem is Evie herself. I won’t spoil the twist, but Evie’s the kind of person who’s always right. Conversely, nearly everyone she interacts with is morally on the wrong side of history. The servants of the fancy manor the wedding is being held seem content with being treated terribly. The rich owners are smug jerks. And so on. While it’s understandable not to have Evie be as morally bankrupt as the de facto baddies, making her too squeaky clean makes her less receptive to any kind of growth or existential crisis. Worse, Evie is the kind of movie character who, despite her smarts, makes terrible decisions at nearly every turn.
She might find the estate owner, Walter (Thomas Doherty), incredibly attractive, but never for a moment can he be trusted. But she trusts him anyways. Internally though, what exactly is the arc here? She meets some terrible people; she can’t imagine being morally compromised for love, greed, or whatever. There’s nowhere for Evie to go. Emmanuel infuses Evie with good chemistry with the supporting cast, a general likability, and displays an eagerness that feels genuine, but even a charismatic performer can only do so much. Eventually, the script is just a waiting game. When exactly will the proverbial poop hit the fan?
When the twist does happen, there are some fun moments. Remember how the early 2000s had films like Underworld to satiate the audience’s fantasies about secret societies exclusively made up of vampires and werewolves? The Invitation is a lot like that minus some particulars. The soundtrack isn’t filled with bangers like Len Wiseman’s franchise, but the vibe is the same. Dark, moody, and very satisfied with itself.
While the production design by Felicity Abbott (Upgrade) is effective, the visual effects come off as lackluster. Creepy fingers, spooky eyes, and more are far too dark to make out in the washed-out night scenes (One assumes such horror set pieces, like a basement featuring two servants and a beastie, will look much better with HDR, eventually). The finale offers a few action horror moments that liven up the mood, but by then, most of the story’s momentum has stalled.
The Invitation is not a terrible film. The cast is perfectly acceptable, and the costumes by Danielle Knox (Monster Hunter) are a pleasure to behold. Yet, beat after beat, the film never elevates its mundane plotting or lack of fresh ideas. As a streaming or rental, it’s fine, but as a theater experience, one need not attend.