The Invitation is now in theaters.
Despite the message Sony’s imaginary marketing campaign for Jessica M. Thompson’s The Invitation sends, it’s not dead-on-arrival. While identifiably inferior to the films it’s easily compared alongside, The Invitation is creepier, lustier, and more hauntingly atmospheric than trailers detail. Shades of Radio Silence’s shotgun wedding in 2019’s masterful Ready or Not and countless sweet erotic vampire tragedies ring truest, albeit in inspiration, never recreation. The Invitation suffers from split personalities as vampire elements disappear for the film’s more young adult midsection, long enough where there’s never a harmonious fusion of horniness and hangry neck biters. It’s no Bram Stoker’s Dracula, yet few are — The Invitation lands squarely in the almost-forgotten-to-okay vampire cinema ranks.
Game of Thrones actress Nathalie Emmanuel stars as Evie, a parentless New York City caterer with a ceramics passion who uses an at-home DNA test to locate and connect with her English second cousin, relator Oliver Alexander (Hugh Skinner). He insists they meet while he’s visiting New York for work, then demands she accompany him back to their homeland for an elaborate countryside wedding as a chance to meet her unspoken-of relatives. Evie agrees, jets first-class to a mansion overseen by Lord Walter (Thomas Doherty), and is pampered by her Alexander clan. Although, there are rules like forbidden quarters and no wandering outside bedrooms after dark — red flags to any horror fan.
Ambitions for Thompson’s The Invitation — no connection to Karyn Kusama’s murderous dinner party movie of the same name — are like throwing darts at a PG-13 horror mood board. Anonymity hides monstrous vampire figures who feed upon sacrificial wait staffers behind midnight-black shadows, never to reveal nastier creature designs. Evie’s attraction to ripped-and-regal Walter is meant to excuse perilous advancement in Thompson and co-writer Blair Butler’s screenplay. The Invitation bounces between basement feeding sessions steeped in James Wan-esque shadowplay and romantic chivalry as Walter lays on billionaire hunkiness thicker than bisque — never achieving ultimate balance like, say, how The Boy Next Door erotic thrills packages. At PG-13, there’s only so much of each Thompson can execute anyway.
Luckily, the performers all seem to understand their assignments, from Sean Pertwee as grumpy butler Mr. Fields to Stephanie Corneliussen as Evie’s immediate socialite rival, Viktoria. Emmanuel and Thomas Doherty are steamy, swoony, and so, so hot in a very teenager’s Dracula fanfiction way that works, with a special callout to Doherty feelin’ himself as the eye-candy heartthrob. The Invitation isn’t rewriting vampire fantasies or indulgent explorations of eternal damnation, yet the actors frequently chew the hell out of stock “Spooky Manor” scenery. Hugh Skinner as the disturbingly generous “nice guy,” Alana Boden as Evie’s lone female companion with a curious fixation – they’re all embellishing the obvious enough to elevate where possible.
When The Invitation struggles, it’s swinging and missing without much strategy. An inefficient finale blazes through Evie’s vampiric gauntlet despite more robust buildup material that coaxes sultry patriarchal warfare from outsider paranoias proven accurate. Visual effects as fire spreads throughout the elaborate and priceless estate are wonky at best, astoundingly unpolished at worst. These excessive moments sell camp as evil vampires suck from victims’ legs, licking their blood-drenched skin with this almost orgasmic pleasure on their face, but there are also countless misses that forget about pacing or overall horror experiences. Undead bridal catfights, boogeyman bedroom frights, and champagne toasts over slit throats all sound deliciously obscene — but Thompson is missing that extra salacious gear found by Neil Jordan (Interview With the Vampire) or Tony Scott (The Hunger).