A solid cast can’t liven up this bizarrely-structured and bloodless horror movie.
The new horror film The Invitation opts to take a cue from Smash Mouth’s “All-Star” and hit the ground running. The very first scene of Jessica M. Thompson’s latest directorial effort depicts a woman deciding to escape a lavish home by way of suicide. With the help of a piano string and a medium-sized statue, she’s soon a corpse dangling in the living room of this mansion. Accompanied by pronounced cues on Dara Taylor’s score and claps of thunder, this demise is a striking way to kick off a movie. It’s also, unfortunately, emblematic of a critical narrative misstep from which The Invitation never quite recovers.
From there, we meet protagonist Evie (Nathalie Emmanuel). She’s a pottery enthusiast in New York City still reeling from her mother’s death four months earlier. Feeling lonely, she’s taken aback by the revelation from a DNA test that she’s got a whole mess of distant family members in England. Cousin Oliver (Hugh Skinner) is endlessly enthusiastic about meeting Evie. He encourages her to come to the English countryside, where the whole family is about to converge for a wedding.
One flight later, Evie is in awe of the extravagant home where the wedding is taking place (which previously served as the backdrop for the prologue) and even more impressed with the jawline of Walter (Thomas Doherty). She’s living in the lap of luxury now, but Evie can’t shake the feeling that something’s a little…off here. What at first seems like a few peculiar details begin to add up to reveal a disturbing conspiracy that could end up robbing our hero of all her autonomy.
Thompson and Blair Butler’s screenplay for The Invitation is a bizarre creation in terms of structure. The film’s opening immediately establishes that something is awry with all these rich people. A handful of segments depicting servants violently dragged off into the shadows only further hammer this point. However, Evie is oblivious to all this. In fact, in her scenes, the story tries to act like everything’s hunky-dory with only minimal nods to what’s really happening.
It’s hard to create suspense regarding Evie’s uncertainty over whether she can trust her newfound family when the audience knows the answer to that question from the moment the Screen Gems logo finishes playing. Instead of getting immersed in her quandaries, viewers are waiting for Evie to catch up. It doesn’t help that The Invitation is awfully dry in the lead-up to its eventual “twist.” Playing things predictably wouldn’t be a grave issue if there was a lot of campy mayhem to keep audiences entertained in the meantime.
Stephanie Corneliussen’s delectable performance as Viktoria provides the only moments where The Invitation lives up to its trashy potential.
Alas, The Invitation plays things relatively straight-faced, including a romantic dynamic between Evie and Walter that lacks much in the way of a spark. Some of this can be chalked up to obvious last-minute edits to get this movie down to a PG-13 rating. Geysers of gore or nudity would’ve gone a long way to adding some trashy flair to the proceedings, but there’s no drop or peek here. The deaths we get here are largely shrouded in darkness or handled off-screen. What lameness!
Stephanie Corneliussen’s delectable performance as Viktoria provides the only moments where The Invitation lives up to its trashy potential. Playing as a cross between Elvira and Gina Gershon in Showgirls with an ever-fluctuating accent, Coreneliussen is a hoot as a wedding guest seething with contempt for Evie. The scene where she’s just tossing out catty barbs while swimming naked in a pool has a preposterous aura that more of this movie needed.
This whole affair becomes a bit more potent once The Invitation decides to reveal its primary twist, opening the door for some lively fight sequences and a priest dressed as Scorpion from Mortal Kombat. In this stretch of the screenplay, the story also opts to engage in some social commentary about everyday people being complicit in the evil in their own backyard. There are interesting details to the latter element, but didactic dialogue and how late (and briefly) it shows up hamper its effectiveness.
The Invitation is one of several modern horror films that feels caught between warring creative impulses. If there are two wolves inside this feature, one wants to be a steamy gothic yarn that chills you to the bone. The other wolf wants live in the land of PG-13 cinema with no graphic violence or deep sociopolitical commentary.
Countless scary films have juggled the brainy with the bloody, but this is not one of them. Despite game efforts from actors like Emmanuel and some solid imagery from cinematographer Autumn Eakin, The Invitation is often more tedious than anything else. Unfortunately, that clumsily placed prologue was a harbinger that the ensuing movie would not be “the sharpest tool in the shed.”
The Invitation is accepting RSVPs now in theatres.