Vampires are cinema’s most malleable monsters. They can sparkle, skateboard, yell “bat”, or do gymnastics, all while fulfilling their bloodsucking duties. In the horror movie The Invitation, vampires take on their more familiar role as society’s rich and powerful, as an unlucky human guest joins them for the weekend. The Invitation comes from director Jessica M. Thompson (The Light of the Moon), and while it pulls inspiration from several recent and successful out-of-place houseguest horror movies like Get Out and Ready or Not, The Invitation never manages to be scary, and it hides its vampires behind a lifeless love story.
The Invitation follows Evie (Nathalie Emmanuel), an unhappy and over-it gig-caterer in New York who’s fed up with her dead-end job, desperate to follow her passion for ceramics, and still reeling from her mother’s recent death. One day, Evie snags a gift bag from a swanky event she’s catering and tries out the included DNA testing kit. The test connects her to a previously unknown branch of her family that lives among the upper crust of English society. Before Evie knows it, she’s been invited to a mysterious wedding at an English estate, where she meets and quickly falls for the enigmatic Walter (Thomas Doherty), the lord of the manor.
This series of events takes almost all of the movie’s 105-minute run time to play out. That may surprise viewers who’ve seen any of the promotional material for this movie, which is far more focused on the story’s vampiric presence. The bait-and-switch of subbing a dubious romance in for vampire violence wouldn’t be much of a problem if the movie were willing to invest in the Gothic style and foreboding atmosphere that helps make vampire love stories timelessly creepy. Instead, Thompson is content with awkward flirting that’s shot as blandly as a one-season-only Netflix teen series.
Even though the story rests almost solely on viewers believing Walter is subtly seducing the worldly and cautious Evie, Emmanuel and Doherty never muster much chemistry beyond both being attractive people. The stiff, exposition-heavy dialogue never manages to make either character interesting, and it barely leaves room for the actors to add any spark or genuine emotion to the confounding romance.
Even stranger, the movie’s script, from Hell Fest co-writer Blair Butler, goes to great lengths to convince viewers that Evie is too smart to fall prey to the lures of old money. As a Black woman who has lived her whole life in the United States and knows what it’s like to be the disrespected server at a rich person’s party (even though she has a killer New York City apartment), Evie constantly sympathizes with the wedding’s ill-fated servants, and swears to her best friend that she’d never fall prey to the trappings of wealth and the luxuries colonialism paid for. Then she does. Right away. With no convincing, and no charm from Walter whatsoever. While her sudden susceptibility might suggest something supernatural is at play — something that might have helped sell the romance, and given her a meaningful internal struggle — The Invitation never makes any hints that that’s the case.
In fact, Evie’s only reason for thinking Walter is anything other than a rich playboy with a big house is that he apologizes to her for his butler being rude. (Yes, it’s the help’s fault when something goes wrong for Evie. No, the filmmakers do not acknowledge the irony.) The Invitation is desperate to try to replicate the awkward fish-out-of-water terror of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, without realizing that part of what made that movie so eerie is the implication of a loving, meaningful relationship between the protagonist and one of the villains, which started well before the movie begins.
The tedious flirtation in The Invitation is occasionally punctuated by scenes that bring the movie a little closer to the horror and moodiness that its vampiric premise promises. There are a few scenes of mysterious creatures lurking in shadows, or locked rooms that guard unseemly creatures of the night. These brief horror scenes are shot in an overly dark manner, with tacky blue lighting that obscures almost all of the action. But they at least manage tension for a few seconds at a time, and they provide a bit of the foreboding atmosphere that the rest of the movie is sorely lacking.
Finally, in its last 25 minutes, The Invitation turns into the vampire-slaying action movie Sony wanted audiences to believe it is for the whole run time. During a suitably creepy dinner — the movie’s most effective scene, thanks to the dozen or so masked vampire cultists — Walter finally explains his full vampiric machinations to Evie. The movie seems intent on revealing this information as a twist, but considering it not only makes up most of the trailer but is also hinted at in the movie’s prologue, Evie’s shock at the reveal ends up feeling like the most surprising part of the scene, especially given the broad hints at something weird and nefarious happening.
Once the cat’s out of the bag, The Invitation finally transforms into its best self, a vaguely angry movie about a woman who’s fed up with all these vampires and would very much like to kill them. The action itself is mostly lackluster and bloodless, and it never reaches the giddy violence or entertaining heights of Ready or Not, the movie The Invitation feels most indebted to. At least it’s more exciting than Evie and Walter’s baffling courtship.
One part Get Out, one part Ready or Not, and too few parts Dracula, The Invitation is a pastiche of infinitely better horror stories that it never measures up to. You can make vampires do almost anything in movies, but The Invitation commits the one unforgivable sin: making vampires boring.
The Invitation opens in theaters on Aug. 26.