I happen to be a big fan of movie trailers. When done right there are a few better ways to get moviegoers excited about an upcoming film. Of course there are several ways a movie trailer can go wrong. One of the biggest (and sadly most prevalent) ways is by revealing too much. It’s something that can be incredibly frustrating and has driven many to simply skip trailers altogether. I mean who can blame them when the studios are spoiling key chunks of their movie in what amounts to a two-minute advertisement?
I felt that frustration after seeing the trailer for “The Invitation”. Not only did it more or less give away the entire story, but it revealed what looked to be the movie’s big twist. I was hoping that wouldn’t be the case when I sat down to watch this gothic supernatural horror film. But it kinda is. From start to finish the story plays out just as we see in the trailer with practically no shocks or surprises. Yet “The Invitation” is a surprisingly easy watch in large part thanks to a nice lead performance from Nathalie Emmanuel.
Evie Jackson (Emmanuel) works for a New York City caterer where she serves hors d’oeuvres to their snooty upscale clientele. Evie is bright and talented but has been stuck at her go-nowhere job, unable to get a leg up in her career. Personally things have been even worse. Her father died several years back and she’s still mourning the recent loss of her mother to cancer. With no siblings, aunts, uncles, or cousins, Evie can’t help but feel all alone.
But that changes after she’s tries a mail-in ancestry kit called ‘Find Yourself’. It’s one of those deals where you send in a DNA sample, the company traces your family history, and contacts you with the results. Evie is surprised to learn that she has a second-cousin in London named Oliver Alexander (Hugh Skinner) and it just so happens that he’s going to be in New York City in the upcoming days. So the two connect and arrange a meet-up for coffee. The enthusiastic Oliver tells her all about her wealthy family in England and invites her to another cousin’s upcoming wedding where she can meet her newfound kin.
With practically no hesitation (gulp), Evie accepts the all-expenses-paid offer and jets off to England. Oliver picks her up at the airport and whisks her away to New Carfax, a posh abbey remotely nestled in the British countryside. The manor itself is custom-made for a horror movie. It has an extravagant yet alluring storybook exterior. But inside is cold Gothic architecture with dimly lit hallways, drafty bedrooms, and jagged bars on the windows to keep out those pesky carnivorous birds (or so Evie is told). Think of it as a beige-colored Highclere Castle on the outside and a home fitting of Barnabas Collins inside.
Despite the numerous red flags that would send most people rushing back to the States, Evie sticks around, eventually falling for the charms of Walter Deville (Thomas Doherty), the suave and dapper lord of the manor. A romance blooms and everything seems to be falling into place for our protagonist. But we know better (even if our clueless heroine doesn’t). Even if you haven’t watch the trailer, it’s glaringly obvious that something is not quite right at New Carfax. It takes a while to get there, but once the reveal comes things get batty and we’re treated to bloody finish that ranges from fairly entertaining to utterly ridiculous.
Directed by Jessica M. Thompson and written by Blair Butler, “The Invitation” does a good job creating an atmosphere fitting for what’s to come. It also builds its own compelling mythology that centers around four filthy-rich families and a centuries-old pact. And though frustratingly oblivious to the clear signs in front of her, Emmanuel manages to make Evie a character we actually root for, especially when put up against the smug aristocracy.
But there are too many areas where the movie flounders. Many of them are in the handling of its themes. There are constant on-the-nose references to how “white” Evie’s new family looks and acts – a dull-edged attempt at racial commentary that never quite goes anywhere. Slightly more effective yet still lacking the needed bite are the film’s messages on class and patriarchy. They’re more natural to the story, but even they fail to resonate in the way the movie wants them to.
I can see where some may take issue with the movie’s slow pace. Others will be disappointed in its lack of scares. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear audiences vocally chiding the protagonist as she repeatedly breaks some of the basic cardinal rules of horror movies. It’s such a shame because there are some good ingredients here. But every time when I would get onboard with what the movie was doing, it would go off and do something that would leave me shaking my head. Take the final 15 minutes of so. It was just bonkers enough to get me smiling but then ends with a hokey final scene that left my face firmly planted in my palm. Like I said, such a shame. “The Invitation” is now playing in theaters.