‘The Invitation’ Film Review: Nathalie Emmanuel Can’t Save Cliched Take on Socially Conscious Horror

·5-min read
Sony


If the mostly by-the-numbers plot of “The Invitation,” and its eventual ridiculous twist, is tolerable at all, it’s due to the effortless effervescence that star Nathalie Emmanuel lends to this modern-day horror with gothic embellishments, as a mix-raced woman barely getting by in NYC who gets to live a British royal fantasy until it turns into a literal bloody mess.

Invoking “Twilight” and “Beauty and the Beast” with watered-down hints of “Crimson Peak,” the new feature from director Jessica M. Thompson (“The Light of the Moon”) opens with a suicide scene that insinuates the timelessness of its story. It’s here that its efforts to misdirect the audience about the type of supernatural entity we are dealing with begin.

In a more recognizable present, Evie (Emmanuel), a ceramics artist that stays afloat through catering jobs, takes a DNA test that connects her with a (white) cousin in England, Oliver (a weaselly Hugh Skinner), she had never heard about before. Yearning for any semblance of family, after her mother’s recent passing, she eagerly accepts his generous invitation to attend an upcoming family wedding back in the old country all expenses paid.

From the onset, as Evie serves carpaccio to rude wealthy people, Blair Butler’s screenplay attempts to infuse the nightmarish tale with a notion of class consciousness and generic discussions on race, privilege and colonialism with varying degrees of effectiveness. A few remarks land strongly via Emmanuel, but in general the themes stay just on the surface.

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That Evie shows basic human decency to those working service jobs, having been in their shoes, upon her arrival in England at the lavish state where the festivities will take place, seems to pique the attention of Walter (Thomas Doherty), the charming lord of the residence and host. Later, as evil becomes visible, the lives of houseworkers become disposable, which feels like an on-the-nose statement on how the rich perceive them.

For a few days, Evie’s fairytale of old-fashioned dances, Walter’s chivalry, and kisses in front of a firework splattered night’s sky tricks her into overlooking some of the disturbing clues of what’s ahead. Several possibilities as to what she is facing cross one’s mind: ghosts, a cult or even human trafficking. But what we discover is far less gripping.

“The Invitation” joins the ranks of an overdone, currently popular trend in horror films that sees overly trusting characters get lured into grasp of a malevolent group of people, often racist and sexist millionaires, with perverse motives hiding under a veneer of benevolence: “Ready or Not,” “Antebellum,” “Get Out,” and even something as recent as “Fresh.” Often, as is the case here, the protagonist has a friend back home who, via cell phone, becomes a lifeline.

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Thompson mines formulaic jump-scares from the inherent spookiness of a densely decorated old manor where shadowy figures in an old library or a bird crashing against a window put Evie on edge. But beyond one somewhat gory scene of a throat being slit (which is in the trailer), there’s little in the form of shocking or rather terrifying sequences. Still, the efforts of cinematographer Autumn Eakin to manifest moody lighting throughout at least make for an elegant setting for Emmanuel to parade her dazzling gowns in.

On a handful of instances Thompson and editor Tom Elkins seem to intently aim for dynamic set pieces that heighten the tension and removes us momentarily from the romantic utopia Evie believes she is in, as if hinting at the monstrosity under it all.

One of those occurs just before the main nuptial event. As Eve tries to enjoy a spa day with the other women attending the wedding, she argues with the insufferable Viktoria (Stephanie Corneliussen), one of the maids of honor. Their combative back and forth is intercut by shots and the loudened sounds of nails being filed and clipped for great effect.

Late in the narrative, a similarly constructed bit unfolds, when a grotesque dinner unfolds as Eve comes to learn why she was summoned to join this clan of mostly white men. Frozen at the realization, everything around her takes on an increasingly sinister form.

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But while the overall substance and originality of the film lacks, Emmanuel utilizes the vehicle at hand to demonstrate her range and evident star quality in every line reading and uncomfortable interaction with the strange guests and Doherty’s run-of-the-mill gallantry. Molding what Butler put on the page to her advantage, Emmanuel creates a compelling heroine that entices us to follow her even as she approaches the story’s bland conclusion.

Though “The Invitation” doesn’t land in the “worst of the year” territory given its lead performance and notable flares of style, it’s neither particularly scary, nor sexy enough or as intellectually progressive as it wants to be. But, conversely, it’s also insufficiently campy to awaken one’s interest for the truly bizarre, rendering itself an average genre ordeal.

“The Invitation” opens Friday in U.S. theaters.