The Invitation - Jessica M. Thompson - Sony Pictures
Credit: Marcell Piti
by Steven Warner Featured Film Genre Views

The Invitation — Jessica M. Thompson

August 30, 2022

The Invitation perhaps could have actually been surprising if marketing hadn’t spoiled its game, but there’s unfortunately not much else for viewers to have fun with here.

In December of 1998, Sony Pictures’ Screen Gems label was created, and its aim was simple: produce and distribute budget-conscious genre films. Naturally, horror became the specialty arm’s bread and butter, as there was no shortage of audiences for a genre that needed neither name stars nor astronomical sums of money. For over a decade, it was Screen Gems that provided most of the fodder horror fans craved, its reign coming to an end once Blumhouse established itself as a production company where artistic freedom was liberally granted. How could Screen Gems, a company whose movies seemed created and filmed by an algorithm, compete? That’s not to say a few, ahem, gems didn’t squeak through, Vacancy and Don’t Breathe among them, but aside from endless entries in their Resident Evil and Underworld series, the label seemed to specialize in bland, toothless, PG-13-rated flicks that barely tried to hide their contempt for audience members, the only goal to wring as much money from bored teenagers as possible. Truly, the list is endless, including such forgettable fare as The Roommate, Boogeyman, The Messengers, and a deluge of insulting remakes, ranging from Prom Night to Carrie.

If that roster of films suggests a studio sprinting toward its expiration date, it may come as a surprise to many that Screen Gems is still churning out product today, and their latest feature, the bloodless vampire flick The Invitation, certainly harkens back to an era no one has missed. Indeed, it’s a film that would feel right at home on marquees in 2003, which is both its greatest attribute and its most damning: nostalgia is a bitch, and the thing we most mistake for quality. Let’s be clear up front: The Invitation isn’t good, but there’s something almost quaint in its who-could-give-a-shit attitude. There are no pretenses of greatness here, no allusions to artistic vision; quite simply, this is where elevated horror goes to die, and thank God for that. But that’s also not to suggest that The Invitation is a product removed from its time; quite the contrary, as the film somehow manages to tackle classism, racism, and toxic masculinity during its brief running time, ultimately turning into a tale of female empowerment. Granted, it never does any of these things successfully or with the even faintest whiff of depth, mistaking virtue signaling for profundity at every turn, but it also doesn’t really seem to be much bothered by anything its peddling, which is strangely refreshing in today’s horror landscape.

Nathalie Emmanuel, she of recent Game of Thrones and Fast and Furious fame, stars as Evie, a twenty-something aspiring artist trapped in a dead-end job as a server for a catering company and still reeling from the recent death of her mother. Her father long deceased, and with no siblings to speak of, Evie feels like the loneliest little orphan in the world, that is until a DNA test reveals she has relatives currently residing in the English countryside. Eager to meet her — seriously, these people cannot contain their excitement, which should be red flag number one — they fly Evie out for a well-to-do wedding weekend that sees her staying in the obscenely lavish manor of the hunky Walter (Thomas Doherty). Relieved to learn she’s not related to Walter, Evie tries to get her groove back while becoming more suspicious of her new family’s motivations. Busty cousin Viktoria (Stephanie Corneliussen) scans as an especially heinous bitch, and her eagerness to suck blood from a cut on Evie’s finger seems… odd. There’s also the matter of various members of the service staff going missing, as well as the mysterious locked room on the main floor. It takes over an hour for The Invitation to finally reveal its “twist,” that the members of this clan are indeed vampires and need Evie to keep both the bloodline going and their immortality in check. And while it has become cliché to say that the movie marketing materials of today give away far too much information, The Invitation is conspicuously guilty of this fact, robbing the film of any sense of surprise, which is frankly the only thing it had going for it. Much like From Dusk Till Dawn, the vampire element is barely alluded to until it makes its sudden appearance, which would had the potential to be an actually shocking development had the trailers not telegraphed everything — it’s quite obvious that the script, courtesy of Blair Butler, was written with the intention of pulling the rug out from audience members.

With that information already in mind as one sits down for the viewing experience, what results is simply a prolonged experience in waiting for the other shoe to drop, which takes seemingly forever. Director Jessica M. Thompson opts for a lot of disorienting low angels and shoving her actors to the edges of the frame so that dead space can be highlighted, teasing the possibility that something — indeed, anything — could pop out at any moment, but this has become such a tried visual cliché that it ultimately makes the film look like a parody of a Tom Hooper production. There’s something to be said for the fact that this wealthy and powerful family feasts only on members of its service staff, and while that symbolism is certainly blunt, it ‘s still at leads nods at a little more substance than one expects from a film of this ilk. Making Evie’s race a major plot point, as her grandmother’s birth resulted in more than a bit of controversy, also injects some interesting discursive potential, as does the fact that the family’s ultimate goal is quite literally Evie’s enslavement. But all this ultimately inspires is a few jokes about how English people are the whitest people on the planet, and then quickly moves on. Even its concluding message of female empowerment feels a bit like a cheap excuse for a sequel, although it must be said that Emmanuel acquits herself quite nicely in the lead role, no matter how one-dimensional it might be. Which is all to say, The Invitation is exactly like most other Screen Gems productions: competently made, but also completely lacking in scares or conviction. This is one invitation viewers won’t need to feel guilty about turning down.