The Invitation Review: A Defanged Twist On Dracula

You're invited to the wedding of the season! Set in a beautiful English mansion, the guests include old weirdos in masks, obscenely wealthy creeps, racist butlers, disposable hired help, and oh yeah, vampires. "The Invitation," a moody but poorly paced modern-day take on "Dracula" from director Jessica M. Thompson, plays its cards pretty close to the vest and doesn't let on that it's a vampire movie right away. But all the marketing has given that twist away, so I feel no problem stating it here. Besides, if you're well-schooled in vampire lore, especially involving Dracula, you'll figure things out pretty quickly. I mean, hell, the big mansion the majority of the movie is set at is called New Carfax Abbey, and Carfax Abbey was the plot of land Dracula bought when he came to England from Transylvania. Later, characters named Jonathan and Mina Harker pop up. And there's even a Lucy. 

That's not to say "The Invitation" is a straight-up "Dracula" adaptation. Instead, Blair Butler's script gives the entire story a modern twist, focusing not on the immortal count but on one of his prospective victims. That would be Evie (Nathalie Emmanuel, who is damn good here and deserves a better movie to lead), a lonely American in need of a family connection. As fate would have it, a DNA test reveals she has a long-lost English cousin named Oliver (Hugh Skinner). Oliver is extremely polite and extremely rich, and he invites Evie over to the U.K. to attend a family wedding — all expenses paid. 

Sounds too good to be true, right? 

Walter Dracula

The wedding is being held at a sprawling estate, and that's also where Evie will be staying. The place is owned by the extremely handsome Walter DeVille — get it, like devil?! Spooky! Personally, I would've called him Walter Dracula, but I'm not the one making this movie. Anyway, Walter Dracula, played by strong-jawed actor Thomas Doherty, is charming and sexy, and he sweeps Evie off her feet pretty quickly. Of course, at this point, the audience is shouting to Evie that she's in mortal danger. Too bad she's slow to catch on. 

At times, "The Invitation" seems to want to invoke "Get Out." Evie has left home to go to an unfamiliar place; a place where she is the sole Black face surrounded by overly pleasant, but slightly off-kilter white people — one of whom even reaches out and touches her hair. And a cruel butler looks at her with nothing by disdain. Racial elements aren't underplayed throughout the film — there's plenty of talk about Evie being of low social standing — but "The Invitation" ultimately lets this angle fizzle to give way to some rather sill fight scenes. 

One also can't help but think of the far superior "Ready or Not," another horror movie about a wedding weekend gone very, very wrong. If "The Invitation" had even a spark of the electric energy running through that film, it might be on to something. Sadly, the movie mostly plods along. There are long stretches of absolutely nothing that effectively torpedo any momentum. Pacing is not this film's strong point. 

All of this is a pity, because "The Invitation" has an overall successful creepy atmosphere, heightened by some truly stellar set design that turns the sprawling mansion into something akin to Disney's Haunted Mansion, or Guillermo del Toro's "Crimson Peak." And Autumn Eakin's shadowy cinematography only elevates things. Sadly, sometimes it's too shadowy — there are more than a few scenes shrouded in darkness; a darkness that seems to have been enhanced to shield any graphic scenes and earn "The Invitation" a defanged PG-13 rating. 

Hints of something better

Reframing "Dracula" through a modern lens isn't a terrible idea, and I appreciate the way this film recasts the infamous count not as a swooning romantic but as a manipulative misogynist. But when the script starts requiring the villain to say things like, "You modern women!", it saps the life out of the proceedings. These clunky moments, paired with pacing that will have you checking your watch, render "The Invitation" lifeless.

Will goths who love ornate designs and formal dress wear get a kick out of everything happening here? Maybe, but they should also want more. There are glimpses of something better peeking out from beneath "The Invitation," but we can only work with what we're given, and what we're given here doesn't do much. Even if you're willing to forgive several of the movie's missteps, there's a comically dumb epilogue scene clearly added during reshoots that feels like it's been beamed in from a completely different movie. 

Still, I want to see more from Jessica M. Thompson, who has an eye for atmospheric creepiness that would be better served with stronger material. And I want Nathalie Emmanuel to land a lead role worthy of her talents. As for "The Invitation," there's not much to sink your fangs into.

/Film Rating: 5 out of 10