It’s not hard to tell something is off about New Carfax Manor, where the maids’ aprons are numbered and supposedly carnivorous birds roam the skies. Sitting somewhere in England’s creepiest countryside, the mansion’s implausibly cream-colored Barbie Dreamhouse exterior belies its shadowy Gothic insides; all dark corners and drafty bedrooms with bars on the windows (to keep the birds out, so they say). The grounds provide an eerie enough setting for “The Invitation,” a Gothic horror thriller in the style of “Dracula” with a half-baked attempt at “Get Out”-style social critique thrown in. Part inert bodice-ripper, part vampire Cinderella story, its mixed themes could have benefitted from a purer bloodline.
Arriving like a lamb lost in the woods (or led to the slaughter) is Evie (Nathalie Emmanuel), an aspiring ceramicist who makes her living as a cater waiter in New York. When her friend swipes a swag bag from an upscale gig, she discovers a free trial for a DNA site called Find Yourself, like 23andMe for the elite. Recently orphaned, she can’t help but feel curious when her search turns up a match in an overly enthusiastic Brit named Oliver (Hugh Skinner). Her long lost cousin happens to be loaded, delighted to make her acquaintance, and invites her on an all expenses paid trip to England to attend a posh family wedding.
Undeterred by the oily glee with which Oliver delivers the phrase, “Great Uncle Alfred is dying to meet you,” Evie pulls up to Carfax in total awe. Though she’s introduced as a woman of the people, kindly helping pick up the glassware she caused the maids to drop, she loses all spine once she encounters the Lord of the house. Pompous and devilishly handsome with a jaw so sharp it could draw blood, Walter DeVille (Thomas Doherty) takes an immediate liking to Evie. It’s hard to understand why she returns his affections after hearing the way he speaks to his staff, but some handy exposition via phone calls to her friend Grace (Courtney Taylor) back home rewrites the scene to appear chivalrous.
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The creepiness continues when Evie is introduced to her long lost family members, all of whom are old white men. “So many boys, we thought we were done for,” announces shriveled Uncle Alfred from behind his eye patch, and the room erupts in an cacophany of evil harumphs. On the phone with Grace again, she inexplicably calls Uncle Alfred sweet and admits she almost shed a tear during his chilling speech.
Unbeknownst to Evie, the Butler is lining up the maids and calling them off by numbers, where they’re being locked in the library and served as dinner to a mysterious creature with claw-like fingernails. In her nightmares, Evie sees visions of the woman who hung herself in the house, and is startled by a bird smacking dead into the window. As her romance with Walt heats up, so do the house’s quirks, and she finds herself visited in the night by the clawed creature.
Written by Blair Butler and directed by Jessica M. Thompson, “The Invitation” has a distinct air of white feminism wafting through it. Initially titled “The Bride,” Thompson recently told IndieWire they renamed the movie when the original didn’t track well with male audiences. That sad anecdote offers a small sense of what even white women directors are up against in Hollywood, but “The Invitation” does little to slip subversive themes into its milquetoast social commentary.
When Evie is finally offered her deal with the devil, she is promised “wealth, power, a life of privilege, a sense of belonging.” Talk of bloodlines, elitism, privilege, and power drones through the movie, but Evie’s final resistance lacks any of the bite that would drive home her refutation of such ideals. She spends the entire movie romanticizing wealth and power, only turning her back on them when it’s revealed she’ll have to kill to keep them. The pace picks up when the slashing finally begins in the third act, but it’s too little, too late to get the blood going.
A Sony release, “The Invitation” is now in theaters.