It is incredibly frustrating when, in the final moments, a film finds what it should be. At least it makes the conclusion work, somewhat; there are so many movies that either limp towards the finishing line or completely undo themselves at the end. With The Invitation, the ending twenty minutes are strong, more relatively so than inherently so, and give a satisfying spin on a known narrative, rather than just the same old. What this does, though, is only throw what happened before into sharper relief, making the viewer long for the movie that could have been, or should have been, as opposed to this disappointing movie that is.
Do not let the title fool you, this is not the 2015 Karyn Kusama movie The Invitation, despite having the same title and an almost identical run time. The key difference is that the Kusama movie is good, whereas this The Invitation is not. The 2015 movie also has depth and meaning, using familiar tropes in intelligent ways to craft something of substance. It is an overtly unfair comparison, as these films share nothing but a name, but it is worthwhile to consider effective horror while dissecting ineffective horror. After all, The Invitation (2022) deals overtly in familiarity but, unlike the 2015 film, does nothing with this. This is, really, a new adaptation of the novel Dracula. It has a specificity beyond just being another vampire movie by including some character names from the book, and having smaller (and larger) sequences that directly echo Stoker’s novel. Therefore, the territory we are in is the known, a fertile ground to deliver something different. Something this film only does in the final twenty minutes.
It feels like a spoiler to call this a Dracula film, even though it is revealed in trailers and foreshadowed throughout to the point of annoyance. That the film treats its source material as a reveal is indicative of the central issues, and is part of why this adaptation is so dull. In the novel, Dracula (1897), Dracula being a Dracula is a wild twist because, well, Dracula is the first Dracula. That’s why Dracula is called Dracula. The Invitation, the title riffing on another part of vampire mythology, treats Dracula in this same way. It just doesn’t work. It also doesn’t work because the film is abysmally paced. We have a pretty standard prologue sequence, your legally mandated horror opening: an in medias res shocking act, this time an unknown lady in an unknown manor violently taking her own life. We then cut to somewhere completely incongruous, as is also tradition, and have a relatively charming opening act with our protagonist, Evie (Nathalie Emmanuel) living life in New York. It is charming because the performance is charming, and is strong throughout. This beginning chronicles how Evie is barely getting by in New York, and craves stability, and is very well realised. And then suspicious things happen, that are presented as if they were not suspicious at all, so that our character will go along with it. A long lost family connection is discovered and, via some functional contrivances, Evie is invited to a wedding in the UK by people who are basically royalty (it turns out this is her family).
We then arrive in England (Whitby is mentioned, because Dracula) and, after a prologue and an opening act, basically get another opening act. What follows is interminably paced, and is basically a different film. We set up Evie as being an outsider, we set up the other characters here and maybe an hour or so is spent with very little happening bar a lot of ominous suggestion. It is like Evie has arrived at an ‘I’m Suspicious’ party, where every character is some moustache twirling villain saying half truths. She soon meets the lord of the house, Walter (Thomas Doherty), who just says vaguely ominous things, leaving breathy pauses in a way that feels like they had to remove the ‘because I’m a vampire’ that could follow up line he delivers. I wonder if the character who is basically called Lord Devil, is a wrong-un (no joke, he’s actually called Lord Walter De Ville)? Everything in the house is so overtly creepy and sinister to the extent that nothing is. Made even less so by Evie’s blissful ignorance, as she just continues to knock things over, mainly to motivate conversations or to enable more obvious foreshadowing (at one point she knocks something over and there is a spike inside it… I wonder if she will need a spike later… I hope there are no Draculas about). At points, the film has a go at a horror sequence: lots of shadowy figures appearing behind people and disappearing, lots of outstretched hands coming in from offscreen. It is all very bland.
After a long time, the plot points you knew were always going to happen actually happen and then the film finds itself somewhere interesting. Our lead character is empowered and able to break from the structure. But there is not enough movie left. There is just a glimpse of some horror satisfaction at the end, of some good old bloody catharsis aimed at the one percent. But the film, rather than being about that, decides to make you sit through well over an hour of the blandest, most conventional scene setting. It is just a chore. Luckily, as mentioned, Nathalie Emmanuel is always very good. Though the romantic subplots and character arcs are not very well written, she gives enough life and personality to her performance that the film kind of works as a light drama. But not even that can survive the pacing and the weak attempts at horror.