Evie (Nathalie Emmanuel) is a young lady who works for a catering service in New York, just scraping to get by. (Have you seen the rent prices lately?) She recently lost her mother to cancer and her father when she was much younger. Besides her friend Grace (Courtney Taylor), Evie doesn't have anybody to connect to. In that justified desperation, Evie takes an ancestry test, which she just so happens to get in an extra party favor.
Director Jessica M. Thompson's The Invitation constantly operates in a tonal shade of gray. What I mean by that throughout every character interaction or plot point, something always feels not quite right. Evie gets an unsuspecting message from her long-lost cousin, Oliver (Hugh Skinner), who lives in England. Great — there's an entire lineage of people ready to accept Evie with open arms. But there's an issue that The Invitation doesn't quite know how to convey. There are apparent overtures to the supernatural (we'll get to that). However, there's an undercurrent of racial and social commentary where the story tries to split the difference.
When Oliver means Evie, he informs her of the family history encompassing her great-great-grandfather. He was a Black servant who had a romantic involvement with the lady of the house and raised the baby on his own. Afterward, Oliver invites Evie to a wedding extravaganza in the English countryside. Evie eventually agrees and is at the mercy of a beautiful mansion where she meets the callous nature of the main butler, Mr. Field (Sean Pertwee). Alas, there's the lord of the house, Walter (Thomas Doherty), with whom she has fleeting chemistry.
The Invitation tries to do a lot of things within the runtime. In parts, it's a tale of romance, a gothic vampire novella, and a snapshot of predisposed prejudice. Unfortunately, it becomes heavy under the weight of all the ground it's trying to cover. The DeVille mansion has all the makings of a classic haunted house. Nobody is allowed in the library for some reason, and maids go missing after a while. A key to a compelling vampire film is the atmosphere — something The Invitation invests in exponentially.
Much of the setting is wrapped up in fog and darkness — which, in theory, would make things all the more scarier. A reoccurring issue the film experiences is that the darkness obstructs seeing the more terrifying parts. Part of the illusion is allowing the audience to see the villain and let our minds do the rest. What happens when you can barely see anything? Well, everybody has to guess other than being invested.
There are a myriad of things Evie experiences in the mansion, and Walter proves himself to be a polite and helping hand. As the infatuation grows between them, there's something up with him. Who would flippantly slide a wedding proposal to someone they've met for a couple of days? While Walter excepts her, it's not clear if everybody else does. Two maids of honor, Viktoria and Lucy (Stephanie Corneliussen and Alana Boden), are catty to Evie for no apparent reason (more so, Viktoria). There's constant talk of Evie leaving her life behind for a better one, or the one she's currently living is not going enough.
Is it because Evie isn't rich in the face of affluent lifestyles or because of her biracial makeup? It doesn't seem like The Invitation wants to say it specifically, and it becomes detrimental to the story itself. There's a lot to speak to when discussing identity in a family that doesn't look like you. That can be wholly jarring, and Emmanuel tries to do her best with what is provided to her. The story doesn't allow Evie the time to resonate with the themes she should understand fully.
In The Invitation's third act, a twist occurs with Walter hinting his character is another take of a famous, cloak-wearing vampire. However, a big story beat occurs and needs more time to explain. While was there no bride to begin with? Well, the film lets you in on the secret, but its explanation is a bit too convoluted to grasp why it's crucial.
Time flies when you're trying to find love while dodging vampires. The Invitation has intriguing things to draw from while the casing of a vintage tale of the blood, thirsty undead. What's the most frightening thing, old racism or finding out your family is not quite what you think? I'm not sure The Invitation knows the answer.