“The Invitation,” a brittle, droning excursion into gothic horror, primarily takes place at a manor in the English countryside. The setting is admissible, if unimaginative: the exterior of the estate appears constructed of Playmobil; coated in cobwebs, its dingy indoors most closely resemble a dungeon.
Outside of the cinema, an invitation to such an abode would ring a cacophony of alarm bells and leave a guest clambering for the door. Not so for Evie (Nathalie Emmanuel), a jaded ceramist in New York who unwittingly becomes the belle of the dwelling after a long-lost cousin, Oliver (Hugh Skinner), invites her to a wedding on its grounds. An only child who recently lost her mother, Evie is tickled by the prospect of extended family, even if the stuffy brood are uniformly white and ominously keen for her company.
But soon, Oliver and his vast array of blonde brothers and uncles hardly figure into the equation. Once Evie arrives on the property, she takes a shine to the lord of the residence, Walter (Thomas Doherty), a smirking bachelor dripping in wealth and vampiric good looks.
What follows is an escalating sequence of creaky-freaky jump scares interspersed with beats from a budding romance between Walter and Evie. Dressed to the nines, the pair drink champagne and smooch under a flurry of fireworks. At the same time, the estate’s maids are sucked into a menacing string of set pieces that invariably end in shrieks over a black screen.
The juxtaposition of these events might be exciting — or even mischievously funny — if each scene wasn’t so tedious. For a fright-fest as broad as this one, there’s an awful lot of banal dialogue, and the scare patterns are repetitive enough that even the easiest startlers (I count myself among them) grow immune early on.
Directed by Jessica M. Thompson, “The Invitation” makes feeble gestures at issues of class and race, but its efforts are as diffuse as the whooshing specters haunting Walter’s estate. Emmanuel, for her part, admirably endeavors to imbue Evie with smarts and sass, but confined within a story that leaves her blind to the blood-red flags waving at every turn, her scrappy heroine is hard to cheer on. Had the movie emerged as a friskier game of eat the rich, it might have had a fighting chance of survival. Instead, it’s middling, morbid pap.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes. In theaters.