Despite some ambitious efforts by director Jessica M. Thompson and screenwriter Blair Butler to revitalize hoary horror movie tropes with allegorical commentary on race, class and male privilege, “The Invitation” is too wearyingly hackneyed for too much of its running time, and too often laugh-out-loud funny as its plot relies on the age-old convention of a smart yet naive heroine who makes one bad decision after another. It would not be at all surprising if, at some screenings, exasperated members of the audience shout rude things at the screen each time the endangered protagonist fails to act in her own self-interest.
Evelyn (Nathalie Emmanuel of “Game of Thrones”) is a free-spirited twentysomething New Yorker who insists that everyone, even total strangers, call her Evie — and she insists quite frequently, just so we don’t miss the fact that she is indeed a free spirit — and scrapes by as wait staff at catered affairs while trying to fulfill her artistic ambitions creating ceramics. When she helps herself to a swag bag at a swanky affair for Find Yourself (evidently an upscale version of Ancestry.com), she finds a DNA test among the goodies and opts to investigate her family tree. This, of course, is the first of many mistakes.
Out of the blue, Evelyn — er, sorry, make that Evie — is contacted by Oliver Alexander (Hugh Skinner), an aggressively ingratiating young Brit who makes time during a New York business trip to give her some good news: She’s an improbably far-flung descendant of an old-money family — really, really old money — and he offers her an all-expenses-paid trip to the centuries-old family manor back in Britain to attend an extravagant wedding and meet her newly discovered relatives. Evie initially is skeptical — and not just because Oliver is conspicuously Caucasian while she is, well, Black — but he convinces her that one of her ancestors was the spawn of a then-scandalous affair, and the family now is just dying to meet her.
Yes, you guessed it: Despite blunt-spoken warnings from Grace (Courtney Taylor), her best buddy and sister wait staffer, that she would be ill-advised to hang with a host of probably snooty white folks, Evie makes Mistake No. 2.
“The Invitation” is the kind of movie in which the lead character doesn’t appear to have watched many other movies. The lavish estate — which, in some exterior shots, resembles a miniature model built with Lego blocks — is the sort of place where spooky stuff always happens, especially when the creepily authoritative head butler, Mr. Field (Sean Pertwee), warns the new arrival that she enter any room “except the library — we’re renovating.” (Yeah, right.)
There are vague references to the recent death of a family member, lame excuses for barred windows in the guest bedroom, things that go bump in the night upstairs and downstairs, maids who have a nasty habit of disappearing, a bitchy Amazonian snob (Stephanie Corneliussen) who does everything but sprout horns to announce her wickedness, manifestations of monsters that are dismissed a bad dreams — and a drop-dead handsome lord of the manor, Walter (Thomas Doherty), whose campaign of seduction is as meticulously plotted as the Allied strategy for D-Day.
But even when Evie discovers that Walter relied on much more than a DNA test to vet her before extending his hospitality, all it takes is a few smooth-talk excuses from the dreamboat, along with side orders of poor-little-rich-guy posing, for her to overcome her anger, extend her stay and, more important, strip for action.
And then really bad things start to happen.
It takes Evie a very long time to discover she is stuck in the middle of a multi-family vampire coven. To be fair, though, the bloodsuckers here are able to walk around in broad daylight and do other things that make it easy to escape detection. (“There are so many misconceptions about our kind,” one vamp haughtily explains.) In fact, Evie seems less upset about being bitten than she is angry when someone condescendingly suggests: “For someone of your background, surely this is more than a leg up.” And she’s even more peeved when her rejection of immortality triggers this response: “You modern women are so ungrateful.”
The predictability of events during the film’s first hour of gothic-thriller setup is all the more annoying because of the plodding pace. Evie finally stands up for herself during some modestly clever third-act turnabouts, but, really, that’s not quite enough to regenerate a rooting interest in the character. There are some sly wink-wink references to “Dracula” here and there (ladies and gentlemen, meet Jonathan and Mina Harker!), and Nathalie Emmanuel does her best to keep Evie from coming off as entirely clueless. But the main attraction here is Thomas Doherty — or, more specifically, his distracting resemblance in several shots to a “Dr. No”-era Sean Connery. Who knows? If they really are looking for a younger actor to assume the 007 mantle in the next James Bond movie…