Review: ‘The Invitation’ surprises as thrilling but oft-told vampire tale

Nathalie Emmanuel in The Invitation (Mid Atlantic Films)

Cross the tendencies of Jane Austen with those of Bram Stoker, and you have the surprisingly frightening and fun new gothic-horror picture “The Invitation.”

The movie caught me off guard. My expectations were low going into the theater. Late August through September is often a studio dumping ground for hard-to-market movies. Going into the theater, my greatest hope was not to fall asleep halfway through the movie.

I shouldn’t have worried. “The Invitation” was one of the most surprising and fun trips to the theater for me this summer. Don’t get me wrong. The movie directed by Jessica M Thompson from a script by her and Blair Butler revolves around an oft-told B-movie plot; however, the film’s execution and production values are A-list in my book.

Thompson and her cinematographer Autumn Eakin collaborate to create a beautifully staged and shot film that offers what appears to be A-list production values despite the film’s pulpy fare. The movie is exquisitely crafted in its darkness, and is sumptuous to enjoy despite its foreboding sense of doom, set up in the opening scene of the film.

Warning: Spoilers section
Unfortunately the trailer gave away the movie’s big reveal. The story opens as a romance but is actually an under-cover vampire flick.

Even without the giveaway, astute moviegoers would have have quickly picked up the vampiric scent as the movie begins to drop a ton of references to Stoker’s 1897 novel “Dracula” and its subsequent film adaptations midway into the first act of the movie. Admittedly, I’m a sucker for a solid vampire movie, and “The Invitation” fits the bill. Other’s who don’t share my taste for classical vampires might not be as entertained as I was.

Nathalie Emmanuel plays the fetching and likable heroine Evie whose pluck and plight almost instantly put the audience on her side. She is young, talented, and alone after the passing of her mother. Her father died when she was 14. Desperately seeking a family connection, she consults an online genealogy website that connects her to a family in England. Almost instantly a cousin connects with her, and while visiting her in New York, he invites her to attend a family wedding in England.

Certainly, the situation seems catfishy to her, but she is interested enough not to turn down an all-expenses paid trip to England to reconnect with family. Upon arriving at her host Walter’s (Thomas Doherty) estate, New Carfax Abbey — Dracula fans will get the reference — things get weird pretty quick.

Evie learns she is the lone female left in her family that’s populated by a lot of stuffy British male cousins. She thinks nothing of it, but the fact comes into play later.

However, weird things begin to happen to Evie in and around the mansion, but the charming yet enigmatic Walt allays her fears and comforts her one night. Before she knows it the two are in a relationship. After a night together, Walt seemingly asks Evie to marry him as a joke, and she indulges the request by jokingly accepting.

Walt isn’t kidding, though. He plans to turn Evie toothy like him and add her to his collection of vampire brides — Viktoria (Stephanie Corneliussen) and Lucy (Alana Boden). With the four families united in unholy matrimony, the vampire clan’s power will once again be complete.

All Walt and his two other brides have to do is co-mingle their blood with Evie’s. Things look dark for Evie.

I’ll reveal no more, but the climax is action packed. The atmospheric film is no masterpiece, but if you enjoy gothic horror, you’ll likely appreciate it on some level. For fans of Dracula and vampires in general, the movie is filled with tidbits that will enhance your enjoyment of the movie but not hinder the film’s plot or pace. I probably will watch the movie again when it’s released to a streaming channel just to catch any Easter eggs I may have missed.

Emmanuel is the type of hero everyone will enjoy rooting for even if she is as gullible as most horror queens have to be. Doherty gives a strong hot-and-cold predatory performance that is both charming and dangerous. Corneliussen and Boden have a great time chewing scenery in their supporting bridal roles, and Sean Pertwee is appropriately creepy as Mr. Fields, Walt’s right hand man.

This would have been a fun film for the Halloween season. It will likely be playing on a streaming network in time for the October this year.

(PG-13) 1 hr. 44 min.

New in Local Theaters

Breaking (PG-13) 1 hr. 43 min. (trailer)
AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Pinnacle, Skylight

The Invitation (PG-13) 1 hr. 44 min. (trailer)
AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Springdale, Malco Pinnacle, Skylight

Three Thousand Years of Longing (R)???1 hr. 49 min. (trailer)
AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Pinnacle, Malco Towne, Skylight

Orphan: First Kill (R) 1 hr. 39 min. (trailer)
Malco Razorback, Malco Pinnacle, Malco Towne, Skylight

Liger (NR) 2 hr. 20 min. (trailer)
Malco Pinnacle Hills

Classic Corner – Footloose

Kevin Bacon in Footloose (Paramount Pictures)

“Footloose” is a film that will take film fans of a certain age back in time to the ultra-conservative 1980s when the youth culture just rubbed the “Moral Majority” the wrong way.

The 1984 movie, directed by Herbert Ross and starring Kevin Bacon and John Lithgow, is playing with “Grease” as a double feature at the 112 Drive In’s final nights of operation tonight and Saturday. Tickets go on sale at 6 p.m. with the first film starting at 8:45 p.m.

Plan to arrive early if you want to assure yourself a spot at the proverbial last picture show. Plans are for the site to be converted into an upscale housing development in the near future.

“Footloose” is unintentionally silly and melodramatic, but it’s still a fun movie that pits the youth of a small Oklahoma town against the adults for the right to boogie.

Bacon plays Ren, a teen from Chicago that moves to the fictional Bomont, Okla., to live with his aunt and uncle. Music and dancing his his thing, but the Rev. Shaw Moore (Lithgow) led a campaign to outlaw dancing after his son was killed in a car wreck after a night of partying.

This puts Ren at odds with Moore, who just happens to be the father of Ariel (Lori Singer), the wild-at-heart girl, who has caught the young man’s eye. The high school kids want to have a prom, and Ren leads the battle against Moore and the city council for the right to do so.

The movie’s not a musical per se, but music is a driving force in the film, which often plays like an extended MTV video block, if you happen to remember what music videos are. That’s not a bad thing, though, if you are a fan of 1980s rock and pop.

Really, the music is the best thing about the movie. It features Kenny Loggins’ title cut as well as “I’m Free.”

Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero,” Deniece Williams’ “Let’s Hear It for the Boy,” and “Almost Paradise” by Mike Reno of Loverboy and Ann Wilson of Heart are a few other key songs used in the movie that were popular during the period.

The film is too ham-fisted and simplistic to be taken seriously, and it’s at its best when the kids are cutting loose rather than focusing on the plot. “Footloose” is a fun movie, but not particularly a good one. However, it does make an interesting pairing with “Grease.”

Godzilla Vs. Kong

(Warner Bros.)

I won’t try to convince you that “Godzilla vs. Kong” is a classic. The movie’s not even two years old, and in most instances “classic” does denote at least a certain level of quality in the story.

In truth “Godzilla vs. Kong” is a bloated extravaganza in every sense of both words, but it does contain top-line special effects that are in every way better on the big screen than the small.

Unfortunately, the film was released in theaters just before the coronavirus vaccine became available to most of the general public, so most who have seen the movie probably watched it on HBO Max.

The good news for those who want to see the movie on the big screen is that it is playing locally this week at the AMC Fiesta Square Cinema as part of its $5 Fan Faves promotion. You’ve been alerted or warned.

For the record, I like a quality gigantic monster-movie showdown, and on that note, “Godzilla vs. Kong” delivers in spades. The film features three major Godzilla vs. Kong throw downs that are masterfully animated with outstanding CGI effects and that doesn’t include the conclusion in which another monstrous arch-foe shows up to cause issues for both Kong and Godzilla.

If you’re looking for more than a basic plot, simple characterization, outstanding effects, and awesome Kaiju action, then don’t bother with “Godzilla vs. Kong.” It’s got nothing for you.

But if you are hankering to watch big monsters romping and stomping all over the screen, “Godzilla vs. Kong” has the goods.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, and Alan Tudyk in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Lucasfilm)

In anticipation of the new Disney Plus Star Wars series “Andor,” which debuts on the streamer with three episodes on Sept. 21, the studio is re-releasing “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” in IMAX theaters this weekend, including the Malco Razorback Cinema and IMAX.

The 2016 movie introduced the character Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) to the Star Wars saga in perhaps the best film of the series that was not a part of the original trilogy. Andor will be the titular lead in the Disney Plus series that provides fans with more information about the rebellion.

If you remember, “Rogue One” told the tale of how the Rebel Alliance got a hold of the schematics it used to plan the assault on the Imperial Death Star in the climax of the original Star Wars film. Director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla and Monsters) details the tragic yet inspiring story in the film.

George Lucas’ “Star Wars: A New Hope” mentioned that the Alliance garnered the Death Star blueprints at a great cost, and this movie details that cost in no uncertain terms.

Felicity Jones stars as Jyn Erso, a young woman, who has been in hiding since the Empire abducted her genius father Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) to force him to build a weapon of mass destruction.

Her connection to a prominent but rogue rebel Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) makes her the perfect bargaining chip for the Rebels to use to strike at the Empire.

Giving much more of the plot away would be a disservice, but Disney and Edwards did a wonderful job of fitting this film into continuity with the original movies, while charting its own course.

While the original Star Wars Trilogy featured heroes fighting in a war, Rogue One is more about soldiers bonding together to perform missions vital to the Rebellion’s very existence.

Joining her on the mission is Andor and droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) as well as blind warrior Chirrut Imwe (DonnieYen), mercenary Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) and a troop of other rebels willing to risk their lives in the hopes of saving others by defeating the Empire.

The film features a fantastic space battle in the climax as well as the most brutal ground fighting depicted in the Star Wars series. While the film features all the conventions one would expect from a space opera — from far-out aliens (and even a couple of familiar ones), gadgets and weapons — the realism of the battle scenes adds heft even to the more fanciful elements of the movie.

The film features several characters from the original trilogy, one of which is Darth Vader. While his character is at the center of six of the seven previous Star Wars movies, there is a scene toward the end of the movie that fans have played out in their imaginations for decades. The scene could very well be Vader’s finest on film, particularly from an action standpoint.

Viewers will notice subtle and not so subtle allusions to World War II, the Viet Nam War as well as the U.S.’s war in Iraq.

Two other characters from the original series, whose identities I won’t divulge, are recreated on the screen with the help of CGI effects, but don’t fare quite as well as the Sith Lord.

The effects are high quality, but not quite as strong as the digital work used in “Ant-Man” or “Captain America: Civil War” to de-age Michael Douglas and Robert Downey Jr. respectively. Regardless, the scenes still work within the context of the movie.

The movie’s design fits squarely into the already established Star Wars universe, but Edwards takes fans to lush settings that they had never experienced before in Star Wars films.

The film’s conclusion is emotional and inspiring, and really leaves the door wide open for future films to delve into the far corners of the fantasy universe Lucas created.

The score by Michael Giacchino is effective, but suffers from not being the work of the legendary John Williams, whose music always played such a pivotal role in the previous Star Wars movies.