Last year, a longstanding tradition was bucked when the MCU’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” opened to an impressive $75 million at the domestic box office over Labor Day weekend. For some reason, maybe having to do with the kids being back in school, Labor Day weekend is typically one of the worst box office weekends of the year. Not just one of the worst holiday weekends, weekends overall. Now in 2022, things are back to relative normal, and theaters were once again nearly deserted over Labor Day weekend. The big movie was a re-release of “Spider-Man: No Way Home” from last December with $6 million, followed by “Top Gun: Maverick” from May, “DC League of Superpets” from July, “Bullet Train” from early August, and “The Invitation” from last week. I was on vacation last weekend and unable to review “The Invitation,” so it gets the dubious honor of warranting a review on this ditch on the box office calendar.

The film follows Evie (Nathalie Emmanuel), a struggling caterer from New York City. She takes a DNA test and finds out she has family in England. She meets a rich cousin named Oliver (Hugh Skinner), who invites her to a family wedding at the estate of even richer family friend Walter (Thomas Doherty). Parts of the trip are like a dream come true, with luxuriousness at every turn and an extended family that welcomes her with open arms (none of the white relatives are bothered that she’s African-American, owing to an interracial affair a few generations back). Other parts are not so pleasant, like condescending butler Fields (Sean Pertwee) and standoffish bridesmaid Viktoria (Stephanie Corneilussen), though timid bridesmaid Lucy (Alana Boden) seems okay. Other parts are downright frightening, like things going bump in the night. So many things go bump in the night, as if this movie can’t think of a way to drum up scares for its first hour.

It’s not hard to figure out that something is amiss with the rich weirdos, especially because the movie opens with a suicide by hanging and maids keep getting yanked offscreen, never to be seen again. I thought the villains were just into run-of-the-mill ritualistic killing, but it turns out there’s a supernatural element too. The mastermind behind it all is named Walt. Change the W in his name to the letter before it in the alphabet, the T to the similar-sounding D, and switch the A and L around, and you’ll get an idea of what the twist is.

Once the secret is out, the movie is just plain goofy. A dinner scene marks a point of no return for any hope this movie had at dignity, plus it features a death that I felt had no place in a PG-13 movie (a last second cutaway from… well, a cut, is what technically saves it). The movie wasn’t great at doing horror before with its cheap jump scares, but there was potential in its “Get Out”-meets-“Ready Or Not” setup. And Evie is a likeable protagonist, struggling to keep her humility in the extravagant setting with funny video-chat help from her best friend (Courtney Taylor). But Walt is bland in every role: as a host, as a potential love interest, and as a villain. I won’t say that secondary villains Fields and Viktoria “steal the show” exactly, but I would have preferred either of them as a sort of Big Bad at the movie’s climax. It’s an easy joke to say that you should decline “The Invitation,” but judging by the lousy box office, you’ve probably been doing that anyway.
 
Grade: C- 

“The Invitation” is rated PG-13 for terror, violent content, some strong language, sexual content and nudity. Its running time is 105 minutes.

Contact Bob Garver at rrg251@nyu.edu.