It’s rough work trying to remix a classic like Bram Stoker’s Dracula when there’s been 125 years of others endlessly giving it a go on paper, stage and screen. As such, when an attempt does hit some fresh angles, it’s to be commended—as is the case with The Invitation. Coming at the mythology with a female lens is director Jessica M. Thompson, writer Blair Butler and actress Nathalie Emmanuel, who execute some unexpected choices that manage to slightly subvert their full goth approach to the material. However, The Invitation takes way too long getting to its most interesting ideas, leaving us with the distinct feeling of “too little, too late.”
Opening with a prologue that might as well be ripped from a Gothic potboiler or classic Hammer film, The Invitation transitions to modern New York City where Evie (Emmanuel) is a struggling ceramics artist who gets by working catering events alongside her best friend Grace (Courtney Taylor). When they snag a swag bag from a DNA testing company’s corporate party, Evie decides to get her ancestry results. With her parents both deceased, she’s feeling lost. And voila! The DNA results connect her to the wealthy, white Alexander family of England. She is contacted by her new cousin Oliver (Hugh Skinner) and they eventually meet, where he enthusiastically tells her about the family and then offers to bring her home for an impending wedding where she can meet their kin all in one place.
Following the structure and tone of a modern Gothic romance novel, Evie is swept away to the remote countryside manor of Walter DeVille (Thomas Doherty), a close family friend to the Alexanders, who is hosting the nuptials on his property, New Carfax Abbey. Handsome, built and truly dedicated to a dress code of only wearing white tops that he’s always spilling out of, Walt goes full swagger on Evie from their first, awkward meeting where Evie’s calling out his valet, Mr. Fields (Sean Pertwee), for being a rude prick to the maids. Of course, sparks fly and Walt is always looming with a smirk and generous gifts that envelop Evie in the fairy tale of the whole experience.
At the same time, the movie is working overtime to set up the Abbey as a dark place full of shadows and menace. Production designer Felicity Abbott totally nails dressing the manor and its grounds with heavy fabrics, statues and artifacts. Then, characters like Mr. Fields lay it on thick by assigning the quintet of ethnically diverse maids brought onto the property for the wedding to retrieve things in wine cellars with absolutely no lights, or to clean the library—deemed off-limits due to renovations. Of course, bad things happen in all those spaces and the subsequent doom begins to creep into Evie’s good time like icy fingers walking up her neck. And I mean that literally, because Thompson drops that old chestnut of a trope right into the mix along with an overly heavy use of Lewton Bus jump scares throughout. The Invitation is a smorgasbord of goth visuals and techniques that any Hot Topic shopper will surely applaud. There’s even a bombastic score by Dara Taylor to emphasize that this movie has no interest in subtlety.
It also doesn’t have any real scares. For modern horror aficionados, The Invitation is really about the vibes, not the gore or the terror. Which would be fine, but the first two acts play out more like a Gothic romance—slightly tempered by Evie having no problem vocally calling out her white relatives and Walt on their ostentatious privilege. In fact, her acerbic attitude and filterless candor is one of the freshest angles of the script. Even as Evie is tempted by this life of wealth and connection, Emmanuel dials an awareness into her performance that, aside from the maids, no one else in this place looks like Evie or comes from a background like hers. Unfortunately, the script never digs into race with any real intention outside of some throwaway insults meant to make her feel small or as an implied opportunist because of her mixed ethnicity.
What The Invitation does get right in terms of originality all comes in the last act, as the guests, the Alexanders and Walt’s background get revealed in a baroque sequence that is a dizzying miasma of close-ups and fisheye lenses. It goes big, for sure. And as the danger of Evie’s situation becomes more clear, her agency grows so she’s not relegated to the damsel in distress as the genre would have you expect. She fights and does so in a way that allows her to take power from familiar mythology tropes. But Butler and Thompson could have taken their subversive leanings a lot further, which would have set the film apart as trying something very different. Instead, it spools out into tepidly blocked final act fights and a too-flat comeuppance. It’s a shame, because the creatives set the stage for some pretty original ideas that aren’t fleshed out well enough to carry The Invitation into memorable territory. A tacked-on epilogue that opens the door for a next chapter has promise, but isn’t backed by a film that had enough emotional or mythological weight to make us need to see more.
Director: Jessica M. Thompson
Writer: Blair Butler
Starring: Nathalie Emmanuel, Thomas Doherty, Sean Pertwee
Release Date: August 26, 2022
Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe and the official Story of Marvel Studios released in late 2021. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett.