The Invitation: A Vampire Tale surprises as thrilling

invitation

The movie “The Invitation” 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 film. The Invitation took me by surprise.

It’s rough work trying to remix a classic like Bram Stoker’s Dracula when there have 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 writer/director Jessica M. Thompson, co-writer Blair Butler and actress Nathalie Emmanuel, who execute unexpected choices that manage to subvert their entire goth approach to the material slightly.

However, The Invitation takes way too long to get to its most exciting ideas, leaving us with the distinct feeling of “too little, too late.”

She is 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 England’s England’s wealthy, white Alexander family.

She is contacted by her new cousin Oliver (Hugh Skinner), and they eventually meet. He enthusiastically tells her about the family and then offers to bring her home for an impending wedding where she can meet their kin in one place.

Following the structure and tone of a modern Gothic romance novel, Evie has swept away to the remote countryside manor of Walter DeVille (Thomas Doherty), a close family friend to the Alexanders, who is hosting the weddings on his property, New Carfax Abbey. Handsome, built, and genuinely 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 nails dressing the manor and 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 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 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 scars. For modern horror aficionados, The Invitation is about the vibes, not the gore or the terror. It 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. Her acerbic attitude and filterless honesty are one of the freshest angles of the script. Even as this life of wealth and connection tempts Evie, 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 the 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 comes in the last act, as the guests, the Alexanders, and Walt’s background get revealed in an elaborate sequence that is a dizzying haze of close-ups and fisheye lenses. It goes big, for sure.

And as the danger of Evie’s situation becomes more evident, 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.

Conclusion:

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 the memorable territory. A tacked-on epilogue that opens the door for the next chapter has promise but isn’t backed by a film with enough emotional or mythological weight to make us need to see more.

  • Director: Jessica M. Thompson
  • Writer: Blair Butler, Jessica M. Thompson
  • Starring: Nathalie Emmanuel, Thomas Doherty, Sean Pertwee
  • Release Date: August 26, 2022

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