The Invitation opens with a classic scenario: lightning illuminating a Gothic mansion as thunderclaps roar. A gaunt woman, lit by candlelight, prepares to launch herself from the second floor banister. The shadows seem to be whispering. There’s something eerie, likely supernatural, under this roof. From the outset, it’s clear the savvy premise of the most sinister consequences of a genealogy test is merely a jumping off point for director Jessica M. Thompson and and writer Blair Butler to indulge in horror tropes we know and love.
But that’s before we meet Nathalie Emmanuel’s Evie, a struggling New York artist mourning the recent loss of her mother. A DNA test she submitted on a whim unearths a long-lost family of Aristocrats in England, and soon cousin Oliver Alexander (Hugh Skinner) is inviting her to a wedding across the pond: “Everyone is dying to meet you,” he pleads. Despite warnings from her friend Grace (a hilarious Courtney Taylor) not to trust white people, Evie’s desire for familial connection wins out, and she finds herself a guest of honor at a lavish mansion in the English countryside—the same mansion from the film’s prologue , which looks only slightly less ominous during the day. Evie picks up ominous vibes, but doesn’t (yet) detect there’s actual evil lurking—just rich snobs.
Besides, she’s too busy moving from flirtatious rapport to seduction with the wedding party’s suave host (Thomas Doherty), the cheekily named Walter DeVille. But things are going bump in the night. Something is feeding on the poor maids in their chic black-and-white uniforms; a bossy-creepy butler (Sean Pertwee) sends them into dark rooms to get sucked into toothy abysses, one by one. Shrikes keep impaling themselves on the windows of Evie’s room, which overlooks perpetually misty estate grounds. And when the wedding festivities begin, the bride and groom are still nowhere to be seen.
Evie sticks out here with her septum piercing, tattoos, American accent, and yes, her darker complexion. This story doesn’t shy away from the character’s blackness, a further impediment to her longed-for sense of belonging. “For someone of your … background,” sniffs one guest, joining this family “is more than a leg up.” Also likely due to her upbringing, Evie is distinctly attuned to detecting rudeness—and doesn’t tolerate it in the least, as when bridesmaid Viktoria (Stephanie Corneliussen) touches her hair without asking. Emmanuel makes for an empathetic audience stand-in and charming heroine; It’s easy to see how she’s pivoted from thankless Game Of Thrones and Fast And Furious roles to leading lady status. If The Invitation proves nothing else, it’s that she belongs at the top of the call sheet.
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Doherty, whose Cheshire cat grin stretches roughly three miles wide across his face, plays her romantic co-lead to (dare I say devilish?) perfection. At one point, wearing the world’s most impeccably tailored tank top, he even dares to bite his lip and lean against a doorframe. Of course, the actor’s looks also lend themselves to the storytelling trope Thompson is ramping up to, the twist at the heart of this film that isn’t hard to guess (especially by anyone who’s seen its trailer, which we won’t be embedding here for that reason). Spoilers from here on out: Evie is shocked to learn she is, in fact, the bride. Walt, her groom-to-be, turns out to be an ancient undead being requiring multiple wives for an immortalizing blood pact, and therefore, in the biggest twist of all, not very nice. Guests in spooky masquerade garb look on and laugh as one of the only remaining maids has her throat slit.
A tense cat-and-mouse game and suitably chaotic wedding ensue, plus helpful bits of exposition regarding these particular vampires’ rules. (Alana Boden’s fellow bride Lucy mentions there are “so many misconceptions about our kind,” while Carol Ann Crawford’s rebellious maid reveals that a wooden stake, beheading, or fire are the “only ways to kill them”—good to know!) But it’s that throat-slitting moment, and others like it, that make this Dracula-inspired tale more titillating than bone-chilling. Evie gasps and the camera spins, as if blurring her vision to shield her, and us, from the carnage. Does a film qualify as horror if you can count the total drops of blood on one hand? And we’re not talking Jean-Luc Godard’s red splashes or Quentin Tarantino’s spurts of scarlet; this movie’s gore, what we glimpse of it, just looks like wine.
To be fair, plenty of cinema’s bloodsuckers sip rather than guzzle—from 1922’s Nosferatu to the Twilight films, vampires often seem pretty demure for carnivores, more focused on sex or style. In that vein (hah!), The Invitation capitalizes mostly on the latter, and frankly could use more of the former. Felicity Abbott’s production design, all wrought iron gates and vaulted stone ceilings, sets off cinematographer Autumn Eakin’s sultry lighting, which is perfectly matched to Dara Taylor’s ominous orchestral score. There’s a delectably eerie shot of the manor’s library door, foreboding and shrouded in shadow, that effectively introduces the space as a character. Costume designer Danielle Knox’s outfits for Evie are sublime, from an Outlander T-shirt to her wedding dress, crisp white with delicate red flowers. Emmanuel, of course, makes a fetching bride, and proves as compelling in survival mode as with romantic drama.
It’s a shame, then, that Evie’s coming into her own—her excuse to start kicking ass finally matching the inner strength she’s wielded all along—feels too little, too late. The film moves at a refreshingly brisk pace throughout, but that includes an all-too-brief third act, rendering everything post-twist oddly rushed. (Not to beat a dead horse about a bigger Hollywood trend, but this makes it all the more egregious that The Invitation’s trailer features glimpses of that denouement.)
But for audiences who’d rather RSVP to horror-lite moviegoing, The Invitation is a bloody good time—sans the blood. Whether or not the MPAA’s ratings tyranny was what prevented Thompson from mountains of gore, dismemberment, and sex, sex, sex, remaining in PG-13 territory robs a violent, supernatural twist of R-level shock value; we clutch our pearls rather than our heart rate monitors.