The Invitation, now playing in theaters nationwide, draws from Bram Stoker’s Dracula for its modern gothic reimagining. More specifically, it spins a contemporary gothic tale inspired by the three vampire women referred to as the “sisters,” more commonly known as the Brides of Dracula. The Invitation wants to shroud its gothic romance in mystery but rooting the story in a classic text means its protagonist is the only one left in the dark.
Evie (Nathalie Emmanuel) struggles to make ends meet. The artist lives paycheck to paycheck through her catering gig, where she’s put upon by an unkindly boss and lecherous guests. Evie’s also still grieving over the loss of her mom, the sole family member she had left. Or so she thinks. Evie’s best friend gifts her with an ancestry test kit, which puts Evie in connection with relatives she never knew existed. They invite her to a lavish wedding in the English countryside, where she immediately sparks an attraction with the host, Walter (Thomas Doherty). Even their whirlwind romance can’t distract Evie from signs that there’s something sinister lurking within the castle walls.
Director Jessica M. Thompson helms a stunning production befitting of a lavish gothic romance. The bold color palette sets an arresting, mysterious tone. The statuesque castle looks welcoming by day but eerie at night with its dark shadowed interiors and vibrant teal and orange exteriors. Fairy tale garden parties contrasted with glimpses of menacing creatures lurking within provides compelling visual interest; it’s easy to see why Evie would fast become intoxicated with the world despite the signs of malintent.
Blair Butler‘s script also distracts Evie from the more inhuman threats by placing her in an uncomfortable social situation. Her humble origins make her vulnerable to the more ruthless aspects of the aristocratic setting. Evie navigates microaggressions from maid of honor Victoria (Stephanie Corneliussen), condescension from lead butler Mr. Fields (Sean Pertwee), and occasional social faux pas that further isolate her. Emmanuel carries it all well and makes for a winsome lead.
As savvy as The Invitation Wants to present Evie, she’s multiple steps behind everyone else, including the audience. Thompson withholds the obvious answers for as long as possible but struggles to build any sense of mystery leading up to the reveals. Keeping the threat shrouded in the dark for so long means the horror remains too subtle for too long. When the third act kicks the horror into high gear, it feels anemic and rushed. Even the vague connections to the source inspiration can’t obscure the straightforward path of Evie’s journey.
The Invitation functions well as a gateway horror movie. It’s a well-crafted gothic romance light on scares that could sufficiently introduce the genre to unfamiliar audiences. Emmanuel retains rooting interest despite a character unable to see the danger until the water reaches well past its boiling point; The foreshadowing and supernatural clues are so well telecast here that savvier audiences will know exactly where this is headed long before Evie does. There’s not much bite to the horror, making for a relatively tame gothic retelling.
The Invitation released in theaters August 26, 2022.