Director: Jessica M. Thompson
Stars: Nathalie Emmanuel, Thomas Doherty, Stephanie Corneliussen
Like the undead creatures that stalk them, vampire movies has never left us for long. Like most subgenres there have been phases of prominence. The earnest gothic Hammer offerings of the ’60s… the Eurotrash and oddball regional indies of the ’70s… the goof and gloss of the ’80s… right through to the YA explosion of Twilight and the sticky BBQ sauce of True Blood in it’s most recent resurgence. Things may go quiet for a few years in between, but they’ll always come back.
Our fixation with the vampire myth is tied to it’s eroticism; sex and death sealed with a kiss or, more frankly, a bite. It’s mixing of fluids suggestive of a coital rapture worth the damnation that follows. Jessica M. Thompson’s The Invitation (not to be confused with Karyn Kusama’s atmospheric horror of the same name) arrives in UK cinemas with little-to-no fanfare. It seems as though distributor Sony doesn’t quite know what to do with it. This viewer went having not seen a single trailer, poster, review or advertisement. And going in blind may be the best way to experience and appreciate The Invitation on it’s own delectable merits.
Nathalie Emmanuel (Game of Thrones, Fast & Furious) takes a bite out of a New York accent here as Evie, a struggling ceramicist eking out a living in the service trade. We meet her coasting through a PR function with a tray of canapes, listless and resigned. Now orphaned, she longs for new connections and a chance DNA test reveals the existence of long-lost relatives in the UK. Before you know it she’s invited to a wedding at a country estate in Yorkshire. In spite of reservations expressed by her friend Grace (Courtney Taylor in a staple supporting role), Evie accepts the all-expenses-paid invitation. Her new and exceedingly white family appear very rich and privileged indeed, but there’s a snide family secret lurking in the shadows (can you guess??)…
What little PR the film has been afforded has effectively ‘spoiled’ the root of the mystery at Carfax Manor, though the movie itself overplays it’s hand way before it’s third-act reveal. Modern viewers impatient for the promised blood sports may feel confounded by the preoccupation that dominates beforehand. Thompson dallies on the furtive romance blooming between Evie and the Lord of the manor; Thomas Doherty’s charming yet jackal-eyed Walt.
But Thompson is channelling something quite specific here and doing it rather well. The Invitation has it’s fanged theatrics, but first it dances the steps of chicklit gothic romance with confidence, style and wit. Emmanuel (great throughout) and Doherty have genuine screen chemistry, and Thompson pumps up the paperback gloss of their scenes together. She understands the cheesiness of the fairy tale cliché she’s guiding Evie through, but she plays it with sincere affection. Play along and there’s much to enjoy in such slow-burn indulgence.
Thompson surrounds the leads with a number of abundantly enjoyable supporting players. Hugh Skinner’s fawning Tory boy is mercifully sidelined after a big early scene. Once we’re in Blighty things improve greatly. Machiavellian butlers and terrified underlings keep the genre aspects ticking over (though these scares are of the rather cheap and predictable variety). Much better are Evie’s catty contemporaries; the bubbly Lucy (Alana Boden) and the vampish – pun-intended! – Viktoria (Stephanie Corneliussen).
But most notably the film acknowledges the casting of Emmanuel, and the significance of playing out this story across a racial divide with a Black woman in the lead. One might reductively soundbite it as “Get Out with vampires” but there’s more truth to that assessment than one might think. The tension of class is always at the forefront of Thompson’s mind (Evie’s empathy for ‘the help’ is a consistent through-line) and plays into a broader appreciation of the imbalance wrought by colonialism. Get Out manifested America’s own fraught history via a reconfigured slave auction; The Invitation is just as biting (sorry, sorry) in its depiction of arranged marriages and human beings played as bargaining chips. Playing out a traditionally very white story with a Black woman in the lead inherently maleates said story’s stereotypes, creating new tensions while simultaneously opening new doors for stronger representation in genre cinema.
Thompson holds on a long time before letting the sparks fly but when it comes time her vamps have clout. Still she retains an eye for gothic romanticism. One VFX-aided shot in particular feels like it could have come from a Guillermo del Toro picture. And the Mexican auteur’s sense of luxurious embellishment is felt all over The Invitation. The execution is occasionally clumsy or clunky – it feels as though there have been a few fights in the editing room – but this adds its own character and charm to the whole.
Imperfect but giddily enjoyable from start to finish if you accept the dual sense of utter sincerity and wry knowing, The Invitation is a commendable throwback to the earnestness and high-camp of Hammer, but with enough contemporary notes to hit home with young audiences. Reader, I had a blast.