The Invitation deserves full credit for deftly juggling genres – and not just movie genres but their literary antecedents. On the one hand, it is a romantic story of a young woman plucked from obscurity and given the keys of the kingdom by handsome suitor. On the other hand, it is a Gothic horror story, and not just in the generic spooky-castle sort of way; like the early classics of the literary form, the film is about a young woman plucked from obscurity and locked in the family manse by devilish suitor. Think of it less as a marriage between rom-coms and horror movies and more as a marriage between Jane Austen and Bram Stoker.
The result is amusing, though not exactly a spoof. The Invitation has its tongue planted in its cheek as it drops numerous hints – some subtle, some anything but – about what is really happening within the walls of New Carfax Abbey – a place name that should ring alarm bells for anyone familiar with a certain well-known Gothic novel. In fact, the dialogue is littered with so many literary references that it feels almost like nerdy fan service. For those in the know, the suspense is less about “when will the leading lady figure it out” than “when will the film finally reveal what it has so obviously been hinting?” To its credit, the script make everything perfectly clear by the end without saying out loud the words we most expect to hear.
The Invitation avoids a bait-and-switch scenario by setting the tone with a prologue in which a distraught woman commits suicide in a spooky abode. With the old-school gothic vibe immediately established, the film switches to New York, where Evie (Nathalie Emmanuel), an aspiring pottery artisan, is struggling to make ends meet by working catering gigs for an unappreciative boss. With no known family since the death of her parents, she submits her DNA to genealogy website, which hooks her up with Oliver Anderson (Hugh Skinner), a previously unknown and obviously very well-to-do English cousin, who reveals the Evie is the descendant of a grandmother who had an elicit liaison with a black servant, creating a family scandal which resulted in the father absconding with the child to America. Invited on an all-expenses-paid trip to England for a wedding uniting the Andersons with the DeVille family, Evie agrees over the concerns of her best friend Grace (Courtney Taylor).
Evie is warmly welcomed by the Anderson family and soon finds herself smitten with the lord of Carfax, Walter DeVille (Thomas Doherty), but the bride and groom for the upcoming wedding remain mysteriously absent. This is not the first sign something is amiss. In what is passed off as an eccentric family tradition, there are two maids of honor for the wedding: Lucy (Alana Boden) is pleasant enough, but Viktoria (Stephanie Corneliussen) is overtly hostile, viewing Evie as a lower-class mongrel unworthy of admission into upper-class society. On top of that, Evie’s work in the service industry makes her sympathetic to the abbey’s female servants, who are treated little better than chattel by the abusive butler (Sean Pertwee).
From here, the film proceeds rather like a feminist version of Get Out, with Evie reporting developments via phone and text to Grace, who offers either encouragements or warnings. The growing romance between Evie and Walter is engaging, but the slow burn toward the big revelations burns a little too slowly, leaving audiences wondering when things will finally kick into high gear. The movie address this by including a handful of scares to confirm that this is indeed a horror film. One or two incidents in the basement indicate that rude treatment by the butler is the least of the temp servants’ worries, and Evie is disturbed presence in her bedroom at night, apparently crawling on the gossamer fabric above her four-poster bed, which gives Walter an excuse to spend the night, supposedly to protect her but really to win her affection. But certainly the film’s most nail-biting scene involves a spa day, in which the underlying tension of the dialogue between Evie and Viktoria is mirrored by closeups of clippers trimming nails and cuticles, each snip a potential blood-letting.
It is impossible to say much more about The Invitation without going into spoilers (though the trailer may have done some of that already). Suffice to say that the film delivers on all its hints, and horror fans who caught the references will be pleased to see that they guessed correctly even if the film never quite says exactly who Walter is (the closest it gets is when Walter tells Evie that in Wallachia he is known as “Son of the Dragon – a sobriquet I rather enjoy”).
Despite the superficial similarity to Get Out, The Invitation has more in common with Knives Out and, especially, Ready or Not – films that cast a scathing satirical eye on upper-class society and the “sanctity” of family. In romance films like Crazy Rich Asians (much as in the work of Jane Austen, which is name-checked here), the happy ending involves marrying into the rich, privileged aristocracy, but in keeping with its gothic antecedents, The Invitation portrays the nobility as corrupt blood-suckers (speaking metaphorically of course). In effect, the film undermines the Hollywood Chick Flick scenario while simultaneous deconstructing the gothic horror cliché of the helpless woman in peril, offering a more progressive fusion of the two genres.
Consequently, the choice Evie makes at the ending is pretty much a no-brainer (has there ever been a film in which the “join us” temptation was not a foregone conclusion?). Still, we’re all in favor of Girl Power taking on the patriarchy and burning it to the ground, and in the end everything turns out as it should, even if the resolution feels a tad too easy. As in Jordan Peele’s film, the conclusion provides some satisfying action and carnage, and the scorecard of survivors/victims checks the right boxes – meaning that, whatever message The Invitation is sending, it works as an entertaining horror film – which just happens to be posing, like a sheep in wolf’s clothing, as a romantic fantasy.
Hollywood Gothique's rating of The Invitation
1 – Avoid
2 – Some redeeming qualities
3 – Recommended
4 – Highly Recommended
5 – Must See
The Invitation is the kind of film that will be perceived differently according to each viewer’s familiarity with the plentiful supply of references, which range from Austen and Dickens to Gothic literature. Fans of the later will probably see the end coming from a mile away, while the uninitiated may find the proceedings more mystifying. In any case, the film’s classic gothic stylings are brilliantly rendered, contrasting nicely with the modern day setting.
Blair Butler’s screenplay is very clever about dropping hints, but the nerd fan service of the dialogue is balanced by characterizations that are convincing rather than cliched, turning the film into a legit modern take on Gothic-Horror-Romance instead of a spoof of genre tropes. To put it another way, they do not do stupid things just because that’s what’s supposed to happen in this kind of story, and even when their actions are questionable or dubious, they are understandable.
Though the pace is a bit slow in the mid-section, Jessica M. Thompson skillfully executes the material, handling the romance and horror elements equally well and effectively blending the two together. Visually, she illustrates the two conflicting aspects of the story through the appearance of New Carfax Abbey, which looks elegant and inviting when seen outside in daylight but sinister and intimidating when seen inside at night. With the help of cinematographer Autumn Eakin (and presumably some post-production CGI tinkering), Thompson keeps the horror scenes dark and suggestive rather than explicit (a little bit too dark in some cases, presumably to avoid an R-rating) but still manages to deliver some effective thrills.
Nathalie Emmanuel and Thomas Doherty shine in the leads. Emmanuel has the sort of easy, nature appeal of Julia Roberts; she captures both the romantic longing for an easy life with a rich, handsome lover and the working-class resentment of someone barely making ends meet. Doherty is charismatic enough to convince us Evie would fall for Walter while also managing some careful shadings hinting at what lies beneath the surface. (He is aided in this with some help from the makeup and effects department, which subtly alter his appearance as the occasion demands.) Despite his English pedigree, he evokes a European vibe hinting at his character’s ancestry. In fact, he looks rather like Udo Kier in Blood for Dracula (1974).
The supporting cast make strong impressions even with limited screen time. The subtle tension between Boden and Corneliussen lays the foundation for the final confrontation between the two brides maids. Skinner seems convincingly sincere as Oliver (and in a sense the character is sincere since discovering Evie is important to his family for reasons the film eventually reveals). And Pertwee does a great job as the butler carrying out his master’s orders with authoritarian excess over his small domain – an excellent portrayal of a working class character enforcing a corrupt social but it grants a limited privilege to him: he may not be on top, but he is not at the bottom.
Kudos also to Dara Taylor music score, whose main theme mixes authentically gothic-sounding orchestrations with an ominous three-note motif on synthesizer. The latter adds just the right touch of overt menace to the otherwise moody and suggestive underscoring.
The Invitation (Screen Gems, 2022). Directed by Jessica M. Thompson. Written by Blair Butler. Cast: Nathalie Emmanuel, Thomas Doherty, Stephanie Corneliussen, Alan Boden, Sean Pertwee, Hugh Skinner, Virág Bárány, Courtney Taylor, Kata Sarbó, Jeremy Wheeler, Carol Ann Crawford. Rated PG-13. 104 mins. US theatrical release date: August 26.