3 out of 5 stars

The first few seconds of The Invitation—featuring a castle, the proverbial ‘dark and stormy night’, a butler urging his mistress to “eat something”—make it clear director Jessica M. Thompson and writer Blair Butler have no embarrassment in employing the hoariest horror tropes. It would be no surprise to see Bela Lugosi or Vincent Price emerge from a shadowy corner.

It also soon becomes apparent that The Invitation is particularly influenced by Bram Stoker’s Dracula (especially if you happen to see a subtitled screening, as I did, where the butler character Mr Field is at one point explicitly referred to as Renfield).

It’s not clear whether this story, set in the present day, is supposed to be a sequel from Stoker’s universe—Renfield dies in the book, after all, and the characters called Jonathan and Mina Harker who briefly appear later on in The Invitation don’t make sense as centenarian versions of Stoker’s young lawyer and his bride.

More likely the numerous Dracula references are essentially there for the hell of it, and to reassure anxious horror fans that there will indeed be bloody goings-on sooner or later; one of the strengths of The Invitation is that it takes a long time to fully bare its teeth—although, of course, these unmissable hints do weaken the impact a bit. Nobody is going to be surprised when handsome young Walter De Ville (Thomas Doherty) turns out to have a distinctly dark secret…

After the Hammer-ish opening, however, the film proper begins in New York City, as we’re introduced to art student Evie (Nathalie Emmanuel) paying her way through college by working as a waitress. At a wittily observed corporate reception hosted by an online genealogy company, Evie snaffles a DNA testing kit and her test results reveal she has an English cousin called Oliver who is—coincidentally (?)—soon visiting the Big Apple.

Lunch with this newly-found relative then reveals some of Evie’s own history—a slightly contrived affair between her great-grandmother and a footman is rolled out to explain why she was unaware of her noble English lineage—and leads to Oliver inviting her to England for a family get-together at a forthcoming wedding, to be held at New Carfax Abbey in Whitby. Another Dracula nod, of course.

At New Carfax Abbey, which looks suspiciously like Lego but is in fact the Nádasdy Mansion near Budapest, Evie meets the dashing lord of the manor Walter (Doherty) as well as the head butler Mr Field (Sean Pertwee), who’s apparently dropped the Ren– from his name in an attempt to dissociate himself from bird-eating Victorian lunatics.

It’s all a bit Brideshead on the surface (The Invitation is clearly imagining the English gentry for a US audience, not a British one), but Mr Field’s habit of muttering ritual phrases in Latin suggests life at New Carfax is not all that it looks. In case the point is missed, a maid assigned to Evie, Mrs Swift (Carol Ann Crawford), also warns her against walking around at night and notes that the local shrikes “exhibit a peculiar strain of brutality.”

Given all this, when we learn the house’s library is closed off for renovations, we can fairly easily surmise that cleaning the cornices is not all that’s going on. And indeed, before the horror becomes full-blown, several other members of New Carfax’s domestic staff will have unpleasant experiences both there and in the wine cellar. 

These sequences are perhaps a misjudgement in taking the focus off Evie and allowing us to know things she can’t, but on their own, they’re among the most successful in The Invitation, with the near-darkness of the cellar and a servant girl’s MP3 player in the library used effectively to heighten suspense.

Elsewhere, rdtion scenes are well-timed and well-paced; the score by Dara Taylor often provides an original take on the usual horror devices, and there are a few cheesily amusing lines (“I want someone to see me for who I really am”, says Walter).

Performances are no more subtle than the rest of the movie, but frequently enjoyable, particularly that of Courtney Taylor as Grace, a friend of Evie’s. She rather overshadows Emmanuel’s Evie in the scenes they have together, in fact. But Emmanuel comes into her own in the central part of the story depicting her developing romance with Doherty’s Walter. The pair have believable chemistry, and are well-contrasted; while the visiting American woman is initially impressed and excited by the novelties of the New Carfax lifestyle, Doherty’s affected, almost languorously off-hand way of delivering his lines encapsulates Hedonistic English Aristocrat without him having to do much other acting.

Skinner’s Oliver is drolly gushy and over-enthusiastic, while Stephanie Corneliussen’s haughty Viktoria is an upper-class stereotype of a different kind. But Crawford’s Mr Swift gives perhaps the movie’s most impactful performance, in a role that becomes more important than anticipated, and she’s one of the few who is halfway credible as a real person.

Of course, not all the others are real people, at least not in the normal sense of “people”. The Invitation leaves you in little doubt about that from early on. Nothing’s unforeseeable, a lot of it’s a bit silly, and though it might be claimed to explore vampirism as a metaphor for class exploitation, it does so only superficially.

It’s the kind of romp which begins in a castle in a storm, and before long will probably be as forgotten as countless similar castles/storms/sinister servants/etc. movies from the 1930s onward. But while it lasts, and as long as you don’t enter with any expectations of sophistication, it’s just as fun as most of them too.

USA | 2022 | 104 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Jessica M. Thompson.
writer: Blair Butler.
starring: Nathalie Emmanuel, Thomas Doherty, Stephanie Corneliussen, Alana Boden & Sean Pertwee.