[Co-published with Geek Vibes Nation.]
Thomas Doherty and Nathalie Emmanuel are very hot together.
It’s an admittedly superficial observation, but it’s also key to understanding what The Invitation is trying to accomplish. The gothic horror film asks what we’d be willing to accept or surrender to find where we belong. It’s easy to laugh off the idea of sacrifice or subjugation. But what happens when that sense of belonging wears Thomas Doherty’s chiseled face and mischievous glare?
Suddenly, the choice isn’t so simple.
Nathalie Emmanuel faces a similar dilemma. She plays Evelyn “Evie” Alexander, a catering waitress and starving artist living in New York. Apart from her best friend, Evie is all alone, having lost both of her parents. Feeling vulnerable and hoping to find a long-lost family member somewhere, Evie sends off an ancestry kit. It returns a match, a rich British second cousin who over-eagerly convinces her to attend a family wedding at an English countryside estate to meet her wealthy white relatives. She meets Thomas Doherty’s Walter “Walt” De Ville, the estate’s dashing and mysterious owner. Charming, self-effacing, gentlemanly, teasing, with a jawline carved from marble; he seems too good to be true.
Of course, he is; he is a centuries-old vampire. Still, you can’t blame Evie for getting swept up in Walt’s world, even with the bloody body count. Their romance is a scintillating and steamy clash of old-world mystique and modern sensibilities. The Invitation is Downton Abbey through a hornier, sinister lens, and it works. Director Jessica M. Thompson uses every ounce of Emmanuel and Doherty’s combustible chemistry, giving them enough barbed flirting, heated glances, and tender exchanges to set the sprawling estate ablaze. Even though Thompson telegraphs the danger from miles away, you can still ignore the numerous red flags as easily as Evie seems to. It’s not a hardship when the doomed and damned couple are caught in a clandestine clinch.
And what a clinch Nathalie Emmanuel and Thomas Doherty make together. After memorable supporting roles in Game of Thrones and HBO Max’s Gossip Girl reboot, The Invitation codifies the power of Emmanuel and Doherty’s screen presences. Emmanuel is a shining bright light throughout the film. Regardless of the extreme circumstances, she grounds her performance in warmth and resolve that rallies you to her side. Doherty cuts a sharp, elegant figure, pulling you in with the glint in his eye and his knowing smirk. Rarely does someone look so dangerous and yet so enticing on screen. Together, Emmanuel and Doherty are incendiary, creating a tense, highly-charged air between them that you can sink your teeth into.
Emmanuel and Doherty’s undeniable pull aids The Invitation’s address of its race dynamics. Beneath the monster horror, the film explores the racist microaggressions that women of color, especially Black women, face in wealthy white spaces. Oliver describes Evie’s lineage as part of the Alexander family scandal. Walt says that a life with him would be an uplift from her “background.” Viktoria rudely says that she expected Evie to be “something else.” It’s a thousand little cuts, and the film ponders if it’s acceptable damage when a life of passion, wealth, privilege, and countless relations are within reach. Millions of people of color perform that calculus every day. It’s surprising and welcome to see a genre film tackling the subject outside the Jordan Peele universe. (The effort is somewhat enough to forgive the inelegant dialogue.)
The Invitation’s aversion to subtlety is fine when Emmanuel and Doherty are in focus. It’s everywhere else where the film’s prospects get dicier. Thompson lingers too long on shifty looks between household staff and drenches too many shots in overtly menacing blue to build a genuinely terrifying atmosphere. There are jump scares throughout the first two-thirds, and some are pretty effective. Still, it feels more like a distraction from Evie and Walt’s romance. Then the third act begins, and any grasp for subtext flies out the window. The film quickly melts into a primordial ooze of blood, battles, and vampire clichés. Its breathless pace and unhinged plotting should be off-putting, but Doherty and especially Emmanuel’s commitment to the bit keeps you engaged.
Rather than an outright horror movie, The Invitation is a concerted effort to restore vampires to their gilded, lusty glamour. Thanks to its two chemistry-laden leads, the film largely succeeds. It doesn’t quite earn every scare, but audiences will get more than their fair share of lip bites and seat squirms.