The Invitation

How to make a movie about Dracula feel new, or at least new-ish?  The Invitation addresses this by telling a very familiar story about a very familiar character through the eyes of Evie (Nathalie Emmanuel), an African American toiling away in the States as a waitress.  Her job sucks and with her mother’s recent death, misses having connection to a family.  The answer to her ennui arrives when she completes a DNA test and discovers she’s actually a long-lost relative to the white-as-can-be Alexander family in England.  Her best friend Grace (Courtney Taylor) cautions her not to go, but nobody ever listens to their best friend’s advice in these movies.

After a pleasant lunch with cousin Oliver (Hugh Skinner), she accepts his offer to fly across the pond to attend a family wedding.  Once there, she’s welcomed with open arms by her extended family, as well as handsome Lord Walt DeVille (Thomas Doherty).  Then strange things begin to happen.  Maids start disappearing.  The bridesmaids and prospective gal-pals Viktoria and Lucy (Stephanie Corneliussen and Alana Boden) are a quirky pair who seem to know more than they’re letting on.  Evie has nightmares about her grandmother who committed suicide.  A monster seems to be stalking her.  And who are the bride and groom, anyway?  Thankfully, Walt is always around to alleviate her fears and warm her bed.  Eventually, Evie realizes that Walt is Dracula and she is to be his bride.  Will she acquiesce like all women have done before, when faced with Dracula’s charms?

By making Evie the lead character, the movie takes on a different tone.  Evie may be struggling and without a future, but she’s unwilling to relinquish her independence to be a trophy wife.  She may be interested in romance, but being forced to give up her identity for a life of (white) privilege is a bridge too far.  The Invitation isn’t “woke” per se, but it has a level of social awareness I haven’t seen in a Dracula movie before.  The romance and the chills are decidedly PG-13, but the movie is just different enough to make it interesting and entertaining.  The Invitation is fun for the entire family, something you wouldn’t feel embarrassed to see with your teenage daughter.  Mildly recommended.

Summary

The movie opens in a gothic mansion sometime in the past.  A servant implores a young white woman to eat, but instead she throws him against a wall.  (No jokes about how terrible English cuisine is, please.)  Clearly distraught, the woman hangs herself from a stairwell while holding a statue.  Although results of this action are not shown, the implication is that she didn’t want to die just by hanging, but also decapitate herself in the process.  Definitely some finality in that decision.  The why will be answered later.

In present day America, a young African American woman named Evie (Nathalie Emmanuel) and her friend Grace (Courtney Taylor) hate their jobs as waitresses for a catering company. After losing her mom a few years ago, Evie feels rudderless with no family connections.  She impulsively fills out a DNA kit she receives in the mail, and is soon contacted by an English man named Oliver (Hugh Skinner).  He tells her over lunch that she’s not only his cousin, but that she’s part of the large Alexander family in England.  Apparently, Evie’s great-grandmother had an affair with a Black Footman and had a secret child, making her the family’s long-lost descendant.

It just so happens that a family wedding is coming up, and Oliver would be happy to pay Evie’s way to attend.  Grace, a typically skeptical best friend, is dubious about the whole thing.  In particular, why is the upper-crusty Oliver so excited about having a cousin who’s not only a bastard, but a mixed-race one at that?  Since Evie has no prospects on the horizon she accepts Oliver’s invitation for a two-week paid vacation in England.  (What could possibly go wrong?)

After arriving in London, Evie is shuttled to the location of the wedding, an estate named Carfax.  Its so white and shiny, it looks like a theme park attraction. Evie gets her first taste of English distemper when she argues with head butler Mr. Fields over who broke some drinking glasses.  She doesn’t like how he talks down to a maid and tells him so.  (Those Americans, always confronting authority!)  Walter DeVille, the lord of the estate, saunters over and gets Mr. Fields to apologize.  Walter is incredibly handsome and charming, so Evie calms down and accepts his apology.

That evening, Evie is warmly welcomed by the rest of her family.  She’s touched to be accepted by such a large family, even though it is as lilly-white as can be.  That night, Evie has a nightmare about her great-grandmother, who was the woman who killed herself at the beginning of the movie.  After awakening, Evie leaves her room trailed by a monster lurking in the shadows.  From the upstairs balcony she witnesses Mr. Fields selecting a maid to clean the library, which is being renovated.  After Evie returns to her room, the maid is quickly killed by an unseen force, proof that you should never be caught in a library after dark.

At the wedding party the next evening, Evie meets the two maids of honor, Viktoria (Virág Bárány) and Lucy (Alana Boden), the oddest of odd couples.  Viktoria is tall, voluptuous and sarcastic, while Lucy is small and eager to be liked.  Walt takes Evie away to show her that the estate has a crafts room filled with the supplies and equipment to make ceramics.  (Quite the coincidence.)  The two of them smooch as fireworks go off outside.  (Another amazing coincidence.)

The following morning, Evie joins Viktoria and Lucy for a spa day, and Viktoria goes out of her way to upset Evie.  Angered, Evie goes into the library and learns that Walt has a dossier about her.  (Its an actual paper file. Walt has a thing about technology.) As Evie hastens to leave, Walt, ever so charming, manages to not only alleviate her concerns but free her from her clothing as well.  After some off-screen rumpy-pumpy, Walt asks Evie to marry him.  Believing that he’s joking, she accepts.  

At the masquerade dinner that night, Evie finally learns that she is the bride and is to be married to Walt, who is actually Dracula.  It seems that in order for Dracula to achieve his greatest level of power, he must have a wife from each of the three human families who support him.  Since Evie’s great-grandmother committed suicide, the Alexanders have only produced males.  After Evie weds Dracula, he will have a complete set of trophy wives and be amped to do…even more nefarious things.  Evie initially refuses, but after a night spent in a coffin she changes her mind. (She also wants to save the last maid alive.)  During the ceremony, she drinks Dracula’s blood and gains super strength.  Evie starts the place on fire, kills Lucy and Victoria and kicks Dracula into the flames.  (Dracula’s blood is like Red Bull times ten.) In the end, Evie and Grace have tracked down Oliver to render a some justice on his duplicitous self.  Since Dracula cannot be destroyed by fire, this story is not over.  (Well, it will be if there is no sequel.)

Analysis

The main challenge with making a movie about Dracula is presenting him in a new way.  Since his introduction in Bram Stoker’s novel in 1897, Dracula has been featured in countless books, movies, television shows, cartoons and animated films.  I would argue that he’s familiar to five generations of moviegoers today.  For a movie like The Invitation to work, it must take a very familiar character and make him interesting.  It accomplishes this first by hiding his character in plain sight, then by placing him within the context of modern social awareness.  Together, these artistic choices make The Invitation an engaging, if somewhat inconsequential experience.

Of the movies I have seen that feature Dracula, there’s no mystery about which actor is playing the role.  For the first two-thirds of The Invitation, he is presented as Walt, the equally charming and handsome Lord of Carfax.  He’s shown milling about in broad daylight, which I realize is not necessarily an issue for vampires.  I blame this shift in the Dracula legend on the Twilight books and movies, although there are probably other instances of this that I’m not aware of.

Since Walt has problems with sunlight, he’s able to cozy up to Evie day and night.  His brides are able to do likewise, so the mystery of who is stalking Evie and killing the maids remains unsolved for most of the movie.   The movie makes a point of never showing the nocturnal monster in plain view, cloaking it in murky darkness.  The first clues arrive when Evie meets bridesmaids Viktoria and Lucy.  Lucy acts somewhat normal but Viktoria comes off as a missing character from True Blood.

Viktoria has utter contempt for humans and tosses saucy barbs at Evie with no concern for her feelings.  At first I thought Viktoria was just Eurotrash, but then her vampiric nature was revealed during the spa day.  Like most vampires, Viktoria has no concern for the social mores of humans and cavorts around naked in front of everyone.  Her behavior could be written off as typical of a person who is so privileged that she doesn’t care what people think of her.  However, when she sucks the blood off of Evie’s injured finger, it’s obvious that Evie is in Vampire Country.

The movie finally reveals Walt as Dracula in the third act at the masquerade dinner.  (Slaughtering a maid and draining her blood into a punch bowl is a dead giveaway.)  Only then does Walt (and the movie) explain what Evie’s role is in everything that has happened before.  From that point on, the movie resorts to familiar “escape from the vampires” hijinks, with Evie somehow outwitting the three vampires and destroying Carfax in the process.

Fortunately, the success or failure of The Invitation isn’t predicated on how compelling the “is he or isn’t he Dracula” plot line.  It’s a cute little mystery in the plot, but If you’ve seen the trailer or read a synopsis of the movie, you know going in that Dracula will show up eventually.  The delay in revealing Walt as Dracula is just a charade designed to juice the movie’s romantic angle which, if I’m being completely honest, is the movie’s biggest selling point.  What isn’t telegraphed by the movie’s trailer is how a character like Evie would be viewed by Dracula and those around him, as well as how she responds to his offer of a life with him (and his wives, and the three families).  

The Invitation isn’t the first movie to have Dracula lusting after a woman who isn’t white, but it is the first one I’ve seen where the story is seen through the eyes of a BIPOC woman.  If Evie were one of his usual targets, the question in this movie would be how soon the woman would eventually succumb to Dracula’s supernatural charisma and agree to a life of blood and coffins.  Evie is definitely interested in having a relationship with Walt, but she does not want to give up her life and her freedom to become one of his possessions.

From Dracula’s standpoint, adding Evie to his set of trophy wives makes sense.  She’s beautiful and spirited and artistically inclined.  Her talent in ceramics will help keep her occupied through the centuries while her husband is off conquering the world at large.  Unfortunately for Dracula, Evie has a strong sense of self and is not willing to relinquish it, even if it means her death.

From the time she arrived at Carfax, Evie’s Blackness evoked strong reactions from the members of Team Dracula.  Mr. Fields’ has no qualms showing his contempt for her, and only relents when Walt yanks the leash.  In the movie’s fiery climax, Mr. Fields’ racism is made much clearer.  I don’t remember his line of dialogue, but it’s something to the effect of, “The master should have known better to bring someone of your kind around.”  When Walt confronts Evie one last time, the argument he uses to convince her to join is along the lines of, “You’re poor and have no prospects. You should be grateful I’m willing to look past all that and give you a life of (white) privilege.”  Although neither Mr. Fields or Walt comes out and says it, the implication is clear:  We’re doing you a favor, poor Black woman.  You should be grateful we’re giving you this opportunity at all.  How dare you resist!  It should come as no surprise that Evie basically tells the gatekeepers of white privilege “f-that” and burns the place down.

None of this is to say that The Invitation is at the same level of a movie like Get Out, in terms of incisive commentary on social issues of today.  There are similarities between the two, particularly when it comes to Black people having to forgo their individuality in order to live among rich white people.  To my knowledge a Dracula movie hasn’t had this subtext before, and did provide the movie with a unique angle on the subject matter.  I wouldn’t categorize the movie as being “woke”, but it does have an awareness of contemporary society that usually is ignored in a movie like this.

Another interesting angle to The Invitation is that the filmmakers cast Nathalie Emmanuel, a light-skinned African American actress, in the role of Evie, the object of Dracula’s affection.  She reminded me (in a very general way) of other light-skinned African American actresses like Zandaya and Zoë Kravitz.  Courtney Taylor, who plays her friend Grace, is the only other African American actor in the movie and is dark-skinned.  I couldn’t help but wonder how the denizens of Carfax would have reacted if Grace had shown up instead of Evie.  (My guess is much, much worse.)  I don’t bring this up to detract from the movie itself, Emmanuel’s casting or her performance.  I am no expert on Colorism, but I can see how this movie would be used as yet  another example of this ongoing trend in entertainment.

Aside from delaying Dracula’s unveiling and delving into social politics, The Invitation plays like a vampire movie for tweens.  Its rated PG-13, so there is very little nudity, no sex scenes and the killings are (mostly) bloodless.  It’s a vampire movie you would feel comfortable seeing with your fourteen year-old niece.  Of course, if your niece has any interest in vampires at all she’s probably already seen every episode of True Blood already and would find this move tame, if not lame.  Given its subtext, however, The Invitation would likely appeal most to a socially-aware tween with an interest in vampires and gothic romance.

As an adult, I can’t help but compare the movie to recent Dracula and/or vampire material I’ve seen.  It’s not as good as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but also remembers that the Dracula has always had a romantic angle to him.  It thankfully doesn’t get bogged down in the historical basis of the character as a medieval warrior like Dracula Untold.  It’s not a hormonal teenage dream like the Twilight pictures, but does feature two very handsome adult leads canoodling.  Its definitely not a full-on gore and sex fest like True Blood, but nothing else has approached that show’s level of abandon before or since.  The Invitation has all of the trappings of a Dracula story, but gives the narrative a distinct perspective that makes it interesting enough to watch and get caught up in the story.

The acting in The Invitation is good throughout.  The story doesn’t ask any of the actors to do anything extraordinary, but they all bring their characters to life without resorting to camp or scenery chewing.  Nathalie Emmanuel brings her natural charm and beauty to the role of Evie.  Thomas Doherty makes privileged charm look effortless.  I liked Hugh Skinner’s overly chipper Oliver, and wished the movie hadn’t forgotten him after the first act.  Alana Boden’s Lucy was a quirky blast of energy whenever she was on screen, and I wished she hadn’t perished in the end.  Stephanie Corneliussen vamps it up accordingly as Viktoria, the hot-to-trot sister wife who can barely be contained by mere clothing.  As the two servants, Carol Ann Crawford’s Mrs. Swift and Sean Pertwee’s as Mr. Fields are both good in what are basically one-note characters.  Last but not least, Courtney Taylor is great Grace, the stereotypical best friend who is never listened to.

In her second directorial feature, Jessica M. Thompson acquits herself well.  She handles the movie’s frequent shifts in tone well.  Most importantly, she refrains from overdoing things.  The romantic scenes between Evie and Walt are naturalistic.  The gothic elements are appropriately dark and foreboding.  The pomp and circumstance of the wedding events are depicted as signs of wealth, but not to a ridiculous level.  (Kudos to DP Autumn Eakin for her elegant and tasteful camera work.)

Since this is a horror movie, I will confirm that there were several effective jump scares.  Things at the end get a little fiery and chaotic, but there’s really no other way to extract yourself from Dracula and his extended families, is there?  All told, Thompson’s biggest accomplishment here is to let the handsomeness of her leads shine through, as well as their chemistry.  If there is to be a sequel, that is where the interest will be: seeing Evie and Walt pair off again as a married couple.  Will they have sex, fight to the death, or do both?  No need to wait for invitations at this point, right?

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