It may be difficult to name a work of horror fiction that has so undeniably sunk its teeth into centuries of pop culture than Bram Stoker‘s Dracula. The epistolary novel first published in 1897 was initially regarded as a Gothic work, but laid the foundation for many a vampire tale that would follow thereafter. If the titular Transylvanian count had never been created, it’s difficult to say whether these fanged creatures of the night would have been as popular as they are today — but the world of Dracula is one that, all these years later, continues to be ripe for drawing stories from. Most adaptations or reimaginings tend to focus on the vampire himself, but more and more are beginning to veer away from that focus in favor of prioritizing other characters at their center. In the conceit of the original novel, Dracula’s mysterious and seductive vampire brides only appear briefly, but their impact has continued to live on.
This year’s The Invitation, directed by Jessica M. Thompson and written by Blair Butler, draws inspiration from that element of the classic story in following an unsuspecting American woman named Evie (Nathalie Emmanuel) who travels to the English countryside after receiving an invite to a wedding from an extended family she’s only just discovered she has. Over the course of her stay in the impressive mansion, Evie finds herself trapped between the promise of romance and horror, wrestling over whether to give into the possibility of a relationship with the manor’s handsome lord Walter (Thomas Doherty) as barely-glimpsed threats lurk around her room each night.
The Invitation roots itself in embracing many of the best and most timeless Gothic tropes — with a modern flair, of course, but bringing a story like this to the present day wouldn’t be nearly as successful if it wasn’t for the actress grounding the supernatural in more realism. Emmanuel, who fans may already be familiar with for her roles in Game of Thrones and several Fast & Furious movies, plays an endearing heroine in Evie, a part-time caterer and struggling artist still grieving the loss of her mother, which leads her to search for any hint of remaining family she might be able to discover courtesy of a mail-in DNA test. The surprising results, in turn, put her in touch with a long-lost cousin, Oliver (Hugh Skinner), who endearingly fumbles his way through inviting her to an upcoming wedding across the pond — and once she accepts, Evie finds herself in a realm she’s completely unprepared to navigate.
Emmanuel’s character is our entry point into the story, but also the fresh-eyed perspective that comes to the manor house with a clear preference of prioritizing sincerity over propriety. From being too helpful with the maids to insisting on cleaning up after herself, Evie’s rejection of the way things are simply just done immediately puts her at odds with the butler, Mr. Fields (a scene-gnawing Sean Pertwee of Gotham fame), and their clashing continues even into the film’s most climactic moments. Contrast to that tension, however, is the reassuring presence of Mrs. Swift (Carol Ann Crawford), the head housekeeper, whose complicated emotions about the manor’s newest guest don’t prevent her from becoming a valued ally to Evie when she needs it the most.
While the staff is significantly more conflicted about Evie’s presence, there is one person who openly welcomes her with charm practically oozing out of his pores — Walter. With his piercing blue eyes and a jaw well-defined enough to possibly cut through glass itself, Doherty has been perfectly cast as the English gentleman more than capable of wooing Evie from top to bottom, and his chemistry with Emmanuel immediately sells the belief that these characters would develop a connection in the midst of whatever horrors the manor house is hiding. Later on, he proves just as compelling a presence on-screen when the Alexander family’s intentions for their newly-discovered relative are ultimately revealed — and in the most horrifying fashion possible. Doherty feels equally at home playing either the romantic lead or the manipulator driven by his own secret motives, and as the latter gradually and unnervingly emerges, it’s heartbreaking enough to throw all of Walter’s previous actions into question but equally thrilling to get to watch Doherty embrace all the darkest edges of the character’s potential.
Rounding out the cast are the so-called maids of honor, the women who have been tapped to serve the unseen bride at her impending nuptials and couldn’t be more different from one another in presence but offer Evie a myriad of personalities to bounce off of. The tall, intimidating Viktoria (played by Mr. Robot‘s Stephanie Corneliussen) is at odds with her from the start, pairing thinly-veiled insults with equally disconcerting microaggressions against Evie’s background, but by contrast, Lucy (Uncharted‘s Alana Boden) is a kind, welcoming presence, making consistent attempts to rope Evie in on fun pre-wedding activities. Granted, even something as innocent as a spa day adopts a particularly ominous tone; one of the most tension-filled scenes in the entire movie happens over the course of the three getting manicures in a room deep within the manor, one that comes closest to resembling a tomb in and of itself. The film’s primary location, Nádasdy Castle in Budapest, only contributes to the overall sense of history and legacy; none of the movie’s scenes would be nearly as effective without the bones of such a place serving as their backdrop.
It’s also in this environment where the horror truly begins — slow and foreboding rather than too reliant on jumpscares, offering a creeping sense that something isn’t quite right each time the sun sets and everyone has turned in for the night — and while Evie is tormented in her own room, terrified by specters that only disappear once she turns on the light, even darker threats persist elsewhere, with unsuspecting staff finding themselves the victims of a dark and looming figure that pulls them into the shadows and cuts off their resulting screams. Thompson and director of photography Autumn Eakin prove themselves an expert pair when it comes to ratcheting up the suspense, with clever cuts and lighting that do more to make the monsters frightening sight unseen in a majority of the film; even when the reveal happens, the camerawork that results contributes to that sickening feeling of realization, as artifice is stripped away and the real purpose of the wedding is laid bare. The third act, however, is where The Invitation notably struggles, as if attempting to plant itself squarely in the divide between suspense and action movie when it really thrived most as the former. When the film leans into its indisputable strengths, the result is bitingly good horror; any attempts to swerve outside that vein result in a more toothless execution. Ultimately, though, The Invitation offers an inventive reimagining of a literary classic while asserting itself as a fun addition to the modern Gothic canon.
The Invitation will premiere exclusively in theaters nationwide on August 26.