If you're going to update a classic horror tale, but want to keep it all feeling like an old-fashioned slice of gothic, then you could do a lot worse than watching The Invitation, where director Jessica M. Thompson and writer Blair Butler show us exactly how it should be done.
Nathalie Emmanuel plays Evie, a young American woman who finds herself in a whole new world when a DNA/family tree test leads to her discovering relatives she was previously completely unaware of. They may be distant relatives, but it gives her a chance to visit their lavish home in England, where her distant cousin, Oliver (Hugh Skinner), does his best to ensure that Evie isn't made to feel too uncomfortable. Unaccustomed to mingling with the upper-class, Evie is both intrigued and upset by what she sees around her, particularly when it comes to the way the head butler (Sean Pertwee) treats the staff, but she soon becomes much more relaxed in the company of the charming Walter (Thomas Doherty), the lord of the manor. Maybe Evie will end up making a new home in England, but she will have to deal with the skeletons in the family closet first.
There's nothing in The Invitation that will surprise, or even impress, most viewers. Every main story beat feels familiar, and the execution of the scares, and how they are doled out en route to a third act that completely clarifies everything (not that this is a complex or unpredictable plot), is in line with 101 other horror movies. That doesn't make it bad though. In fact, the wonderfully traditional visuals and witty, self-aware, script come together to create something that is, first and foremost, fun. Thompson heads up a very talented crew, considering what we see onscreen, and Butler enjoys setting up the film in a very specific way, playfully revealing key details throughout the second half, and then having all of the pieces in place for the expected rip-roaring finale.
Emmanuel is an excellent lead, and this is probably the biggest movie role I've seen her given. Here's to many more. She's a naturally captivating screen presence, and convinces here as someone who can feel like a welcome breath of fresh air in a stuffy old English manor. Doherty is as suave and charming as he needs to be, Skinner does another one of his endearing "oh gosh, nice, posh" performances, and Pertwee is enjoyably blunt in many of his exchanges with people he considers beneath his employers. Carol Ann Crawford and Tian Chaudhry get to play supporting characters who are surprisingly integral to the main plot strand, and Alana Boden and Stephanie Corneliussen are two very privileged young women who couldn't be more dissimilar in the way that they act around Evie.
I'm sure that some will be put off by the decision to fill the frame with things like unsettling stonework figures, billowing curtains, and large rooms that people are forbidden to enter, it's all a bit more Shirley Jackson than Peter Jackson, but that's what helps it stand out. This isn't another new horror movie trying to break any kind of world record for bloodshed, nor is it a film trying to use new tech as the central "demon". It's a film that takes something old, twists and plays around with it for a while, then turns it into something that feels enjoyably different. Some people may resent the core of the premise, but I thought it was both witty and entertaining.
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