8/10 The Invitation is exactly the kind of easily skippable highlight that rewards me for trying to see everything I can.
When newly orphaned Evie Jackson (Nathalie Emmanuel) discovers a second cousin Oliver Alexander (Hugh Skinner) on an ancestry website, he invites her to a wedding in the English countryside. The New York City waitress accustomed to late payments and sexual harassment suddenly finds herself an honored guest in a well-staffed English manor and a favorite of its master, Walter Deville (Thomas Doherty), and I don’t want to spoil anything, but the movie cites Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” as its inspiration, so.
“Dracula” remains an enduring metaphor for class division, this image of an ancient noble whose origin no one remembers lording over the Carpathian Mountains and literally sucking the life out of villagers in the night. Wealth inequality is obviously much worse now than it was in 1897, and The Invitation carries that tradition proudly, now with more of a focus on what it does to the help – Jackson is a waitress, and the little sub-horror moments to keep momentum before the plot twist are all sequences of Deville’s maids getting hunted and eaten, and there’s a big point of the groundskeeper that they answer to and the townsfolk who derive their livelihoods from Deville’s income being in on the whole game.
There’s been plenty of writing about how the power structure is the problem and movies made about this very issue – The Invitation is almost a carbon copy of 2019’s Ready or Not – but what sets The Invitation apart is cinematographer Autumn Eakin’s photography. This movie is an ode to black. There’s colors outside, there’s a bit of gold where there needs to be contrast, but for the most part, every frame is a painting of pitch, jet and charcoal. Tom Elkins’ editing is mostly kept slow, so viewers have time to pick out what might otherwise be hard to see.
There are plenty of desaturated movies, that’s not The Invitation – these are vivid, thought-out compositions in black, strong black, not another color weakened into something resembling blackness. At its most intense, the frame seems imposing and deadly as you search it for dangerous details.
Just about every frame of The Invitation ranges from delectable to gorgeous. The only thing that looks bad is a spot of obvious CGI fire in the climax – but then, some other fires appear to be real. Real flames, much like squibs and real bloodshed, have become an extreme rarity in the digital era.
At $10 million, The Invitation is one of the cheapest movies to release this year, but it’s one of the best-looking, and that’s not a coincidence. Hollywood has spent the past two decades moving toward business practices that are more flexible and give producers more control, but more expensive and deliver an inferior final result. There’s always been room for cheap gems like The Invitation in low-leverage release dates, and that’s going to become even more pronounced as bigger-budget movies look worse and worse by design.
The intersections of gender and race with class are rolled in so gracefully as to almost avoid notice. Jackson’s mixed racial background is made explicit in her conversation with Alexander about her DNA results, and more than that, he tells her the interracial affair with her grandparent is why her branch of the family was sent to the New World. She goes from being surrounded by black faces of coworkers to the white faces at Deville’s manor.
There’s also obvious overtones of gender inequity – in this telling, Dracula is a pervy old man who is literally kept young by his trio of wives – but calls the most attention to itself in the spa scene, when Jackson’s manicure session is a horrible roar of scraping and snapping. In an otherwise straightforward vampire movie, the sounds of this scene are the most expressionistic and surreal moment, and are even presented as the key spectacle of The Invitation’s trailers.
There’s an intense anxiety about women used as ornaments and as currency, something that comes across honestly from female screenwriter Blair Butler, penning her first feature film, and director Jessica M. Thompson, calling the shots on her second.
The Invitation is cool as hell, and since this is a tiny release with almost no promotional material, the only way to even glance at it is buying a ticket, and that’s just fine, since a bigger screen is recommended here anyway.