With new vampire flick The Invitation, director Jessica M. Thompson wanted to shake things up. Bloodsuckers, unlike monsters such as werewolves, zombies, and demons, have been depicted in a whole bunch of different ways on screen; from Twilight‘s sparkly, brooding Romeo-types and Other Lovers Left Alive‘s sunglass-wearing hipsters, to 30 Days of Night‘s vicious undead and Nosferatu’s creepy creature. In short, the filmmaker – who worked on the script with writer Blair Butler – knew she had her work cut out if she was going to offer up something fresh.
“To me, it’s the origin story of the Bride of Dracula, and I hadn’t seen that done before,” she tells Total Film while recalling her first read of the movie’s original treatment. “Cronos, Guillermo del Toro’s film, was one of my early favourites and I loved that because it was a vampire film with a lot of heart. That’s typically what I look for in my horror, whether it’s like Train to Busan, which is one of the most emotional films in the world, and I gravitated towards that in the script.”
Fronted by Fast & Furious star Nathalie Emmanuel, the Hammer-esque supernatural horror, which blends sex and scares and takes inspiration from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, centers on Evie, a 30-something San Franciscan who discovers she has relatives in England following the death of her mother. In the city, she meets up with a visiting cousin, who mysteriously invites her across the pond to a wedding in the UK – an offer she eventually accepts. Upon her arrival at the event’s grand Gothic venue, Evie soon sparks with “close family friend” Walter DeVille (Thomas Doherty) but the pair’s fling takes a dark turn when she learns the real reason behind his generous hospitality.
“I really wanted this romance between Walt and Evie to be fully formed,” explains Thompson. “To be fully believable, and for these characters to have a full arc. I love that blend of genres, you know, between romance and horror? And I love when filmmakers explore that, so that was my aim, too.”
Re-vamping the genre
In her efforts to avoid imitating things that came before, Thompson “watched every single vampire film ever made” before The Invitation started shooting in Hungary. “I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t subconsciously – because I’m such a cinephile, every filmmaker should be – absorbing things,” she says. “Francis Ford Coppola’s very campy Dracula, for example, even though I love that, I knew I’d be far from that one because it’s so heightened, and my style of directing is much more grounded.”
Despite being keen not to indulge existing vampire movie tropes, Thompson understands her film will be likened to other genre titles. When the movie’s spoiler-heavy trailer landed online earlier this year, it immediately drew comparisons to You’re Next and Ready or Not, two films that similarly see their female protagonists forced to fight for their survival after being thrust into a nightmare during a trip to some lavish manor house.
“This amalgamation of all the films I’ve watched since I was a child contributes to my work,” notes Thompson. “I’m a very actor-focused director, very character driven, so to me, it’s all about working with the actors and getting those believable performances out of them.”
And of course, there were some horror staples that Thompson was keen to include; most notably, the jumpscare. In one particular scene, a couple of Walt’s maids are ordered into the basement to fetch something, and are ambushed by a couple of the film’s fanged foes. The Invitation is a relatively slow burn, so it’s a shocking moment that deepens the mystery and amplifies its sense of dread. Many directors have admitted that jumpscares are hard to execute, while film buffs have often argued that they’re nothing more than a cheap trick to frighten viewers. Thompson, however, “found them really fun” to craft.
“I mean, I love building tension,” she continues. “Something I did do, leading up to shooting the film, is analyse a lot of jumpscares to see what works and what doesn’t work about them. I kind of put it down to a science and I started to be like, ‘Oh, okay, so pushing and pulling out, having the camera discover the creature versus cutting to it?’ Things like that. Everyone’s different, obviously, but Lights Out was one that really freaked me out. It was so simple, right? They repeated the same thing throughout the whole film, but it still scared me half to death. So yeah, I wanted to use a lot of those techniques.
“I looked at [The Haunting of Hill House and Doctor Sleep director] Mike Flanagan’s work as well, where you think there’s a monster in the corner, but you might be imagining it? And to be honest, me and my editor Tom [Elkins], we found a lot of the jumpscares during the editing process as well, and it was really fun to figure those out. Often, to me, the best way to direct those is to make sure you’ve covered it from every angle, and then you get to play in the edit room.”
Creating a coven
Much like how the reader discovers things through the letters and notes of various different characters in Stoker’s Dracula, The Invitation sees us learn what’s really going on at the DeVille’s as Evie does. For that reason, Thompson knew how important it was to find the right lead actor to anchor the story. Emmanuel, it turns out, was top of her list.
“Natalie is just an incredible leader. It’s so lovely to work with someone who’s number one on the call sheet who takes that responsibility so seriously,” Thompson recalls. “She’s such a beacon of empathy and love for everybody on set, and works so, so, so hard. Filming a horror film is particularly difficult for actors because you’re constantly screaming and crying; it can often be hard on your heart and your emotions and things like that, and she was such a champion. She deserves to be leading a film at this point in her career. She’s so wildly talented.”
While Emmanuel was locked in early, Doherty was a late addition to the cast. Initially, Garrett Hedlund was lined up to play Walt, but he pulled out of the project in late 2021, as Doherty – best known then for his role in the Gossip Girl reboot – stepped in to replace him. Now that the film is complete, Thompson can’t imagine anyone else portraying the alluring aristocrat. “He’s perfect. Thomas auditioned for the role and I have to be honest, I had not heard of him before and I was blown away,” the filmmaker admits. “It was really like he was put on Earth to play this role. I think he absolutely embodied and encapsulated all the layers of it, because obviously, there’s multiple sides to Walter’s character. I was well impressed and it was such a joy to work with him as well. I think people will be hearing his name lots and lots.”
Fangs and feminism
In Jordan Peele’s thriller Get Out, another film The Invitation has been associated with on social media, Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris gets more than he bargained for when he visits his white girlfriend Rose’s parents for the weekend. He communicates with his pal Rod (Lil Rel Howery), a fellow Black man, via FaceTime when he starts noticing strange things about Rose’s loved ones; much like how Evie frequently vents to her friend Grace (Courtney Taylor) – highlighting her isolation from the predominantly white guests. When asked whether there was ever a version of the film that leant into race more heavily, Thompson explains that while The Invitation’s commentary isn’t anywhere near as explicit as Get Out’s, Evie being a woman of colour isn’t a coincidence.
“To me, it’s always entertainment first but I really like to say something with my films and TV shows, that’s important to me. This film is more about the patriarchy and a woman rising against that. I also wanted to touch on how other women can be complicit in upholding the patriarchy,” she says, referencing characters like Viktoria (Stephanie Corneliussen), who tries to cosy up to Evie before revealing her ulterior motives.
“It was important to me to make Evie a woman of colour, because I feel that women of colour have been the most disenfranchised by the patriarchal system. That was the commentary there. The film does explore that, but in a subtle way. And I sometimes think when the message is subtle, it can reach more people.”
The Invitation releases exclusively in US and UK cinemas on August 26. For more, check out our roundup of the most exciting upcoming movies heading our way in 2022 and beyond.