Not to be confused with Karyn Kusama’s 2015 “guess who’s culting to dinner” chiller The Invitation, the 2022 The Invitation—which plays more like an aborted Vampire Diaries spin-off—does share some similarities with Kusama’s superior film: both center around a black woman and a white man in an interracial relationship and…well, that’s about it.
This time around, Nathalie Emmanuel is the Black Girl Standing, the British actress playing an American named Evie who’s working for a catering company to pay for grad school while somehow affording to live alone in the sort of spacious, picture window-laden New York loft that Hollywood deems “slumming.” (Furthering the “shit you see only in movies” narrative, she has a pottery wheel in her apartment.) In search of a familial connection following the death of her terminally ill mother, she submits her DNA to a genetic testing service and is contacted by her long-lost British cousin Oliver (Hugh Skinner), who looks like he was born wearing an ascot. He invites her to England to meet a bunch of (white) relatives she never knew existed who are gathering for the wedding of another cousin. Ignoring the red flag that Oliver is the sort of person who invites randos to someone else’s wedding, she readily accepts.
Evie stays at the estate where the wedding is to take place, New Carfax Abbey (The literary minds among you will recognize this name as the place where Dracula gets his used cars.), owned by wealthy family friend Walter DeVille (Thomas Doherty). She’s told that there’s no mirror in her room because it was broken and, well, you know where this is headed. The movie poster for The Invitation is coy about the vampire storyline, but the trailer—which basically SHOWS THE ENTIRE MOVIE—is pretty obvious, so it shouldn’t be much of a spoiler to say that these people “suck.”
The film is attractive but sterile in a tame, CW made-for-TV sort of way that limits its impact, but its racial angle helps separate it from the vampiric pack. Evie’s race isn’t shied away from. In fact, upon meeting her, Oliver declares, a bit too gleefully, that she’s “part of the family scandal,” in which her grandfather was the love child of a well-to-do white woman and a black footman.
However, what I found most interesting in The Invitation is not how black Evie is, but rather how white she is in comparison to her black bestie, Grace (Courtney Taylor). While black leads in mainstream horror are becoming increasingly common, it’s still pretty rare to see a black lead with a black sidekick, as that amount of melanin pushes the black quotient dangerously close to “urban” territory for studio tastes. Even though Evie and Grace are both black, though, Grace very much conforms to the archetypical black sidekick norms. Compared to the staid, reclusive, borderline celibate Evie, Grace is a bold, “sassy” wisecracker and doler of advice with a more robust sex drive and a greater propensity for profanity. If she isn’t warning Evie about the dangers of being around a bunch of strange white people, she’s egging her on to “snog” a rich one.
Grace isn’t a gratuitous, offensive stereotype, but she’s certainly emblematic of a crude cinematic “type” often designated for black characters—especially black women. Notably, she’s also darker skinned—in that sense, literally “blacker”—than Evie, reflective of an ongoing pattern of light-skinned black female leads in mainstream horror (which, just in the past couple of years, includes the Escape Room films, Barbarian, the Fear Street trilogy, Run Sweetheart Run, Choose or Die, She Will, Terror Train, Sissy, There’s Someone Inside Your House, Sound of Violence and Blood Moon) that, taken as a whole, smacks of colorism.
Beyond the racial aspect, The Invitation is forgettable fluff, but it’s passable entertainment for those with a PG-13 vampire jones. It’s got solid direction, acting and production values and features a practical moral for black people about the dangers of digging into the white branches of your family tree; for many, vampires aren’t the worst thing you’ll find.