The Absent Bride: Fear and Loathing in The Invitation (2022)

Or why The Invitation’s unwarranted poor reviews reflect a history of dismissal.

The Invitation was originally titled The Bride, reminiscent of Dracula and Frankenstein’s Brides. Dracula’s Brides, in particular, have a long-standing tradition in vampire media. Even vampire women in non-Dracula projects are routinely referred to as a Bride of Dracula. Often, male vampires are a descendant of Dracula, whereas female vampires are married to him. Creepy as that is, it’s perhaps more disturbing that these women are typically given the exact same characteristics, regardless of decade or name. It doesn’t matter who the woman was prior to becoming a vampire, as they all transition into these interchangeable femme fatale types, interchangeable even within their narratives, as Dracula is typically shown in the process of replacing dead wives. I’ve highlighted this dismissal in a previous article, where I discussed how vampire media manages its powerful women, even in the very language used to describe them, especially the term Bride. Not wife, not even partner, Bride. The term gets weighed with all kinds of symbolic and political implications, something The Invitation explores at length. So, if being The Bride is central to the film’s commentary, why change its title?

“I want someone to see me for who I truly am.”

Rumour is, the film’s title was changed to The Invitation after an early test screening, where some male reviewers argued that The Bride wasn’t a strong enough title, causing the studio to worry that the title would put-off male viewers in broader distribution. That unfortunately backfired, as reviewers are currently critiquing The Invitation because there is already a well-reviewed 2015 horror film with the same name, directed by Karyn Kiyoko Kusama. While I have not seen this 2015 film yet, I think it’s unfair to compare two films that share nothing other than a title and being directed by a woman. I was confused when I first saw this response, especially because it’s quite common for films to share names, especially horror films. Think about how many movies are just referred to as Dracula or Dracula and some add on. It happens all the time, often because studio pressure and perceived marketability. And yet, even before seeing 2022’s The Invitation, people began leaving these vicious reviews comparing it to a totally different film, all because director Jessica M. Thompson was forced to change the name. Apparently, The Bride just isn’t strong enough.

More often than not, when a film is helmed by a female director, writer, actresses, or even marketed slightly more to female audiences, the IMDb review section takes on a near Lovecraftian insanity. Before I saw The Invitation, and I’ll detail my appreciation for it shortly, I had trouble finding reviews, and so I turned to IMDb. Bad idea really. There were male reviewers everywhere talking about how it was a waste of time, how it was too woke, how it was poorly made, how it relied too heavily on the feminism trope, and yes, they did call feminism a trope. Unsurprisingly, none of these things are true, they’re not even valid criticisms. No examples were given, no real critical thought, several just sounded like someone having a panic attack on the internet. As much as I would prefer to just talk about how awesome this film is, and why you should see it, this reception needs to be stated. One detail I noticed repeatedly were people arguing about the film’s title, even though my explanation above was listed, at the time, as the first trivia post on IMDb’s page. I mention this because it extends the behaviour critiqued in the film, much like other female driven horror films such as Jennifer’s Body (2009), also directed by Kusama, and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), directed by Ana Lily Amirpour. Both of these films complicate certain well-established and sexist characteristics in horror, only to find those characteristics in their fraught reception, mainly Jennifer’s Body.

These reviewers often go the extra mile by critiquing audiences who enjoy these sorts of films, usually women. One I saw even implied that the only people who would enjoy The Invitation would be sad Twilight (directed by Catherine Hardwicke) or Hallmark fans, both of whom are stereotypically female. It’s not enough that these disproportionately male reviewers dislike the film, they have to label it as trash, they call it a waste, and in doing so, they utterly dismiss its existence and its fans. It’s difficult to read these reviews, but worse to remember that these are real people, they might have sat beside you at a movie theatre. They would much rather an R rated horror film where people, mainly women, get ripped apart, because that is what horror has featured for decades. It doesn’t matter that The Invitation is a clever reworking of well-established Gothic tropes, those which can be a bit dull, especially the female protagonists found in Ann Radcliffe’s late 18th century novels. It doesn’t matter that these Gothic works are generally bloodless, and instead focus on building towards something the reader will find inevitable. To them, The Invitation’s focus on race, gender, class, and the horror genre as a whole either doesn’t matter or isn’t developed enough.

I know there are female reviewers who dislike the film, and for good reason, but I have found that the more aggressive the review, the more likely it’s from a male user who has made it abundantly clear that they don’t care, they like horror the way it is or in a specific way. I am not entirely sure some of these reviewers actually enjoy movies, given how much they dislike the movies they review. Since they have made fun of audiences who enjoy films like this, I will make fun of their hysterical (and I use that word knowing it’s gendered history) ramblings on the internet, because they do have consequences. When a review like this is the first thing you see on an IMDb page, you begin to rethink seeing the film. It has such a low review, you think, maybe I should just wait until its streaming. But then the box office numbers reflect that, and studios are less willing to make films like these, or give stories and perspectives like this a chance, and so the fanboys get what they want, not that they ever haven’t.

“Where did you get the bat?”
“It’s ironic, isn’t it? Vampire. Bat.”

The Invitation is interesting, well designed, suspenseful, and it’s talking about how women are often dismissed in vampire works and beyond, the very thing happening in this reception. Its protagonist, Evie, has to fight against literal vampires, but also the very conventions surrounding vampires. It’s why Dracula isn’t her only enemy, she also fights against Mina and Jonathan Harker, who are traditionally the heroes in Dracula. The only character who appears in both Dracula and The Invitation, and isn’t fighting against Evie, is Lucy, which marks a significant shift. Lucy is the ultimate femme fatale vampire, and not just in Bram Stoker’s novel, in most film adaptations. She is Mina’s best friend, her sister even, who gets turned/punished/killed because of her promiscuity. Not so in The Invitation, as although she is a vampire, she ultimately rejects her ‘Master’, kills herself and the other female vampire, Viktoria, all so Evie can turn back into a human. It starkly contrasts her traditional role, as here, she is acting like human Lucy, not an interchangeable Bride. That is crucial, because while Walter Deville (later revealed to be Dracula) believes that his wives are interchangeable, as he is replacing his dead wife with someone related to her, characters like Lucy and Evie are actively rejecting this dismissive system. The very system which has likewise governed vampire media for decades.

“Three Brides, three is the magic number.”

Evie is an artist from New York, whose mother recently passed away from cancer. She works as a server for a catering business, something which comes up repeatedly when she travels to England and makes friends with the serving staff. Being a server means Evie is constantly harassed, often sexually, and her boss dismisses her complaints, noting that other women would love to have her job. We see this dismissal continue with the female staff at the manor, as each is given a maid’s uniform with an embroidered number, reducing their identity to that number. That reduction continues throughout the film, as we eventually learn that Evie has been brought to the manor to replace her great-grandmother, who recently killed herself, possibly around the same time as Evie’s mother. The sinister Walter must have three wives, one from each of the families who serve him, and so the only name that matters to him is their last name, which they lose after getting married and becoming one of his three.

Dracula always has three wives in vampire movies, and if he manages to get a fourth, like Mina or Lucy, these women are the first to die (Lucy) or are saved (Mina). The Invitation argues that there is a reason for the three wives, as having three wives somehow ensures that Walter/Dracula retains his power and immortality. No more, no less. The women in the film are thus divided into two dismissive roles, some as servants, others as wives. There are no other labels permitted in the film, as every woman we encounter is one or the other. What’s interesting is that the abuse and dismissal perpetrated at the manor exists outside of it, given the conversation between Evie and Grace about how many men try to grab them during their shift. This comparison implies that Walter is simply an extreme version of real-world abuse, going further than just assaulting to actually murdering women who are only identified with a number.

The Invitation argues that female solidarity is the only way to dismantle these abusive figures and conventions. Mrs. Swift warns Evie, and Lucy stops Viktoria from killing Evie, which allows Evie and a server to escape. I unfortunately cannot find the server’s name on any database, but I believe she is given one in the film, as Evie helps her during the wedding ceremony. The biggest support Evie receives, however, is from her friend Grace, who she has multiple phone calls with. Grace is one of the earliest red flag alerts Evie has, as she is this outside voice telling Evie that there is something strange about the situation. Everyone else, at least to begin with, is actively working against Evie, and although Grace doesn’t quite understand what is happening, she is there to support. We see this at the end of the film, as Grace has flown to England to maim (maybe kill) Evie’s cousin, Oliver, no questions asked. It’s crucial to note that the reason Evie is so willing to meet these strangers is because her mother died, and she is looking for a family. The one she finds has no female relatives other than two rather daunting women, including Lucy. Lucy is looking for a family too, she says as much to Evie on multiple occasions. Both women are looking for solidarity, something Lucy has never had, as her family sold her to a vampire and Viktoria has always been a vicious and toxic sister. Only by rejecting these systems do Evie and Lucy find that solidarity, as Viktoria is suddenly kind to Lucy in these last moments, and Lucy is able to help Evie escape with the server.

“You make jealously look radiant, Viktoria.”

Viktoria is a stereotypical femme fatale Bride, but there is something else happening with her characterization. She is the oldest of Walter’s wives, I believe she has been with him for around five hundred years. According to Stoker’s text, that would make her one of the Brides Jonathan encounters, before Dracula meets Lucy. It’s clear, implied in Stoker’s text, that there is a hierarchy to Dracula’s wives, one which Lucy has just accepted and hopes Evie will accept too. Except she doesn’t, and so we get this strange relationship between Viktoria and Evie, where Viktoria plays games and scares her in the middle of the night. There is some indication that Viktoria is like a shrike, the birds who stalk the bars around Evie’s window to impale their prey, much like a vampire impales and a vampire hunter stabs. She is meticulous, clever, and hungry. That incidentally makes her the most honest figure in the household, as her taunts cause Evie to sneak into Walter’s study to learn more, she even drinks blood from Evie’s finger. Evie would never have suspected anything had it not been for Viktoria, so why do this? You could read Viktoria as a jealous woman, worried that Evie will become Walter’s favourite, or even that she is testing and playing with Evie, but there is a more compelling reading. She is warning Evie, showing her truthfully what will happen, just like the shrike hitting her window. Evie almost leaves because of the spa incident, and then later, when Viktoria locks her in a coffin and Mrs. Swift helps her escape, Viktoria is not shown tracking her down. They are all caught in this horrific system, and after five hundred years, Viktoria has no concept of anything outside of it. That is where she and Lucy differ, why Lucy sees how horrific they are, even tries to sugar-coat the trauma to Evie. It’s also why when Lucy finally fights back against Viktoria, and impales both of them, Viktoria accept this and her, and the two come together, literally and metaphorically.

“That is the whitest man I’ve ever seen.”

Evie is a Black woman trapped in a mansion with a group of violent white men. The only reason her extended family act happy to see her is because they are marrying her off to save themselves. They are racist throughout the film, and while that starts off subtly, it becomes increasingly loud as Evie fights against them, and then in the finale, it’s outright. They begin shouting the things they have been implying: that Evie is lucky to be there, that she is lesser than them, lesser than the other wives. Their gut impulse is to be racist, sexist, and classist, not mention violent, as Walter is. The film goes on to suggest that vampire lore and media are another form of racism and sexism leveled at Evie, as just as Evie is fighting against human and vampire monsters, both of which share characteristics, the film is fighting against these conventions in film, both vampire and non-vampire films alike. Evie’s victory at the end of the film illustrates that she is utterly dismissing these figures, just as the film dismisses their frequent presence and gaze in media. It’s not the first time a vampire film has addressed racism or used a vampire as a criticism or representation of racism. There’s the Blacula from 1972, where Dracula is a racist figure, also Vampires vs. the Bronx from 2020, where vampires represent old racist values and violence that still exists. There are also countless discussions on the prevalent fear of foreigners found throughout Dracula. Unlike these other projects, however, The Invitation focuses on a Black woman’s perspective.

Walter believes in a strict hierarchal order which suppresses women, an order we often see in vampire films, and one which unfortunately reflects the ongoing struggle female and non-binary filmmakers have historically faced in creating and in reception. I’ve mentioned this previously, but Dracula’s Brides are just as powerful as he is, but that is rarely depicted, and they are always under his name. Lucy mentions in The Invitation that their role is to serve Walter/Dracula, even though they hold as much power as he does, as shown by Evie defeating him. While Evie dismantles that rhetoric by killing Walter/Dracula at the end of the film, she has been doing this throughout the film. Evie refuses to go along with everything happening. After being insulted by Mr. Fields (as in Renfield), and receiving a slight apology from Walter, Evie refuses to accept it. It did insult her, and she is not willing to let that go just because it’s inconvenient. In one of the film’s most tense sequences, the spa scene, Evie walks away from Viktoria’s rude mind games, rather than just accepting them as Lucy does. Returning briefly to those reviews, I did see one which had particular anger towards this scene, calling it the only horror sequence in the film. It’s interesting that this scene is stereotypically female, as it’s a bachelorette event, they are doing nails, only women are in the scene. That was unacceptable to this reviewer, because it’s one of the few scenes to include blood, yet that bloodshed isn’t scary, extreme, or masculine. Complaining about that sort of misses the point of the film. The horror is in the implication, not just the bloodshed.

“Look at us, a couple of orphans. Dickens would have field day.”

The Invitation continues the long tradition of renaming and reworking Stoker’s characters. We see this in plenty of vampire films, as Lucy and Mina often switch characteristics, or are even combined into a new character. It also happens with Jonathan, to a degree, as he tends to be a combination of Dr. Seward, Arthur Holmwood, and Quincey Morris in these projects. He is not as interchangeable though, as although he is a condensed character in light of all Dracula projects, these women are interchangeable within a single narrative. The Invitation differs slightly, as Jonathan and Mina are Walter’s old servants who Evie encounters in a nearby village, Renfield is no longer a bug eating creep but a creepy manservant, and Lucy is a vampire instead a human who gets turned into a vampire during the film. It’s almost as though the events of Stoker’s Dracula are warped, which is funny because Evie seems to know about Dracula. When Walter tells her that he is the “son of the dragon”, she knows who that is, implying that Stoker’s work exists in this world, but got the facts wrong. These vampires appear during the day but also have coffins, for some unexplained reason. The blood transaction is also different, as here it is heavily ritualized with a mock wedding, where a Bride drinks Walter’s blood, turns into a vampire, and then gets bitten by Walter. It’s only after Walter bites her that order is restored, and he and the other Brides retain their immortality.

Walter’s pageantry implies that the ‘wedding’ is in spite of Christianity, an inversed ‘till death do you part’. Rather than just biting Evie the moment she arrives, Walter gets to know her first, even tricks her into agreeing to marry him, playing it off as a joke. The wedding might be perverse, but in order to be perverse, it must look vaguely wedding like. Compare that to other vampire films, where Dracula turns his Brides with little ceremony other than blood sharing. The Invitation features the opposite, as there is relatively little blood, like the drop on Evie’s face and nail, we don’t even see the servant’s neck being slit open at dinner. The screen gets blurry as they drain her into a serving bowl, suggesting that because this violence is so traumatic, we can’t just watch it. The camera actually takes on Evie’s emotional state here, as she has no idea what is going on, and everything is suddenly sinister. The vamps have these long dirty nails and teeth that weren’t present before, and so the camerawork changes to reflect that sudden shift.

I would have loved this movie even more if I hadn’t known it would include vampires, which was unfortunately was shown in the trailer. The twist would have been that much stronger if the reveal only happened during the dinner scene. That said, I think it’s significant that the film marketed itself as a return to 1960’s The Brides of Dracula, a film which also reworks vampire mythology by having anyone bitten turn, having Van Helsing cure himself with holy water and fire, and featuring a queer coded villain in a more obvious way than previous vampire films. Had The Invitation been called The Bride, this comparison would have been more apparent, as it’s not just talking about Dracula’s Brides in Stoker, but the role of Brides in horror, what that term implies, and its relation to The Brides of Dracula film. Notably, Van Helsing does not make an appearance in The Invitation, as he does in The Brides of Dracula, which means that Evie is the only vampire killer in the film. She saves not only herself but the server, and hypothetically Lucy and Viktoria’s souls, if we are going old school with morals.

“Tonight, we celebrate our eternal bond.”

If The Brides of Dracula is afraid of what women could do as vampires, The Invitation invites you to see what that fear looks like. How racist, sexist, violent, and classist these powerful men immediately become when faced with even the slightest inconvenience. Evie might just be fighting for her life, but that alone terrifies them. When she tricks her family and Walter by playing along with the ceremony, she uses their expectations against them, the very thing the characters in The Brides of Dracula worry about but never state. It’s the fear that a woman could become a vampire, play along with these conventions, and then dismantle them from within. We’ve seen this anxiety in a ton of foundational horror media. Sometimes the works themselves are worried about it, other times the author is gesturing to insecure male characters and does so to comment on that fear. Take Victor Frankenstein as an example, as he builds a Bride for his creation but destroys it before it comes to life, because he is terrified of what that Bride could be capable of, should it be stronger or more perverse than his living male Creature. Mary Shelley’s work doesn’t argue this, it’s character Victor does, unlike this 1960’s vampire film, whose narrative is governed by that fear, but never stated. The women in this 1960 film are never given the opportunity to become threats of their own, but the threat of them becoming powerful is apparent. The film (along with other vampire Bride films) is constantly trying to explain why these powerful women can’t be as powerful as men, let alone more powerful. The Invitation highlights that treatment by showing exactly what a powerful woman can do, both as a human and vampire, which makes it a significant reworking of vampire cinema and toxic film culture.

If reception has taught me anything, for this film or any other female directed/created film, it’s that certain viewers feel personally affronted by new perspectives which trouble male gaze. It’s the same type of fear explored in these vampire films, or any horror film which features either a powerful woman or the threat of one. Is The Invitation the most nuanced version of that discussion? Perhaps not, but I don’t think nuance is necessary here. Horror films aren’t known for subtly in every facet, just in a few. The Invitation asks its viewer to rethink vampire media, and the language used therein. While I prefer its earlier title, I think reading the film as invitation is helpful, because the title both refers to the invitation Evie receives, and its invitation to the viewer. As Evie slowly realizes that this Gothic fantasy holds ancient bonds that she has seemingly no control over, so too does the viewer become more aware of the similar gaze vampire, horror, and media in general hold against women. The only thing to do is be aware and bite back, just as Evie does.

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