Starring Game of Thrones alum Nathalie Emmanuel and Gossip Girl star Thomas Doherty, The Invitation is a seductive thriller that has a little bit of everything. A stunning Gothic setting is the perfect place for the ill-fated romantic storyline, as this alluring romance gives way to sheer horror. In fact, the film does a great job of balancing the fantastical nature of its supernatural elements with serious horror sequences to ensure that it does not feel satirical or like a parody of vampire fiction. Nathalie Emmanuel breathes life into the film with its cast of stuffy and polite characters, providing a modern heroine that doesn’t feel like an overdone pander to younger audiences.
For these and many more reasons, Netflix subscribers have propelled the film to popularity on the streaming platform. Despite the success the film has seen on Netflix, The Invitation was anything but a box-office success. Grossing only $33.7 million worldwide, the film was furthermore lambasted by critics as a predictable and unoriginal film. How did a film that performed so poorly in its theatrical run manage to find success later on through its Netflix release?
Update October 19, 2023: It has been a year since The Invitation was released in theaters, and in honor of Halloween, look back at why the film finally became a hit when it hit Netflix and what it means for the future of horror films.
Nathalie Emmanuel stars as Evie Jackson Alexander, an MBA student in New York City who has lost both of her beloved parents. Burdened by the loneliness of no longer having a nuclear family of her own, Evie gives in to the temptation of partaking in a DNA-based ancestry service in order to find unknown relatives. She discovers a cousin named Oliver, who promptly and enthusiastically asks to meet her.
He invites her into the family with open arms, inviting her to join the family in England for a wedding. Despite her best friend’s suspicions, Evie tags along in the hopes of finding a familial connection. The entire Alexander family is eager to welcome her into the fold, noting that they finally have a female Alexander among the brood of men and boys.
As she adjusts to the foreign world of the British aristocracy, she is increasingly drawn to the Lord of New Carfax Abbey, Walter De Ville (Thomas Doherty). He is a devastatingly handsome and mysterious young man whose charms quickly disarm the unsuspecting Evie.
As the upcoming nuptials approach, it becomes increasingly odd to Evie that she has yet to meet the bride and groom. She furthermore discovers that Walter De Ville had researched her extensively before her arrival, her concerns with which were assuaged by his explanation and a steamy encounter. Shortly thereafter, Evie is blindsided by the announcement that she, in fact, is the bride-to-be, with Walter as her groom. Lucy and Viktoria, the bridesmaids, turn out to be two of Walter’s wives, with the threesome revealed to be vampires that feed on the house staff.
The Alexanders are one of three families that have made a deal with Walter De Ville, who implies he is Dracula himself, to provide brides for him in exchange for wealth and protection. The brides become vampires like him after completing the marriage ritual, with Evie’s great-grandmother Emmaline having been the most recent Alexander bride. Their need to provide a new bride upon Emmaline’s suicide turns out to be the duplicitous motivation behind the Alexander family’s acceptance of Evie, the granddaughter of Emmaline’s secret lovechild.
In order to escape, Evie goes through with the wedding ceremony in order to absorb Walter’s vampiric powers, after which she kills her captor and husband. The film wraps up with a scene of Evie and her best friend stalking Oliver, planning to exact revenge on her treacherous cousin.
Nathalie Emmanuel shines as the film’s beating heart, with the likability of her character keeping the audience engaged with her story. She does not succumb to the damsel in distress tropes that films often force upon the human love interest of a vampire, nor does it overcorrect by making her a one-dimensional anomaly. Emmanuel’s Evie feels like a real person. Perhaps more could be said of the chemistry between Emmanuel and Doherty as Evie and Walter; there isn’t a lack of chemistry, but it lacks the sort of palpable tension that can set a film apart.
The film boasts strong cinematography, good casting, and a lovely set design. The biggest drawback of the movie may just be the dialogue, which fails to capture the mood and essence of the film. It feels just a bit too casual, preventing viewers from fully suspending their disbelief in a story of ancient vampires and occult family traditions. Had the script better suited the visuals and capabilities of such a strong cast, The Invitation could have stood alongside Ready or Not as a gripping and well-balanced thriller with both wit and poise.
Regardless, the at-home audience does not seem to care too much about what could have been. Peaking as the third most watched film on American Netflix the week it dropped, The Invitation would seem to have successfully given viewers 104 minutes of enjoyable escapism.
In a market where films are increasingly released directly to streaming platforms as opposed to enjoying traditional theatrical releases, the decision to release The Invitation in theaters was its biggest benefit. Many studies have found the biggest movies on various streaming platforms are not movies made specifically for the platform but instead movies that first played in theaters.
While it may have disappointed the box office, the sheer fact that it was a movie that played in theaters made it seem important and worthy of people’s time and attention. It had more weight and legitimacy than one of the hundreds of Netflix Originals that are released every week that get lost in the shuffle, even if Netflix is making good movies.
While audiences are less likely to go to the theaters for movies that are not big blockbusters, horror films have been doing well at the box office. Even so, many audiences have adapted to the wait-and-watch-on streaming approach if it is not a big-budget film because they have been conditioned to treat other films as not big-screen worthy.
The COVID-19 pandemic drastically altered audiences viewing habits, as many films just became available on streaming. With movie prices seemingly so expensive and many already paying for a streaming service, they see it as a more financially viable option. The Invitation is one of many films that audiences likely saw a trailer for and decided to wait for streaming to watch it.
Blumhouse’s business model of micro-budget horror has proven to be the way to go. That way, he keeps experimenting with new filmmakers with fresh stories to tell, but he separates them from surefire approaches by relatively known filmmakers whose presence would surely make a change. This division is best represented in theatrical releases vs. straight-to-VOD films. As the previous point stated, The Invitation was probably always going to do better on a smaller screen from the get-go.
However, this conversation isn’t exactly pleasant. Filmmakers will always aim to have their films displayed in theaters across the world because that’s the way they shot them, and that was their original intention. At the same time, the cinema industry radically changed after the COVID-19 pandemic, and studios had to see their models get modified in favor of releases of a different scale. Theatrical runs remained, but they were shorter.
Horror has a new place. But it’s not a place horror should stay in exclusively. If films like The Invitation do great on Netflix, it’s time to celebrate. This doesn’t mean smaller films should automatically go to streaming. Think of horror and its inherent relationship with home media like VHS. If that worked, why shouldn’t modern horror work the same way?