Director Jessica M. Thompson is making her mark in horror filmmaking with The Invitation (now in theatres), starring Nathalie Emmanuel and Thomas Doherty, an eerie, feminist vampire tale that is fun and tense storytelling, but is ultimately hinged on the concept of exposing and “smashing” the patriarchy.
“Women filmmakers can tend to sometimes be really pigeonholed into certain things, so I didn't want to get pigeonholed into drama, even though I love drama,...I really want to get into genre, I really wanted to make a horror,” Thompson told Yahoo Canada.
“[Genre] reaches more people and has a broader audience, so therefore, you have the ability to kind of make social commentary without knocking people over the head with it.”
Essentially loneliness is what starts Evie (Nathalie Emmanuel) off on her path. After recently losing her mother, Evie takes a DNA test leading her to a long-lost, rich family in England. When she gets invited to a wedding by this newfound family, what seemed like a generous offer turns far more sinister, eventually being revealed that their intentions are based in continuing this prestigious bloodline.
“I was sent the script by Sony in January 2020 and I read it really quickly, it was a page turner,” Thompson said. “I was really drawn to this idea of the origin story of a bride of Dracula set in the modern world and I felt like that hadn't been told before.”
“I wanted to rewrite some of the things, I wanted to create a bit more of a blend of subverting the romance, so I kind of added more to the romance, I really love mashing genres... I kind of pitched them ideas and literally, it was March 15, 2020, just the day before the world shut down. I was the last meeting that Sony took, the last meeting I had in person with anybody.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic became a never-before-seen hurdle, Thompson says it allowed her to really, “spend time with the script” before production started in 2021.
'It's all about smashing the patriarchy in this film'
Aesthetically, The Invitation looks like everything you could want from a gothic, vampire movie, with the message of the film really focused on patriarchal issues.
“To me, it's all about smashing the patriarchy in this film and it's about the old world order, and how it's upheld not just by men, but by women who become complacent, and you could argue are victims of that, but also end up supporting it,” Jessica M. Thompson said. “That was really important to show because I think we all can point fingers at the bad men in the world, but there are also a lot of women that prop those men up.”
“I felt like exploring that in this kind of old [hierarchy], these bloodlines,...getting into the story through DNA, through blood, I think is a really unique motif. It just shows, what does blood mean? What does that heritage mean and can you break tradition? I argue, yes. Whenever somebody says, ‘well it's tradition,’ I'm like, ‘well that doesn't mean that it's good.’ That doesn't mean that it's healthy for society. Let's examine those old world orders. We've done it in vampires, but you could apply it to corporations, political structures.”
Thompson also is really exploring this idea of men using women for property, something she highlights audiences have really responded to already.
“There's that moment, which I love, that I've seen with a couple of audiences now, and when her great uncle...gives her a kiss on the cheek at the wedding, the whole audience goes ‘ew,’” Thompson said. “I just love that it's working, the audience understands this is men selling off their daughters, it's gross.”
Finding 'The Invitation' leading cast
Of course, every great filmmaker needs great actors to collaborate with to bring the story to life, and Jessica M. Thompson had that in Game of Thrones actor Nathalie Emmanuel, leading the story as Evie.
“I always had Nathalie in mind,...originally the script was not for a woman of colour and I felt, because it's a story really about the patriarchy, the most disenfranchised people are largely women of colour,” Thompson said. “She's just such a gracious, incredible actor, throws herself into every moment, and horror films are particularly hard. You've got to put yourself through trauma, you've got to scream and cry, and she did all of that.”
“We watched the film together…and she was so moved, she was crying afterwards,...I'm glad she's just so proud.”
In order to balance that suave, aristocratic, but then deeply terrifying male aspect of the story, Thomas Doherty (Gossip Girl, High Fidelity) as Walter takes the lead in that respect in The Invitation.
“In my mind he’s the next Leonardo DiCaprio, he's honestly fantastic,” Thompson said. “He's really playing multiple characters, first of all, he comes in playing the lord of the manor…and then he realizes that doesn't really win her over, she doesn't give two hoots about his money, and so he has to kind of adapt to what she sees as a leading man.”
“Once the penny drops, he's obviously the complete villain… When he has some of those sneaky grins or those kind of mischievous, all-knowing kind of looks, the audience…could be like, ‘Oh, that was his true nature shining through.’”
'It's strange to me that we have been cut out of this world'
Jessica M. Thompson really dove into her love of horror in this film, studying the tensions in her favourite movies in the genre, but also putting in a ton of Easter eggs for the aficionados, including 90 references to Bram Stoker's Dracula and other nods to The Shining. There was actually a moment, that was ultimately cut from the film, where, after Evie has nightmares, a maid says, “I tend to get nightmares after I eat rich food too,” because Stoker said he wrote Dracula after eating too much dressed crab.
This deep dive into horror exemplified in Thompson’s film further establishes the illogical, rage-inducing nature of women historically feeling like they didn't have the support and the space to create this type of genre-based story.
“It's strange to me that we have been cut out of this world, up until recently, and I'm so glad that Jennifer Kent,…[other women] of the world have opened that door to allow people like me in,” Thompson said. “I'm so sick of horror films, and any genre film,...[where] we're just rehashing old material."
"As soon as you open the door to more diverse people, women, people of colour, LGBTQ+ people, you're just gonna get a fresh perspective that you haven't seen before and that's going to give you something brand new. Unfortunately, of course, we're judged a little bit more harshly,...I think the audiences are too smart now, they want something fresh, they want something unique... I think there's a lot of room to grow but I think we're also definitely making our mark.”