Monster In The Bed: An Interview With THE INVITATION Director Jessica M. Thompson

A stylish reinvention of the Dracula legend, blending contemporary social commentary with gothic romance and horror.

By Richard Newby · @RICHARDLNEWBY · August 26, 2022, 2:34 PM PDT
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THE INVITATION (2022)

The Brides of Dracula are figures as old as the Count himself, and nearly just as iconic. From Stoker's original 1897 novel, Terence Fisher's The Brides of Dracula (1960), and the recent BBC miniseries, Dracula (2020), these figures have always been alluring supporting elements to the vampire mythos, though rarely the focus. In Jessica M. Thompson's The Invitation, the concept of the Bride of Dracula is placed into the light and given new life.

The Invitation, from Sony Pictures, is a stylish reinvention of the Dracula legend, one that deftly blends contemporary social commentary with gothic romance and horror, alongside lush production values that invite comparisons to the Hammer Horror films of the '60s. When Evie (Nathalie Emmanuel), a young artist living in New York, discovers an extensive extended family from a DNA test, she's whisked off to England to meet them. Once there, she develops a romance with a mysterious and wealthy friend of the family, Walt (Thomas Doherty). But her fairy tale holiday soon devolves into a nightmare when she discovers a startling conspiracy woven in blood and old money.

FANGORIA spoke to director Jessica M. Thompson about her film, the balance of gothic and romance, her favorite horror films, the impact of vampires as metaphor, and inclusivity within our oldest genre.

This is your second feature film. What was it that drew you to this project and genre in particular?

I've always wanted to get into the genre space, and I think some stories are just best told in that space. I'd been on the lookout for a horror or sci-fi project, and then this came to me in January 2020. Sony sent it over to me and I really was compelled by this origin story of a Bride of Dracula. I don't feel like I've seen anything like that before on the big or the small screen, so that was the initial impetus. And I just saw the way into the story of this young woman who's living in New York, and she's an artist and feeling lonely, and she's recently lost her mom. She does a DNA test, which I myself have done in the past, and I did find a random cousin. He was not an evil person, thank God [laughs]. But I thought that was a really accessible way into this story, and then obviously the fairy tale turns into a nightmare and I really loved that contrast as well.

Do you remember what your first introduction to the Dracula mythos was?

Oh gosh, it was definitely Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula, which was, you know, all the rage in the '90s. I love the campiness of it, but it's literally the opposite of the way I work. I still appreciate it, and who doesn't love Winona Ryder, Keanu Reeves, and Gary Oldman? All the stories that came out of that set are just wild [laughs]. But in terms of vampires, I always say that Guillermo del Toro's Cronos is the most underrated vampire film. It's his first feature, and I think it's absolutely beautiful.

That's a great one. I was actually going to bring up del Toro because I think The Invitation has a really great balance between the gothic and the romanticism. I think it's become something of a lost art with a lot of modern horror movies. The most recent example for me is del Toro's Crimson Peak. How did you find that balance of telling this horror story but also allow audiences to be swept up in this romance between Evie and Walt?

First of all, I have to say you just made my day by comparing me to del Toro [laughs]. He tweeted at me about my first feature film [The Light of the Moon], saying that he loved it because he's a big fan of Stephanie Beatriz, who's the lead actress in that, and I think I fell off my chair because he's one of my heroes. But yes, I agree with you, it's like a lost art of this romantic gothic. For me, I love genre mashing and blending those two worlds together because you get the decadent and the horror underneath it. To me, a lot of that came down to Thomas Doherty's performance in particular. He was very trusting and gave me a variety of takes so that if I wanted to show a little bit more of the evilness of his character shining through, he allowed me to have that. Or if he wanted to play it like the straight, romantic leading man, he also gave me that. So, in the editing room we got to play a lot with those performances.

In terms of the look of the film that was very much me and Autumn Eakin, our cinematographer, and Felicity Abbott, our production designer. We worked really hard to make things that, on the surface, are kind of inviting and stunning and drew you in. The best example is the dinner scene where that food looks so decadent and lavish, but when you get closer it's actually rotting, and there were genuinely flies and maggots because it had been like four days of shooting. It stunk to high heaven. But yeah, it's trying to find that balance. For instance, the wallpaper in Evie's bedroom, that's all hand painted. It's so beautiful, and we think it's a birdscape but then we realize there are these weevils and foxes chasing the birds and keeping the message of the prey and the predator constantly at the forefront of the film. It was really fun to find that blend, that contrast of the romance and the horror.

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You mentioned Thomas Doherty playing around with different takes. Was there a central inspiration for Dracula that you two talked about or drew upon that he wanted to blend in with his own performance choices?

Absolutely. I actually gave him a long list of films to watch, and he's a little bit younger so he had not seen some of the OG ones, which I think was fun for him. But we were inspired by Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. He's charming and schmoozes in order to get these men and women to come back to his house, and then he bludgeons them to death. I thought that balance and the way that Bateman holds those two versions of himself within the one body was really interesting. So that was probably the closest, but I didn't actually tell him a particular Dracula to base himself off or anything.

Are there any of those films that you gave him that you can mention?

Yeah, definitely. Interview with the Vampire, which he had not seen, which I was like, "what? It's Tom Cruise" [laughs]. But I also made him watch The Shining because The Shining is a big inspiration for me just in general. It's my favorite horror film, but also because, as I told him, what makes this movie different is it's not about the monster under the bed, but the monster in the bed. Why I think people are so drawn to The Shining is because it's someone you know and trust that turns against you, right? So I definitely put that one on his list. I also made him watch Tony Scott's The Hunger for the regality of the vampires and the kind of world they live in. That's also another underrated vampire film. You know David Bowie, Susan Sarandon, I mean, who doesn't want to watch that? So yeah, just a few things that I feel have been overlooked or lent themselves to our world of vampires who live in this rich, decadent house and have this aspirational quality to them.

One of the things that I appreciated is how the film is able to directly discuss race through the lens of these British institutions, and that Evie and Grace are both highly skeptical of these white people from the start. As a Black film journalist, it was nice to be able to see those conversations happen on film because for so long, we didn't see them happening. So, to see the film tackle that, and in the context of the media coverage of Meghan Markle, I was curious if those aspects were always in the script or did that kind of come about after casting Nathalie.

I fully agree that genre allows you to make commentary on certain social situations. It makes it a little bit more accessible than maybe some other forms of filmmaking. When the script came to me, Evie was a white woman, and I insisted on making her a woman of color. I felt, like you said, the commentary we're trying to make is about British colonialism and to me, you need to do that with women of color who have been the most disenfranchised. And Nathalie was always at the top of my list. I absolutely love her. I fell in love with her when she was playing Missandei [in Game of Thrones], and I'm so glad that she fell in love with Evie and wanted to portray her. And then what happened is I found Courtney Taylor, who plays Grace, on Instagram. I just think she's absolutely hilarious, and I was like, we need this woman to play Grace!

She's great!

Yes! Isn't she? I'm so glad it all worked out. Then what happened in rehearsals is the three of us found the voices of the characters. I didn't want to put words in their mouths that I felt were inauthentic. So, we all worked together to get those jokes right, like the "that is the whitest man I've ever seen" line [laughs]. We all developed that together to have that language and, like you said, that skepticism of them going into a white world. That would be fearful, as a woman in a male-dominated industry, I understand that feeling of feeling like the other. We layered that in, but it was very important to me in terms of showing those race relationships and that being a subtle theme throughout the film.

In terms of The Bride as a character, and as this archetype, I feel Evie very much goes against the expectations. What drew you to the character and made you interested in exploring The Bride concept in a way that's different from what audiences might recognize from the Universal or Hammer horror films?

Great question. Two things really drew me to her. It was this idea that her heritage gave her power. Her mom recently passing away and her adapting to the situation that she's in and finding strength through her past was interesting to me. And then I also love this idea of the prey becoming the predator, the hunted becoming the hunter.

[SPOILER ALERT] I really love this idea that she becomes a vampire in order to vanquish the biggest, most demonic vampire of all time.

Which is really cool! I was not expecting that.

Oh good! I'm glad! Natalie really loved that too about the character in that she doesn't just become the stereotypical victim and then gets forced into this world, but that she uses her newfound powers. And quite often, that is how it has to happen in history; you have to become the beast to vanquish the beast. I found that a really interesting angle into it.

This year it marks the 100th anniversary of Nosferatu, the first screen adaptation of Dracula. As we talk about how horror serves as a metaphor, what do you think it is that continually draws us back to this story of Dracula, this character, and this world?

I think it's something that's fascinated humans for as long as we've been around, this idea of this duplicitous being that looks like us but is the better-looking version of us, the stronger version of us, the smarter version of us, coming back to haunt us. When I was researching this film and in development, I read a lot about ancient societies and their version of basically a Nosferatu, or a Strigoi, or an undead walker, or things like that, and it's crazy how many ancient civilizations have stories about vampires. I think there is something about them, because they do look so much like us but they're evil, that we can all relate to. The monster that's right in front of us is sometimes us. I do think there's something really intriguing about that that keeps us coming back to these stories. And also trying to find the humanity in them. That's a similar thing with zombies, where you see those storylines where the mother's turned into a zombie, like in The Walking Dead, and they try to keep her alive to find the vaccine. There's this idea of whether we can possibly find humanity in these evil beings. Can they fall in love? Can they feel the way we feel? I think there's something about that that we can't stop rehashing and trying to figure out and being drawn in by.

One of the things I've noted about horror in my own writing is that it often focuses on strong and independent women on screen, but historically it's been less inclusive behind the scenes. So, to have this film written, directed, and shot by women feels significant. I'm just curious about your experience in that regard and what studios can do to better support female voices.

Yeah, I'm with you. I grew up watching Alien, loved Alien. Ripley was, you know, one of my favorite characters because of how strong she is. So, I agree. Horror has historically empowered women in many ways by showing these incredible badass women kicking ass on screen, but yes, we've notoriously been locked out of the backend process. We're still around, I think 4 or 5% of horror films being directed by women. And I just think, don't we want that fresh look? Don't we want that fresh perspective? Whether it's men, women, LGBTQ, don't we want a new perspective on an old genre? I think it just makes for better filmmaking, to be honest. So, it was absolutely wonderful that all of my creative heads on set were women and it felt very empowering, like our perspective was being honored, which is wonderful. I think it comes down to giving women and diverse people a chance and stop going for the young, straight, white man. Let's just give it a go because, actually, like you said, it will create more unique visions. Sony was obviously champions of that in this film. Now the more Jennifer Kent, the more Susanne Bier, the more Julia Ducournau, who just won Cannes, the more that we get those kinds of films and we see that success, I think the more people are going to be open to it. And hopefully then, eventually, we won't even have to have this discussion.

What's next for you? Are you looking to stick around in the horror genre or explore some other genres first?

I'm generally agnostic. I'm always drawn to characters and story first. I'd love to do a grounded sci-fi, and I've got one brewing. And I've got another film with Working Title that's actually a psychosexual drama set in Columbia, not far off for that one. But I'll definitely be coming back to the horror space when the story is right and when the characters are right. I feel like there are lots more things to explore out there!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Invitation is now in theaters.