CAST: Sienna Guillory, Jessica Alexander, Ruby Stokes, Kaine Zajaz, Lindsay Duncan, Walter van Dyk
RUNNING TIME: 97 mins
BASICALLY…: A widowed mother (Guillory) discovers a disturbing truth about her daughter’s (Alexander) new eating disorder…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
I’m not the biggest fan of using the phrase “elevated horror” when describing high-end productions like The Babadook, It Follows and Hereditary. For one, it feels elitist, like there’s something so high and mighty about it that shouldn’t be clumped together with other sub-genres like slashers or zombie flicks: it’s all horror, at the end of the day, so there’s no need for it to stay up on its higher saddle above all the other horses. It’s absolutely possible for films like Saint Maud, Midsommar, or even the subject of this review for A Banquet to have more calculated and artsy approaches to their style of horror, but segregating the sub-genre from the others just because they happen to have more artistic flair than something like your typical Friday the 13th movie, feels all too wrong in our film-loving society.
However, there are times when “elevated horror” is the only appropriate label to bestow upon a film, and A Banquet really does check a lot of the expected boxes commonly associated with the term. It is almost as though it was designed from conception to fit neatly into that mould, with its stylish cinematography, slow-burn storytelling and complex themes that transcend beyond what is commonly associated with horror all contributing to its self-attributed status that believes itself to be better than others. The results, no matter how hard it tries, beg to differ.
The feature debut of filmmaker Ruth Paxton, directing from a script by Justin Bull, is about a mother named Holly (Sienna Guillory) who, in the wake of her husband’s death one year prior, attempts to keep the peace with her teenage daughters, Betsey (Jessica Alexander) and Izzy (Ruby Stokes). While Izzy is barely on the cusp of full-blown teen rebellion, her elder sister Betsey is a bit more outgoing, until a strange encounter with a blood-red moon during a party leaves her with the lack of desire to eat. At first, her far-too domineering mother suspects your run-of-the-mill eating disorder, but when Betsey mysteriously neither loses nor gains any weight, Holly discovers more about her daughter’s sudden loss of appetite, revealing a possibly supernatural force that begins tearing the family apart.
Except, as is the case with a certain number of “elevated horror” movies, A Banquet offers nearly zero straight answers, inviting the viewer to kick-start endless debate with equal-minded viewers about what it’s all supposed to mean. Is it a metaphorical cross-examination of mental illness, specifically eating disorders? Is it saying something about the upper-middle class that the main characters apparently belong to (their house is far too fancy to consider humble, as are the Michelin star quality meals that Sienna Guillory’s Holly makes for her daughters)? Why bother explaining, the movie might as well say out loud, when patrons can come to those decisions on their own? That’s all well and good, but there is such a thing as offering far too few solid answers and leaving too much up to interpretation; if there is such little substance to really absorb from this script, then it’s entirely possible that the film isn’t particularly well-written to begin with, for there is little beyond its ponderous qualities to attach yourself to as it aimlessly wanders from one plot point to the next. Not enough is known about these characters to really care about them, nor is there much to even make it seem all that scary from an atmospheric perspective, except for some invasive close-up cinematography which can occasionally make you feel a tad queasy (in a good way).
The acting is solid, though; Guillory delivers a great tightly-wound central performance, as does Jessica Alexander who has some creepy moments when she goes full doomsday prophet, and it’s fun to see another cold-hearted turn by Lindsay Duncan, this time as Guillory’s unsympathetic mother. Paxton herself also shows strong promise behind the camera, lending most scenes a sense of impending dread that carries on right up to its rather explosive conclusion. However, it’s the writing that severely lets these positive elements down, for Justin Bull isn’t able to find a compelling enough reason to make the audience want to watch these characters for an entire movie, and keeps things so close to his chest when it comes to concrete answers that it almost feels pointless to even introduce that mystery aspect if it’s hardly ever going to followed up upon. Instead, it makes the film feel far more self-indulgent than it probably is, so consumed with its own elevated style and pacing that it forgets to actually be a frightening experience, with compelling enough characters to care about in a story that hooks us in from the word “go”.
In a lot of ways, A Banquet could be seen as one of the most typical examples of “elevated horror” that are out there – but to quote Jenna Ortega from this year’s Scream, “I still prefer The Babadook”.
SO, TO SUM UP…
A Banquet struggles to follow through with its ambition, for it is so consumed with its own elevated style of horror that it often forgets to actually provide a meaningful viewing experience.