The Feast: A Slow-Moving Horror Drama Devoid of Scares (SXSW Review)
The Feast emphasizes its eerie atmosphere over engaging storytelling, often alienating its audience as a result.
Unlike other subgenres in horror (slasher, found footage, etc.), art horror has never really been “out-of-style” in any regard, with a persistent presence across the film medium for many years. That being said, it’s hard to argue with the fact that, as of late, it’s certainly experienced a bit of a rousing resurgence thanks to the work of modern-day auteurs such as Ari Aster (Hereditary, Midsommar), Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, mother!), and Robert Eggers (The Witch, The Lighthouse). Though not always adored by audiences for their subversive storytelling and occasional thematic obtuseness, these films often find a fandom amongst critics’ circles (which are ordinarily more open to audaciously abstract art), and they have then been held up as heralded works of the horror genre. As a result, their innovation continues to inspire generations of idealistic artists who seek similar success with shaping their own signature style and telling equally enigmatic tales. Unfortunately, emulating the achievements of art horror masterworks is easier said than done, and while Lee Haven Jones’ The Feast is as methodically mounted as the standouts of the subgenre, it’s a far too muted affair to engage moviegoers in the end.
The Feast has a stellar set-up, and one that should instantly earn the attention of horror aficionados. At their extravagant estate in the Welsh mountains, a wealthy family of four gathers for a glamorous dinner with guests; however, because matriarch Glenda (Nia Roberts, of Cashback and Third Star) believes they require assistance in preparing for the meal, she recruits the curious Cadi (Annes Elwy, of BBC’s Little Women and Netflix’s Apostle), a yielding young woman who seems simpleminded to start while simultaneously safeguarding secrets from her past. Over the course of the afternoon, Cadi becomes familiar with all the peculiar personalities of the family – including pretentious patriarch Gwyn (Julian Lewis Jones, of Invictus and Justice League), flirtatious first-born Gweirydd (Sion Alun Davies, of S4C’s Hidden and BBC’s The Left Behind), and jaded junkie Guto (Steffan Cennydd, of ITV’s The Pembrokeshire Murders and Sweetheart) – and learns that there’s more to these pompous one-percenters than meets the eye, with the foursome potentially possessing ill intentions for this evening’s event.
However, when night arrives and two suspicious new guests surface – the eccentric Euros (Rhodri Meilir, of Pride and BBC Three’s In My Skin) and the mild-mannered Mair (Lisa Palfrey, of Pride and Make Up) – things don’t go exactly as planned, with familial in-fighting and stilted small talk dampening the dinner dynamic. And yet, coarse chit chat proves to be the least of the family’s problems, as the perils of Cadi’s past manifest in mysterious ways, and Gweirydd and Guto in particular become ensnared in the strife she starts to stir up. Soon, the family will realize that Cadi isn’t trapped inside their home with them – they’re locked up in this far-off locale with her.
Just from that short synopsis, it would seem as if The Feast has all the makings of satisfyingly suspenseful horror movie with the requisite twists and thrills we’ve grown to expect from genre. And, to give credit where credit is due, screenwriter Roger Williams does definitely know how to pique our interest as soon as the story starts, with the erratic encounters between Cadi and the rest of this family forcing us to consider any and all clues of their true nature and speculate on the shocks that may await as the plot progresses. Unfortunately, this waiting game takes up so much of The Feast’s runtime (nearly 70-75 minutes of a 90-minute film) that the movie simply forgets to be scary as it’s teasing us with these “earth-shattering” surprises. There’s a difference between being a “slow-burn” (an area where stories like The Witch and Hereditary succeeded) and being boring – and, lamentably, The Feast crosses that line.
You have to give your audience something to latch onto as you build to your “chaotic conclusion,” but here, none of The Feast’s characters are compelling enough to warrant over an hour’s worth of engagement with little-to-no narrative payoff. The conversations that initially appear alluring soon grow stale, and there’s just not enough depth or dimension to the ensemble to keep us engrossed up until the film’s finale. Cadi actually has a beguiling backstory, but it isn’t explored to the extent it deserves, while every member of the family she serves is a stock stereotype (Glenda is monarchical mom, Gwyn is a dim-witted dad, Gweirydd is a swanky snob, and Guto is the belligerent black sheep, etc.). Furthermore, when we do get some explanations for the film’s enigmatic mystery, these answers are still far too abstruse and carelessly clarified, leaving us unfulfilled instead of unnerved. Even if The Feast didn’t want to offer a definitive description for the darkness at the center of its story, it’s still disappointing that it ends with so little to say after such strong table-setting.
Thankfully, Jones doesn’t let his direction get shortchanged by the script, still efficiently maximizing the eerie mood of the piece with his forceful framing and his admirable awareness of how to wring anxiety out of even the most menial interactions. Likewise, the cast similarly turns in strong work in spite of their underwritten character arcs. Roberts is an engrossing enigma, personifying a perplexing purity at first before investigating Cadi’s inner intensity in the film’s third act, while Roberts’ portrayal of Glenda’s unraveling from savvy socialite to a pathetic pawn in a game outside of her control is just as accomplished. Cennydd meanwhile has the strongest of the male supporting roles, giving life to his drug addict part that isn’t on the page and actively involving the audience in his specific struggles when the screenplay doesn’t.
Because there’s so much potential for The Feast to have been a new horror classic, it’s all the more frustrating when it falls so short of the success it so clearly desires. Even with its fearsome foundation, the film can only get so far with a script that sadly fails to deliver on the plot’s initial promise, resulting in a story that is staid instead of spine-chilling. Jones and his cast give it their all, but they’re not enough to prevent you from forgoing this Feast.
WATCH THE FEAST:
The Feast had its World Premiere at SXSW Online on March 18, 2021 and was released in the US in November. The film will be out in cinemas in the UK from August 19, 2022.