Roughly in the middle of Peter Hyams’ unnecessary but solid sci-fi sequel 2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984), presumed-dead astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) inexplicably appears on his widow’s television screen and announces: “Something is going to happen. Something wonderful.” This prediction refers to an imminent astronomical miracle of extraordinary mechanism and implication, but Dullea’s Stepford-like delivery and Hyams’ ominous staging don’t fill the viewer with wonder. Instead, they elicit fear, a suspicion that this amorphous, looming event will definitely not be wonderful. Bowman’s words sound less like the reassurances of an enlightened being and more like the premonitions of a brainwashed doomsayer.
A very similar sensation permeates every frame of director Ruth Paxton’s debut feature, the ultra-slow-boil psychological horror freakout A Banquet. On paper, there’s nothing particularly apocalyptic about the story, which chronicles the plight of a perfectly ordinary British teenager, Betsey, who suddenly adopts a bizarre private mythology and retreats into a kind of existential manic depression. Most worrisome to her family, she stops eating – yet doesn’t seem to lose any weight or suffer any malnutrition, even after weeks (and then months) of caloric abstinence.
However, this metabolic impossibility might be the least unsettling aspect of Betsey’s transformation. She speaks of being chosen for some higher purpose, and of an impending cosmic cataclysm that she joyously anticipates as if it were Christmas morning. Her strange convictions only gradually infect those around her, but the film itself is a true believer right from its portentous opening shots. The plot summary might suggest a grim domestic drama about a young woman’s psychological troubles, but A Banquet’s unmistakable art-horror style reveals otherwise. Cinematographer David Liddell’s gray-washed visuals and composer CJ Mirra’s skin-crawling score turn Betsey’s ramblings about purifying flames into a source of knot-in-the-stomach dread. If she is just a girl suffering from a serious mental illness, why do her deranged utterances elicit a shiver of the real? What preternatural forces are keeping her starving body alive, and for what unfathomable purpose?
Paxton’s feature opens with that horror-film staple, the traumatic inciting incident: Holly (Sienna Guillory), who is caring for her terminally ill husband at home, discovers that he has gulped down a bottle of bleach, rather than burden his wife and two daughters with one more day of his agonizing death rattles. Older daughter Betsey (Jessica Alexander) happens to walk in on this horrific scene, and several months later, it’s obvious that neither mother nor child has properly processed such a gutting tragedy. Holly has poured all her unresolved grief into high-maintenance parenting, particularly the preparation of attractive, nutritious meals for her girls. Younger teen daughter Isabelle (Ruby Stokes) preoccupies herself with ice-skating and hallway gossip, but Betsey seems to be much more unmoored. As university-application deadlines approach, her apathy about her educational and professional future – about everything, really – is palpable. A guidance counselor’s pestering query hangs in the air: “What interests you?” Nothing, she screams internally, absolutely nothing.
One night, feeling alienated from her friends during a party, she stalks off into the nearby woods, while a lunar eclipse looms ominously overhead. She later returns in a daze, prompting her boyfriend to hastily drive her home. To Holly’s consternation, Betsey thereafter refuses every meal placed in front of her. At first, she simply claims that she is not hungry, but later she dispenses with this lie: She no longer needs to eat, she insists, as another power now nourishes her flesh. She has been chosen to herald a violent reordering of the world, and mere organic sustenance is, at best, a distraction from her new purpose. Holly, quickly progressing from maternal concern to overbearing irritation, insists that Betsey consume a solitary garden pea during a particularly tense mealtime. This prompts the girl to retch so violently that she goes into seizures.
Betsey soon stops going to school, sliding into a bedridden torpor that is punctuated by bursts of doomsday babbling. Holly is alternately perplexed, infuriated, and terrified. Medical professionals can provide no answers. Meanwhile, Holly’s cold-hearted elderly mother (Lindsay Duncan) insists that the girl must be putting on an act to garner attention. However, malingering does not explain how Betsey’s weight stays rock-steady at 126 pounds, week after week, even though she eats nothing and drinks nothing. The girl frightens her mother and sister with talk of a cleansing fire, and of a vast and terrible intelligence from beyond the stars. These ramblings are preposterous, of course, but they nonetheless incite a persistent and worsening itch in Holly’s mind, filling her with formless dread.
Paxton’s feature exhibits a potent sense of style, but it doesn’t pack much incident into its 97 atmospheric minutes. In its weaker moments, the film sometimes feels like a mere premise that’s escalating, rather than a story that’s unfolding. The film also has difficulty sticking the landing – hemming and hawing right up to its final exasperating seconds – suggesting that screenwriter Justin Bull didn’t quite know where he was headed. Still, a confident filmmaker can squeeze a heroic quantity of tension from an ambiguous scenario, as the characters’ (and the viewers’) gnawing uncertainty provides its own kind of dark, animating energy. Paxton exhibits exactly that kind of self-assurance here, enlivening and complicating what could have been a more shopworn metaphor for adolescent revolt. Although Bull’s screenplay isn’t afraid to boldly evoke The Exorcist (1973) and Carrie (1974), lower-profile cult horror films such as God Told Me To (1976), Frailty (2001), and Starry Eyes (2014) also seem to be touchstones. However, one gruesome dream sequence aside, A Banquet is less interested in turning viewers’ stomachs than in getting under their skin. Its closest cinematic kin might actually be Michael Tolkin’s religious drama The Rapture (1991) and Amy Seimetz’s recent existential meltdown, She Dies Tomorrow (2020).
A Banquet is essentially a single-location horror story, and Liddell’s lensing makes the family’s modern, upper-middle-class home seem gloomy and suffocating, despite the floor-to-ceiling windows and posh kitchen furnishings. The odd foray to a painfully bright doctor’s office or grocery store thus feels fittingly uncanny. The filmmakers employ high-contrast close-ups and repulsive sound design to convey the gagging disgust that every meal elicits in Betsey. Indeed, lingering, repulsive shots of foodstuffs are practically a motif, underlining the eating-disorder metaphor that lurks just beneath the film’s surface. One of the script’s finer touches is its delicate intimation of Holly’s own disordered relationship with food, and how contentious this subject can be for mothers and daughters. However, A Banquet is no simple, one-to-one allegorical horror film. Although Paxton’s feature is a bit light on plot, it possesses a thematic richness that will provide adventurous filmgoers with plenty to chew on.
A Banquet will be available to rent from major online platforms on Feb.18.