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Certain dinner parties just carry an inherent layer of menace. I don't mean those nights when you get together with your friends to have a fun meal, either. I mean stuffy, staged, at least half the people at the table have an Agenda dinner parties, the ones that are all about congratulating each other on the food and smiling awkwardly across the table, ducking the tension hovering in the room right up until the moment someone decides to say what they really came here to say.
That menace forms the baseline of an exquisite sense of dread bubbling up through every frame of The Feast, director Lee Haven Jones' Welsh horror film that just premiered at this year's SXSW. There's a lot of great genre fare at the festival this year, from Barbara Crampton's darkly comic blood-fest Jakob's Wife to South African bio-horror gem Gaia.
Even among other standouts, The Feast got under my skin because it could have stuck with that baseline dinner party dread and still worked quite well. Instead, the film goes deeper — and darker — and the result is a future folk-horror classic about what happens when the people who feel entitled to everything finally end up taking too much.
The Feast takes place at an estate in the Welsh countryside where a sleek, cold, modern mansion has replaced a farmhouse. An influential and wealthy family lives there — two parents trying to appear as sophisticated and powerful as possible, two sons trying to take what they can while they can — and on this particular night, they're hoping to grow even more influential and wealthy with the help of a trusted friend. It's an important night, a night of indulgence and plying others with food and drink, which is why they need a local girl to assist in serving the meal. Enter Cadi (a hypnotic Annes Elwy), who arrives quietly and dutifully and gets to work even as family dysfunction continues to creep in around the edges. As the sun goes down and the guests arrive, even more dysfunction creeps into the picture, and it becomes clear that something is very wrong.
It might be Cadi or it might be something else, but the feast becomes about more than just putting on a show around a dinner table.
What's actually going on here is, of course, better left to the viewer to find out as they watch the film, but what makes The Feast particularly effective is not just where it's willing to go, but how it goes there. Jones and screenwriter Roger Williams take patient, confident, slow narrative steps to set up the horrors of this particular night in the country, and it all works because the filmmakers know exactly when to let a reveal drip out, and when to hold things back. There's a mythology lurking beneath everything, from the family's own greed and manipulation to Cadi's own distracted, detached nature, but the film only ever tells you enough to get to the next reveal, and the effect is absolutely spellbinding.
And of course, like so many great horror films in this particular subgenre, this series of reveals, twists, and brutal payoffs is all layered over a deeper, more existential vein of horror. The Feast is about familial tension, about neighborly tension, about very localized greed, but it's also about the larger terror of what happens when gluttony of all kinds becomes your only way to draw meaning from the world. It's about when consumption is all that's left.
This is a film that takes aim not just at the awkwardness of a certain kind of dinner party, but at the very act of feasting in your own closed-off castle while the world around you collapses. It's a whole different layer of dread, and it builds to a nightmarish conclusion.
The Feast is one of the first can't-miss horror films of 2021, a slow-burning nerve-shredder that might ensure you never go to a dinner party again. If you're a horror junkie, see it as soon as possible.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.