On the heels of its 2021 Toronto International Film Festival premiere, British horror movie A Banquet arrived on VOD platforms earlier this year. Only a handful of horror fans would have had the chance to see this one in theaters. In addition to its limited theatrical run, A Banquet doesn’t have much buzz. Its premise promises an interesting twist on familiar supernatural tropes. That alone makes it a somewhat refreshing genre offering. But critics have been divided on the results.
Following her terminally ill husband’s death, Holly is left alone to raise her two daughters. Youngest daughter Isabelle is an aspiring figure skater, while the eldest, Betsey, seems aloof about college and her future. At a party with her boyfriend, Betsey feels drawn to the woods and the blood-red moon by a force she can’t explain. When she passes out and later awakens, Betsey refuses to eat, claiming that her body is in service to a greater power th
A Banquet Heavy on Atmosphere, Low on Scares
From its opening scene, A Banquet promises an atmospheric, thoughtful, and potentially disturbing psychological horror movie. With her first feature-length movie, director Ruth Paxton immediately stages an uncomfortable scene that segues into a consistent feeling of dread. Everything about Holly’s family – the home, the relationships between mother and daughter – feels cold and detached. Justin Bull’s story offers an initially bleak look into the tolls of grief. And when A Banquet teases supernatural story elements, Paxton and Bull refuses to embrace genre expectations. Outside of the aesthetics, A Banquet rarely conforms to familiar tropes we associate with possession movies. Bull’s story remains intentionally ambiguous … until it doesn’t.
Its a storytelling problem exacerbated by a slow burn that burns too slowly for too long.
Two problems emerge near the movie’s halfway mark. When Holly’s mother, June arrives, it creates another interesting character dynamic. Yet it also narratively removes much of the ambiguity established in the first act. Beyond the initial shock of what comes from a conversation between grandmother and granddaughter, A Banquet suddenly becomes a more predictable. The conclusion – though still somewhat ambiguous in its final shot – seemingly confirms what most might have expected. Its a storytelling problem exacerbated by a slow burn that burns too slowly for too long. Too little happens for extended periods of time. No amount of atmosphere and close-ups can compensate for empty calories.
A Banquet Can’t Quite Bring Its Strengths Together into a Singularly Compelling Movie
If not everyone works, it would be wrong to accuse A Banquet of lacking ambition. Paxton and Bull could easily have let their psychological horror drift into into straightforward supernatural possession territory. Instead, the director and writer rely on subtle gestures to make audiences question what they’re seeing without giving away too much. As mentioned above, the ultimate story direction becomes more clear at a certain point undermining some of this subtlety. Nonetheless, the potential themes surrounding Betsey’s refusal to eat and the question as to whether its supernatural or something more real are intriguing despite not being fully realized.
…the ultimate story direction becomes more clear at a certain point undermining some of this subtlety.
In front of the camera, the cast is uniformly excellent. All of the performances in A Banquet are quietly compelling. Sienna Guillory’s (Resident Evil: Retribution) ‘Holly’ is on edge and barely holding it together at the start of the movie. As Betsey’s pushes and tests her even more, Guillory slowly allows her character to unravel. Though her screen résumé is a little more limited, Jessica Alexander’s (Betsey) is quietly affection. She convinces you that something isn’t quite right about her character without ever tipping too much in one direction. And Lindsay Duncan, as Holly’s mother ‘June’, tips the tense mother-daughter relationship as the ‘voice of reason’ in the room.
A Banquet is a Well-Crafted Thriller With Narrow Appeal
Ultimately, A Banquet is an affecting psychological horror movie that feels incomplete. With her debut effort, Paxton shows no shortage of style or grasp of her craft. But atmosphere alone isn’t enough to fill long stretches where not much of note happens. And Bull’s story shows early promise as it takes a familiar horror premise in an entirely fresh direction. There just isn’t enough shock or unsettling ambiguity here to justify the movie’s slow burn. Strong atmosphere and performances makes this a worthwhile watch for patient horror fans, but A Banquet will likely have limited appeal.