- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
It’s hard to know what to call Ruth Paxton’s female-led horror pic A Banquet.
Yes, the Scottish filmmaker’s debut feature is a discomforting body horror movie, but it has no jump scares or ghosts or demons in the ether. More of a slow-burn psychological thriller, Paxton uses an apparent eating disorder to convey the anxiety and paranoia that descends on a once-healthy family.
The indie, based on a screenplay by Justin Bull and bowing at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 10 as part of the Discovery program, tells the story of a widowed mother, Holly (Sienna Guillory), who struggles to help her teenage daughter Betsey (Jessica Alexander) escape an apparent possession after a run-in with something demonic in a forest.
With her body seemingly no longer her own, Betsey stops eating — all to serve a higher power. But is she really possessed, or is she wrestling with mental illness? After all, both Holly and Betsy are dealing with the painful loss of their husband/father, who commits suicide early in the film.
“For me, the horror at the core of the story is a disintegration of a once-tight family unit. It tears them apart,” Paxton says. A deft ability to defy convention sees the director exploring the psychology of food and power to produce a metaphor-heavy vision of a young woman at war with herself.
As the audience is left to ponder whether Betsey’s refusal to eat stems from a family trauma or something genuinely supernatural, starvation becomes the unseen menace that powers Holly’s panic. And like voiceless women through the centuries who used fasting to demonstrate religious devotion as martyrs and saints, Betsey suddenly has her mother’s full attention.
“It’s about control when you have no control over anything else, and having a sense of power from it. Betsey gets a reaction by not eating. Maybe she isn’t hungry. But the longer she doesn’t eat, the more she becomes remarkable — the more power and conviction she has over the family,” Paxton explains.
The notion of gaining a sense of power by controlling food, when all else is chaos, is something Paxton knows about after having had her own bout with an eating disorder. “I had to find a way to get into Betsey’s mindset, and that became easier with her restrictive eating. That’s something I have done, many women have done,” she says.
At one point in the film, Holly, helpless in the face of her daughter’s defiance, has a nightmarish vision. Borrowing from Japanese folklore, Paxton unveils the chilling sight of her daughter as a Futakuchi-Onna — a kind of monster with two mouths — with the second mouth horrifically visible on the back of the young girl’s head.
It’s one of the few real horror-movie moments in a film that is otherwise bathed in a pervasive sense of doom.
Says Paxton: “There’s nothing concrete about the horror in this film. I pitched early on that I wanted to permeate the film with dread, I wanted it to be an uncomfortable experience for audiences, so that you’re constantly wondering where it’s going and what’s actually happening.”
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter’s Sept. 10 daily issue at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day
The Ellen DeGeneres Show