Prolific Welsh TV director Lee Haven Jones makes a confident move into features with The Feast, a slow-burn morality tale in which a smug politician and his family get an unforgiving lesson on the consequences of turning their backs on pastoral tradition in favor of greed. Solemn to a fault, right down to the baroque religiosity of Vivaldi during both the prelude and aftermath of carnage, this is a glowering mood piece that could have had a little more fun with its thinly drawn characters. But elegantly creepy visuals, solid acting, splashes of gore and the novelty of Welsh-language horror should hold the attention of genre lovers.
Written by Roger Williams, the film starts out with a nasty signal that nature is pissed, when a laborer staggers away from a drilling site in rural Wales and collapses, clutching his ears from the pain of a piercing noise.
In a stylish modern-minimalist home on the hill, Glenda (Nia Roberts) is taking a breather with a mud mask in her cavernous meditation chamber. Her politician husband Gwyn (Julian Lewis Jones) is off shooting rabbits, having no luck until he finds a pair of freshly killed bunnies conveniently slung over a tree branch and claims them as his catch. One son, Guto (Steffan Cennydd), who’s been reluctantly dragged back from London to kick his heroin habit, is skulking about the grounds sniffing chemicals and smoking spliffs. The other, Gweirydd (Siôn Alun Davies), is in training for a triathlon, savoring the kink of his skintight cycling gear. This is nobody’s idea of a wholesome family.
With Glenda’s regular helper unavailable for an important dinner, a young employee from the local pub, Cadi (Annes Elwy), is sent in her place. Arriving on foot looking like a dazed, drowned rat, she swiftly proves herself to be the world’s worst cater waiter, remaining mostly silent and losing herself in dreamy distraction. Cadi seems oddly drawn to a contemporary art piece that dominates one wall, an abstract representation of the district, including what was once the farmland of Glenda’s family, where their austere fortress now stands.
Meanwhile, foreboding signs of bloodshed have already begun. Guto gashes his foot when he drops an ax, Gweirydd nicks his privates while shaving in the tub and Glenda, despite showing impressive knife skills while skinning rabbits, has a minor mishap chopping the fruit salad. Gwyn, whose possible sexual overture to Cadi is met with an unnerving blank stare, is stabbed by sharp pain in his ears whenever she comes near.
Glenda seems oddly oblivious to Cadi’s inefficiency. Instead, she prattles on about how the things belonging to her mother that she kept when the farm was demolished — a tablecloth, mismatched glassware, a favorite dress — don’t fit the new house: “They feel primitive.” When she sends Cadi to her closet for a fresh blouse, the outsider has no trouble identifying the dress that looks out of place among Glenda’s chic wardrobe. Likewise, a pair of antique earrings she tries on, unleashing a laugh that transforms her from mute and mousy to dangerous.
The setup is a little leisurely, but the prowling eyes of Bjorn Bratberg’s camera create intrigue and a sense of lurking malevolence. The quiet menace in Cadi’s walking fugue state is well-established by the time the second of six chapter headings, “You’d Better Watch Out,” appears onscreen. Williams’ script also plants some sly misdirection by having both sons express scorn for their parents. Guto confides in Cadi that he’s a city guy with no love for the country, saying of his folks, “If I don’t take something soon, I might kill them.” Gweirydd reveals that his London-based dad only likes coming back to the land of his constituents to kill innocent creatures.
The first dinner guest to arrive is oily businessman Euros (Rhodri Meilir), who has helped Gwyn and Glenda grow their wealth by selling off mining rights to parcels of their land. The other guests are the owners of the neighboring farm, whose property covers what Euros and his associates believe to be a rich vein of mineral deposits. But the wife, Mair (Lisa Palfrey), arrives solo, her husband having been detained in the rescue effort of a road accident in which an out-of-control car went into the lake. With her old-fashioned floral frock and shy manner, Mair is the odd one out, and the only person aware of Cadi’s recent bereavement.
Her appearance alone makes it quite clear where Mair stands in the film’s division between nurturers and exploiters of the earth, between environmental sustainability and abuse. Some of Roberts’ best scenes involve Glenda giving a tour of the house to a woman she has likely known all her life but to whom she now seems a stranger. Tying in with the fourth chapter title, “She Mustn’t Be Awakened,” Mair’s rejection of their interest in her land comes with a warning about “The Rise,” a supposed burial site not be disturbed. Glenda shrugs this off as a local legend cooked up to scare children. Wrong.
As the pieces of the puzzle come together and the eponymous feast goes alarmingly awry, the director dials up the tension from psychological horror to supernatural vengeance with elements of possession, hallucinogens, body horror, sexual violence and even a dash of cannibalism. You don’t want to know what Cadi does with a chunk of broken glass from Euros’ pricey bottle of Cab Sauv.
The unusual sound of the language to non-Welsh ears — combining singsong cadences with a clipped harshness — adds to the increasing strangeness of the accelerating mayhem, along with Samuel Sim’s eerie ambient score. Considering the gruesome extremes of the family’s punishment, there’s a subdued, trance-like feel to the film that will either please or frustrate horror fans. But the themes of violated nature and a family’s flagrant disregard for its roots makes for some juicy payback.
Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Midnighters)
Production companies: Sgrech, S4C, Ffilm Cymru Wales, BFI, Melville Media, in association with Fields Park
Cast: Annes Elwy, Nia Roberts, Julian Lewis Jones, Siôn Alun Davies, Steffan Cennydd, Rhodri Meilir, Lisa Palfrey
Director: Lee Haven Jones
Screenwriter: Roger Williams
Producer: Roger Williams
Executive producers: Gwenllian Gravelle, Gwawr Martha Lloyd, Adam Partridge, Kimberley Warner, Mary Burke, Robert Halmi, Jim Reeve, Paul Higgins
Director of photography: Bjorn Bratberg
Production designer: Gwyn Eiddior
Costume designer: Dawn Thomas Mondo
Music: Samuel Sim
Editor: Kevin Jones
Visual effects supervisor: Chris Marshall
Casting: Nicola Reynolds
Sales: Bankside Films