A contemporary riff on “Misery” with a culinary twist, “Bitter Feast” may provide the first horror movie aimed at foodies. Director Joe Maggio (“Paper Covers Rock”) makes his inaugural foray into the horror genre with a competent, familiar captivity narrative, resulting in less torture porn than food porn with ample amounts of blood.
Established TV chef Peter Gray (James Le Gros) goes berserk after a pan of his restaurant by merciless blogger J.T. Franks (Joshua Leonard) leads his career into a downward spiral. Gray, quickly established in meager flashbacks as the kind of closeted psychopath with a tortured childhood past and secrets to spare, kidnaps Franks and locks him in his basement. The bulk of the movie revolves around Gray enacting a deranged revenge fantasy on Franks, forcing him to cook impeccable dishes in order to survive.
The task isn’t as easy as the deranged cook hopes: Franks, whose child died of cancer, decides he has nothing to lose and faces off against his captor with stunning and at times amusing perseverance, at one point delivering a verbal takedown of Gray’s kitchen work while staving off the pain of a serious knife wound. Although Maggio doesn’t take the material as far into satiric territory as the premise suggests, the specific context of this fairly conventional thriller occasionally enlivens a familiar trajectory by commenting on the frequently tempestuous relationship that critics develop with their subjects (Maggio says he got the idea after reading a Frank Bruni pan of Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant at the London Hotel).
At 104 minutes, “Bitter Feast” runs far too long and repeats the same situation (Gray forcing Franks to cook) until Franks appears to voice audience frustration when he rolls his eyes and moans, “Not again!” But the two lead actors hold their own with the material, and the inherent tension of their face-off sustains the movie through its periodic lulls. Rounding out the cast, indie horror guru Larry Fessenden (also a producer) plays the trenchant private investigator hot on Gray’s trail, and Amy Seimetz gets a few uneasy scenes as Franks’s estranged wife. Shifting focus to Seimetz’s character in the closing scenes, Maggio finds his way to a gripping finale.
Glimmers of a shrewder look at the critics’ role in society sometimes elevate “Bitter Feast” to a higher plane of commentary. Maggio never approaches the level of insight on the critical process from the closing monologue in “Ratatouille.” But he does hit on an inspired motif with the defining image of Franks, soaked in blood and forced to sit at a candlelit dinner, a morbid look on his face and a steaming plate of ravioli in front of him, struggling to stay alive. The director also successfully creates the most suspenseful egg-cracking scene this side of “Hell’s Kitchen,” raising the stakes much higher than any given reality show has ever dared to go. “Bitter Feast” feels a bit half-baked, but it’s still a tasty genre treat.