Taking “eat the rich” to literal extremes that Luis Buñuel only dreamed of (and famously lamented omitting from “The Exterminating Angel”), Lee Haven Jones’ “The Feast” is a severe Welsh-language horror romp so unsubtle about its class allegory that it might as well pre-chew the human flesh it eventually mama-birds into your mouth. Anyone grossed out by that visual should probably steer clear of the film itself, as this juicy but somewhat undercooked feature debut sure makes plenty good on its title by the time dessert is served. Of course, the rest of you sickos have stomached enough slop over the years to know that a degree of obviousness can be a good thing when it comes to certain fare, just as it can when it comes to certain meals; after all, is the joy of eating a cheeseburger not that every bite reminds you that you’re eating a cheeseburger? That it frees your mind to relish the ketchup?
If “The Feast” is a bit fancier and less satisfying than comparisons to fast food may suggest, the fact remains that Jones’ meat buffet of a movie only works so well because it doesn’t spare any real sympathy for its supper. This is a tale about Cadi (Annes Elwy), an eerie young woman with wet black hair who’s hired to cater a dinner party for the worst family in Wales, and we know from the moment she arrives at their wannabe “Parasite” house — its cold modernism all the more garish when surrounded by verdant countryside — that the people who live there deserve whatever comeuppance is heading their way.
The patriarch (Julian Lewis Jones as Gwyn) is a corrupt member of Parliament who’s made his fortune by selling Wales’ history to the highest bidder and drilling its land to death for profit. His spouse Glenda (a nuanced and preening Nia Roberts, sporting huge “The Real Housewives of Swansea” energy) welcomes the help into their home with all the serrated grace of someone who needs her visitors to know how much it cost; the implication that Glenda dug up her roots when she married into such gaudiness is tastefully underplayed, even if Roger Williams’ script might have done well to center on the tug-of-war over her soul. This lovely couple also have two large adult failsons. One is a serial killer-looking weirdo prone to wearing unitards (Sion Alun Davies as Gweirydd) around the house. The other is a recovering heroin addict named Guto (Steffan Cennydd), whose continued existence brings shame upon the rest of his clan, and whose evident hatred for everyone else makes him the closest thing his family has to a sympathetic figure.
Nevertheless, the film’s allegiance remains with the soft-spoken Cadi, who sees these people for their almost “Princess Mononoke”-esque moral rot — a decay symbolized by everything from skinned rabbits and modern art to a scene of Gweirydd shaving his balls — and seems to grow physically sickened by it as the evening wears on. She’s been hired to cater a dinner at which Gwyn hopes to wine and dine a neighbor into selling their family land along with the recently discovered mineral deposits below. By the time we see Cadi shove the pieces of a broken glass bottle into her vagina for safe-keeping, it’s clear that someone probably should have double-checked her references.
“The Feast” begins skewering Glenda’s brood from practically the minute it starts, tracing the family’s empty affluence with the kind of cheeky body horror tropes that films like “The Neon Demon” and “Death Becomes Her” have committed to with greater aplomb (so far as movies are concerned, face peels and raw diets remain among the ultimate expressions of modern evil). Mute and servile when other people can see her, Cadi gets up to no good whenever she’s out of sight. She whispers to the art on the wall, smears dirt on the bed sheets, and tries on Glenda’s earrings with a demented snicker; she only has empathy for the rabbits Gwyn murders for the main course.
There’s little mystery as to why the meal feels so pressured, just as there’s little intrigue behind what Cadi might have to do with it, but Lee’s stainless steel direction keeps us primed for all the messiness to come. Invariably scored to classical music, each of Lee’s dolly push-ins echoes with the promise of carnage. Every black outfit is offset by a white surface, and every white surface just begs to be covered in blood. “The Feast” is never the least bit scary, but this is a film that would rather have its audience licking their lips than hiding their eyes.
That always feels like a choice and not a failure, if also one that Lee might have committed to with even greater conviction. It would have been easy to tell this story from Guto’s point-of-view, pepper it with jump scares (there are virtually none), and allow his encounter with the film’s ancient force to help him see the error of his family’s ways. Instead, “The Feast” takes the road less traveled, identifying solely with Cadi long before it tells us who or what she is. If we’re frightened, it’s not of her so much as for everyone else.
As a result, this becomes less a traditional horror film than a revenge fantasy in disguise — a film hungry for a pyrrhic victory against those who would cannibalize their own land and history for a few dollars more. And there’s no shortage of sick pleasure in that, particularly once everything clicks into focus and Lee starts to conduct a symphony of giddy schadenfreude (with maggots to spare). But “The Feast” is too busy indulging itself to reckon with the inevitable food coma that it foreshadows. Glenda’s family may not be long for this world, but people like them have already stripped so much from it that even the queasy movie justice they get here feels inadequate. “After you’ve taken everything,” someone asks, “what will be left?” Lee recognizes the abiding sadness of the scenario he plays with here, but the “everything” addressed in his film remains too unspecific for us to appreciate what its revenge might accomplish. Despite its refined palate and dashes of local flavor, “The Feast” remains empty calories — haunting only for how it seems to admit as much in the very last shot.
IFC Midnight will release “The Feast” in theaters and on VOD on Friday, November 19.