Runtime: 97 minutes
Director: Ruth Paxton
Writer: Justin Bull
Stars: Jessica Alexander, Sienna Guillory, Ruby Stokes, Lindsay Duncan
By Tom Moore
IFC Midnight’s newest artsy offering to the horror genre, Ruth Paxton’s “A Banquet”(2022), instantly captures your attention through its stylistic hooks and intriguing mystery but struggles to maintain that momentum.
“A Banquet” surprisingly nabs your attention at the start with its incredibly engaging sound design that immediately makes your skin crawl. Personally, I think strong sound design is the way of the future for the horror genre and “A Banquet” shows why. The initial moments feel like an ASMR nightmare with some of its unpleasantly strange sounds giving you the bad kind of goosebumps that set the tone in a great way. Simple sounds being personified immediately makes “A Banquet” unsettling and get under your skin as its simple mystery surrounding Betsey (Jessica Alexander), the oldest daughter of recently widowed mother Holly (Sienna Guillory), being possessed by an unknown force begins to unfold.
At first, the mystery of Betsey’s possession has some interesting elements that feel unique and add to the strange horror vibes. The sequence of Betsey being lured by a red moon and this unseen presence is haunting and the way it makes her lose her desire to eat adds some personal stakes that cause some tense friction between her and her mother. Alexander also delivers a well-balanced performance that contains this scary trance that Betsey is under and these eerie foreboding beliefs that make you uneasy as things grow more dire. However, “A Banquet” can’t maintain its strongest aspects and starts to become lost within its story.
There are certainly some things that reignite the stylistic and narrative spark every now and again. Some of the sound design and strong score from CJ Mirra continues to set a strong horror tone, and there are some solid visual effects that culminate in a stomach-turning sequence involving a disgusting display of food and some grotesque body horror. Also, Alexander continues to deliver a strong performance and its kind of interesting how Holly’s character is expanded in the later parts of the film. The conflict between Holly and her mother June (Lindsay Duncan) is fleshed out more and you can really feel this divide within Holly about how to handle Betsey’s behavior through Guillory’s performance.
Unfortunately, the film struggles to keep its initially strong momentum as it leans heavier into more artsy storytelling that drowns out some of its best aspects and ultimately, makes it tough to connect to. The sense of story direction the film has fades into the background for a constantly tense atmosphere that doesn’t have high stakes to connect to since its story goes through the same motions. Something weird happens with Betsey that upsets Holly, they are conflicted about how to fix it, and then things die down for a little bit until they happen again. Side characters like June and Betsey’s younger sister Isabelle (Ruby Stokes) don’t play a pivotal enough role in the story or add anything too unique to this situation and simply feel like a distraction at times. It can feel like this story is trying to build towards something big, but it really only tries to achieve something big on a thematic level that simply won’t resonate with everyone. Honestly, the end result is just unsatisfying with how its big themes surrounding motherhood and mental health don’t land and create an ending that lacks sufficient resolution.
Although “A Banquet” starts strong enough to hook any and all horror fans through its excellent take on atmospheric mystery horror, it’s tough to say if it contains enough potent and engaging material to keep more mainstream viewers hooked.