You are cordially invited to “The Feast,” a feature-film debut from director Lee Haven Jones about an upper-crust family whose dinner plans are interrupted by unforgivable acts. And that’s just the part where they try to rope you into a moneymaking scheme.
Relax: It gets grosser from there.
Set against the backdrop of Welsh folklore (not that they’ll explain much of it), “The Feast” is an efficient, stark story about bad people getting what’s coming to them. Or perhaps words like “efficient” and “stark” are just cozy ways of saying “straightforward” and “simplistic.”
A young woman named Cadi (Annes Elwy, BBC’s “Little Women”) approaches a newly remodeled house in the Welsh countryside where she’s expected to help prepare a three-course meal for a small family and their dinner guests. It’s not a big job, and frankly, there isn’t much for Cadi to do other than set the table and skewer some vegetables. Nobody seems to notice when she runs off to spy on the residents, and it’s easy to overlook that she sometimes leaves traces of phantom mud behind her.
The mother, Glenda (Nia Roberts, “Washington”), is from the country and not especially proud of it. Her husband Gwyn (Julian Lewis Jones, “Justice League”) is a member of Parliament but not, apparently, a respectable one. Their eldest son Gweirydd (Sion Alun Davies, “Hidden”) is training for a triathlon but mostly treats his tight spandex as a fetish, and younger son Guto (Steffan Cennydd) likes to play guitar, eat shrooms, and complain about how much his family sucks.
Everyone is so focused on their abysmal little problems that they completely dismiss the strange behavior of Cadi, either because they only want her to do her job or because they view her as a potential sexual conquest. But the supernatural warning signs are blinking on and off, and brightly. There are, as they say in Shelbyville, “doings a-transpiring.” So we wait for those doings to transpire. And we wait, and we wait.
There’s a difference between “a slow burn” and “slow.” The temperature actually has to rise at least once in a while in order for suspense to percolate. Roger Williams’ screenplay is frustratingly content just to drop the set-up and then add little or no information until the film’s third act. Only in the last half hour does “The Feast” finally reveal that it has something resembling a plot, that its point is somewhat more specific than “these bad people are bad,” and that it really does intend to put these heartless jerks through the psychological and physical ringer.
There are images in “The Feast” that are truly gruesome, but the film is so backloaded that they feel less like a pay-off and more like a missed opportunity. The first two courses of this three-course meal were on the bland side. The third course is exciting, but by that point our appetite has waned, our interest in the company has dissipated, and we’re pretty much ready to go home.
None of this is the fault of the cast, who, to a one, know what their job really is. Elwy keeps the mystery of Cadi alive, tipping between innocent bewilderment and menacing machination in ways that make more sense as the film goes along. Davies is a right proper creep, a horror show even before the horror sets in. Even their boxy limbo of a house is giving a fine performance, always cold and wrong amidst the verdant fields of Wales.
There’s something to be said for the efficiency of “The Feast,” and the clever way it relies on wicked mythological terror without ever engineering an excuse to actually tell the audience about it. Jones and Williams simply assume we already know these stories, just like the characters would. Even if we have no idea what they’re talking about, we can infer from their reactions the nasty bullet points, so we get the basic gist of just how these a-holes have angered the horror-movie gods and what’s to become of them.
But if you’re going to be vague, why only be vague at the end? Sprinkling the ominous breadcrumbs throughout “The Feast” might have kept the film’s second act from dragging, or at the very least made it feel like we were being dragged toward something important. It’s an unfortunate miscalculation in an otherwise, stylish, mean, gross horror thriller. And it really brings down the whole party, watering down the scares. Some events are “Bring Your Own Beer,” but “The Feast” is “Bring Your Own Fear.”
“The Feast” opens Friday in U.S. theaters and on-demand.