A Banquet Is a Beautiful Slow Burn

Jessica Alexander as “Betsey” in Ruth Paxton’s A BANQUET. Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight release.

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of IFC Midnight. I take every opportunity I can to tell everyone how much I love this studio, so when I saw the trailer for their upcoming movie A Banquet, I knew I had to put it on my to-watch list. The atmosphere and visuals completely sold me on the film, and I was bursting at the seams with excitement for it.

Directed by Ruth Paxton and starring Sienna Guillory, Jessica Alexander, Ruby Stokes, and Lindsay Duncan, A Banquet is about a teenage girl named Betsey who claims that a higher power has chosen her to be its special vessel. As a result, she loses her appetite and refuses to eat, but she somehow doesn’t lose any weight. On top of that, she also has moments when she goes into a completely unresponsive, trance-like state, and as these strange phenomena continue, it takes a huge emotional toll on her family.

As you might expect from that plot description, A Banquet is a very slow burn, so don’t expect a stereotypical scarefest. In fact, I’d even say that if you’re looking for a more traditional horror movie, this film is almost certainly not going to be for you. It never shows us Betsey’s supposed higher power, and there’s only one scene that I would say has a genuine scare.

Instead, this movie is all about atmosphere, tension, and the uncertainty inherent in the story, and it pulls off all three of those elements really well. It’s not quite soaked in a feeling of dread the way, for example, A24 films usually are, but it’s definitely moody enough that fans of this kind of horror are going to get their money’s worth.

Betsey looking up
Jessica Alexander as “Betsey” in Ruth Paxton’s A BANQUET. Courtesy of IFC
Midnight. An IFC Midnight release.

In particular, A Banquet has a bunch of scenes that ratchet the tension up to 11, and I found those moments absolutely enthralling. For example, there’s a scene where Betsey’s mother tries to get her to eat some peas, and while I obviously won’t spoil what happens, I will say that I’ve never seen something so small cause me so much distress. This scene and the numerous others like it are masterclasses in suspense, tension, and atmosphere, so even though there are barely any scares in this film, it’s still a legit genre movie that fans of this kind of horror are going to get a lot out of.

That being said, I do have to admit that I was slightly disappointed by the third act. It works well enough on its own, but it’s very different from what I was expecting. See, the trailer seemed to promise a descent into chaos that would end in a bloody mess, but that’s not at all what we get. There are a few times when it seems like the movie is going to get crazy, but those moments never last. Instead, the film always slows down again pretty quickly, and it stays that way even in the final scene.

Now, to be clear, this isn’t a knock on the movie itself. If anything, it’s a knock on the trailer for being a bit misleading. I only mention it because I don’t want you to go in with any false expectations, and if I’m being honest, I fully expect that this won’t be a problem for me on subsequent rewatches.

On top of excellent atmospheric horror, A Banquet also has two other strengths that I need to mention. First, there’s the cinematography. This film is beautifully shot from beginning to end, so even when nothing particularly interesting is happening on screen, it’s always an absolute joy to look at. And when things do get interesting, the gorgeous cinematography just makes it exponentially better.

Secondly, the acting in this movie is top-notch. Everybody plays their parts really well, so I completely bought into the entire cast. These characters feel like real people, not actors reciting lines from a script, so I had no trouble at all believing that they really were going through this terrible ordeal.

Betsey's mother holding her down
Sienna Guillory as “Holly” and Jessica Alexander as “Betsey” in Ruth Paxton’s A
BANQUET. Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight release.

However, as great as the acting was, on the whole, the characters were also the weakest part of A Banquet. It’s tough to put my finger on what exactly the problem was, but even though I believed every single one of them, I just didn’t find them all that interesting. In fact, I’d even say that they felt a bit bland most of the time. I think they were a bit too normal, so they didn’t have any interesting quirks or unusual traits that could grab my attention.

Because of that, I never really became invested in the story. Sure, I believed the characters, but I didn’t care that much about them. I never felt their pain at Betsey’s strange and inexplicable condition, so I wasn’t able to enter into the film the way I wanted to. It kept me at arm’s length emotionally, so even though everything else about it was excellent, the story just didn’t pull at my heartstrings the way truly great horror movies do.

And that’s a shame because A Banquet has all the makings of a great film, but it doesn’t quite get there. It has an excellent atmosphere, super-effective tension, gorgeous cinematography, and 100% believable acting, and nine times out of ten, that combination makes for a great horror movie. But not this time. My lack of emotional connection with the characters kept the film from reaching that level, so at the end of the day, I have to say that it’s merely good—not great.

But don’t get the wrong idea. A merely good movie is still a good movie, so if you’re looking for some good new horror, I’d definitely recommend checking out A Banquet. It’s not going to be for everybody, but if this sounds like the kind of film you’d enjoy, I think it’s going to be well worth your time.

A Banquet hits VOD platforms and limited theaters on February 18.

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Written by JP Nunez

JP Nunez is a lifelong horror fan. From a very early age, he learned to love monsters, ghosts, and all things spooky, and it's still his favorite genre today.

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