The Feast’s opening scene is short, but it’s savory.
At the center of an otherwise bucolic green pasture, a worker at a drill site manages heavy machinery as it bores violently into the earth, spewing smoke in thick plumes. Suddenly, the worker stops, staggers back, and falls to the ground, bleeding from muff-covered ears as the drill whirs incessantly forward.
Has he suddenly become sensitive to the drill’s shrieking volume, to its ravaging of the surrounding landscape? Or has some strange frequency, perhaps emanating from the ground itself, reached the surface and laid waste to him in return? Either way, in a few short moments, a brutal rebalancing has occurred.
Even sharper, more savage reversals lie ahead in this coldly inexorable Welsh-language folk-horror allegory, which is out this week from IFC Midnight and marks the creepily accomplished feature debut of director Lee Haven Jones.
The Feast builds forbidding contrasts into its visual language from the jump. With a color palette of blacks, whites, and mottled greens that suits the film’s setting — a gleaming, modernist jewel-box of a house — the combination of cut-glass edits and vivid matches heighten the film’s sense of slow, uncanny dread. The restrained then showy sound design, vacillating between eerie stillness and brutally discordant ringing, establishes another polarity in how it keeps the audience at a distance then closes that gap in just a few punishing notes.
Set almost entirely within this hermetically sealed sanctuary, The Feast — written by Roger Williams — takes shivery pleasure in staging sterile, geometric compositions that further establish this space as not only pristine but spiritually vacant, a stark contrast with the verdant landscapes just outside. Its floor-to-ceiling windows make the occupants appear to be living inside a terrarium, with all this physical remove mirroring their emotional detachment toward the land.
A gorgeously severe fixture set against the surrounding Welsh countryside, that house has more than a little in common with Cadi (Annes Elwy). The young woman with wet hair turns up at the gate one day to assist the lady of the house, Glenda (Nia Roberts), in preparing and serving an extravagant three-course meal for her family and guests.
Cadi is quiet but not quite shy. The glowering silence and sly little smiles with which she sets about her tasks suggest that something’s amiss even before she glides through the house’s immaculate chambers; as she tries on a pair of Glenda’s earrings, she collapses into harsh, unsettling peals of laughter at the sight of herself in the mirror.
Not that the house’s other occupants would notice Cadi’s odd behavior, nor the stains that inexplicably start to seep across both the tablecloth and her clothing. They’re too fixated on their own perversions. Patriarch Gwyn (Julian Lewis Jones) is a boorish alcoholic who proudly boasts of having shot the rabbits that they’re having for dinner with a shotgun that remains ominously closer at hand. One son, Gweirydd (Sion Alun Davies), is a hulking, single-minded triathlete. The other, Guto (Steffan Cennydd), is a recovering heroin addict looking for a fix — at least he is before a seemingly minor accident with an ax starts to eat up more of his attention.
Notably, Gwyn and Gweirydd make lecherous advances on Cadi, her body another resource to ravage thoughtlessly. More than equipped to defend herself, she hints at the truth of the film’s opening image by humming at such a brutal decibel it leaves Gwyn doubled over in agony. An even more brutal comeuppance is in store for Gweirydd, and we never question whether he’ll deserve it.
With their face peels, raw diets, and displays of casual cruelty toward both Cadi and the surrounding wildlife, this family unit is a foul sty. Just as grotesque is one of their two guests, Gwyn’s business partner Euros (Rhodri Meilir), whose gluttonous appetites belie his self-serving worldview. He’s first seen not licking his fingers so much as shoving them entirely inside his mouth, sucking up every last drop in a way that directly links this meal to his ruthless extraction of mineral deposits from the family’s land.
As night falls and everyone prepares for dinner, we learn that Glenda grew up on the land, back when it was still a farm and that she and Gwyn have struck a devil’s deal with Euros to drain the 30-acre property of its minerals. When neighboring farmer Mair (Lisa Palfrey) comes to the table, it’s also revealed the feast is also a front of sorts, allowing Glenda, Gwyn, and Euros to ambush her with a similar proposition.
Cadi, of course, has other plans. After she retches in the rabbit dish and thick clumps of her hair show up in the first course, almost choking one unlucky family member, it becomes clear she’s not following the previously agreed-upon recipes. One couldn’t call The Feast subtle about its class-warfare and climate-change metaphors, especially when it comes to eating the rich. But it’s hard to begrudge the film’s thematically rich depravities when it finds such imaginative and evocative ways to visualize them.
By far the year’s most exciting eco-horror offering, The Feast sidesteps the mycorrhizal madness of Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth and Jaco Bouwer’s Gaia. Instead, it operates in a much chillier vein that feels no less ready to burst. When it finally does so, painting the walls of its modernist sanctuary red in thick arterial spurts, Jones’ film reveals an affinity for carnage that makes all its careful build-up feel more like bracing.
The slow-burn first hour of The Feast is admirably restrained, documenting the spatial dipoles of the family’s house and reflecting their manifold entitlements and excesses so that their just desserts are cathartic and earned. Then, it delivers a 20-minute smorgasbord of giddy, grotesque executions, complete with flesh-eating maggots. Not since the glory days of Bryan Fuller’s more psychosexually oriented Hannibal has gastronomy felt so satisfyingly ladened with grisly portend, and The Feast impresses by coiling its dread so tightly that it whets the viewer’s appetite.
And yet, The Feast has more on its mind than easy vengeance. A late-in-the-game, fourth-wall-breaking moment from Cadi communicates volumes in terms of the despair underlying her unpleasant task. The film is broken into six chapters, the last of which — “after you’ve taken everything, what will be left?” — focuses on the residual anguish of the natural world, pillaged permanently by the endless greed of man.
If Cadi is an avatar for corrective justice in the overtly politicized spirit of recent folk-horror films like Jayro Bustamante’s La Llorona and Nia DaCosta’s Candyman remake, she has arrived in time to punish the guilty and perhaps delay further devastation — but not to undo the damage already done. Cadi has engorged these parasites to their last breath, and now she is left stained by their blood, surrounded by the mess they’ve made.
Opening this week, The Feast could not be better timed. One can easily imagine it becoming a new Thanksgiving tradition for horror aficionados with iron-clad stomachs — as well as an appetite for visually striking scares that unsettle through thorny symbolism before their bloodletting begins in earnest.
The Feast opens in theaters and on digital/VOD on November 19.