Rating: 3 out of 5.

A Banquet, Ruth Paxton’s bizarre new TIFF horror film, will certainly make you think twice before you eat. Strange, gory visuals, food close-ups, potential exorcisms, and… anorexia? Paxton takes several pages from the horror handbook for her feature directorial debut. While the plot may be practically threadbare, I was pulled in by the striking imagery and captivating turns from the four female leads.

Setting the stage for a very dark atmosphere, A Banquet opens with a sickly man who commits suicide by drinking bleach. His heartbroken wife, Holly (Sienna Guillory), is left to pick up the pieces and provide for her two daughters. Isabelle (Ruby Stokes), the youngest, is an ice skater whose biggest issue lies in her refusal to get braces from the dentist. Betsey (Jessica Alexander), on the other hand, is nothing but trouble after she wanders into the woods underneath what appears to be a blood moon.

“I’m not hungry” becomes Betsey’s new way of life, as after her excursion in the woods, the sight of any food makes her nauseous. Eating just five tiny little peas makes Betsey choke, and is enough cause for an MRI. Holly, afraid Betsey will infect the family with her “ideas,” instills weigh-ins twice a day. All of this appears to be for naught—Betsey does not lose a pound, despite eating literally nothing. Is it anorexia? Some weird demon possession? If you think A Banquet is the kind of film that provides easy answers, think again.

The flair of the filmmaking adds a sleek style over A Banquet that extends to the ghastly close-ups and sound design. Weirdly enough, the movie actually made me ravenously hungry despite the lead character’s inability to hold down food. That said, I am not entirely sure if the ending worked for me. The nastier the film becomes, the clumsier the scripting follows. Despite a bit of a narrative stumble when it comes to the conclusion, A Banquet is an impressive horror feast whose squelching noises are permanently burned into my memory.

A Banquet screened at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.

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