Evoking disturbing favorites Honeydew and Midsommar, eerie horror mystery Family Dinner brings us on an Easter holiday straight through hell. Envision the worst one’s family has to offer, and I can almost guarantee that Simi is worse off. Sprinkled with coming-of-age elements and a major focus on body shaming, writer/director Peter Hengl delivers a very different brand of German genre delight. Who is ready to spark up the big Easter bonfire?
Longing for a connection to her Aunt Claudia (Pia Hierzegger) after the death of her Uncle Max, Simi (Nina Katlein) arrives to a house still undergoing renovations but with seemingly open arms. Aunt Claudia, a published cookbook author, is hard at work on her next book. She promises Simi a comforting place to stay, but she cannot extend her invitation to the end of the Easter holiday. Simi must depart by Good Friday, because “Easter is a private family celebration” for her aunt, stepfather Stefan (Michael Pink), and cousin Filipp (Alexander Sladek).
Forced to share a room with Filipp, Simi is taunted and belittled almost immediately. Filipp strips in front of her, accuses her of becoming aroused by his figure, and calls her horrible names. Secretly, Simi has smuggled in one of Aunt Claudia’s cookbooks, which she has studied and annotated thoroughly. Overweight Simi secretly hopes to gain the wisdom and confidence during this trip to help her shed some pounds. Aunt Claudia agrees to help Simi to detox and go on a strict regimen, with the caveat that she must take it seriously. “What you eat becomes part of you,” Aunt Claudia tells Simi. True to her word, Aunt Claudia becomes practically tyrannical in her efforts to change Simi. Furthermore, something feels off to Simi during her stay, often to the point that she keeps debating leaving to go back home as Easter approaches.
The script overestimates the audience’s faith in Simi to make smart decisions, but the fact that she struggles with her decisions makes her human. An uneasy atmosphere works its way into the narrative easily and completely. Simi constantly faces manipulation from her Aunt, but given that this is all about family, the viewer must question the motivations of all involved. I kept flipping back and forth as to what I thought was really happening behind the scenes. Once all of the mysterious clues click into place, Family Dinner takes one on a hellish journey that never lets go.
That home stretch of Family Dinner is genuinely some of the best in horror that I have seen all year. Peter Hengl nails it with foreshadowing and payoffs that reward actually paying attention. Themes of rebirth, vital to the actual Easter holiday, reign supreme. Shocking flashes of gore come at opportune moments that are only strengthened thanks to the lengthy time spent establishing a family dynamic. Family Dinner feels destined to be the ultimate holiday rewatch, and I can’t wait to come back to the table for seconds.
Family Dinner screened at 2022’s Tribeca Film Festival.