Katie Smith-Wong reviews A Banquet, a creepy, intense feature debut from director Ruth Paxton – the film stars Sienna Guillory and Jessica Alexander.

Tormented by the horrific death of her husband, Holly (Guillory) is lost in grief, with two teenage daughters, and struggling to find purpose. Under a blood red moon, Betsey (Jessica Alexander) has a vision and refuses to eat, claiming she’s been chosen to prepare humanity for an upcoming event. She invites her mother and younger sister, Isabelle (Ruby Stokes) to join in her calling – deepening the darkness that grips their family.

Horror is often the genre of choice for filmmakers beginning their career. A Banquet may be the debut feature film from Paxton, but there’s a complexity within it that shows her immense talent and promise. It’s disturbing, not just solely due to what Betsey claims awaits us in the coming days, but because it shows a family in crisis.

Strip away the prophecy and it’s a story of a young woman recently robbed of her father, and suffering from an eating disorder. What’s worse, her situation causes friction in her family – grandmother June (Lindsay Duncan) calls her a liar, Isabelle insists she’s seeking attention, while Holly alternates between support and suspicion.

Holly has no doubt that there is something deeply wrong, but she doesn’t have the ability to understand – even when Betsey explains the cause. As the months pass, Betsey’s issues dominate family life, money grows tight, and Holly’s isolation only becomes more entrenched.

From the start, Paxton aims for a particular level of ‘creepiness’ that, once achieved, is sustained without jump scares and monsters (bar one rather horrific entity). The discomfort originates from an unnerving score, snippets of dialogue between the group of core characters, and the possibility that Betsey might be telling the truth.

As you would expect from a story of this nature, religious symbolism is present – but it’s subtle, and never moves A Banquet away from true psychological horror. It eschews obvious answers in favour of uncertainty, and is better for it. Is Betsey a sick young woman or a prophet? Is Holly a desperate mother or the first apostle?

Guillory, Alexander, and the venerable Lindsay Duncan give excellent portrayals of troubled women. Their scenes are a joy, elevated by brilliant direction and cinematography. Kaine Zajaz should also be commended for his role as Dominic, Betsey’s friend and confidante. His reaction is the first indication that something dark is at play, and a later appearance – when he discusses the power of prayer with Holly (and that he isn’t convinced it’s supposed to work)– is beautifully delivered.

Horror works best when it comes from a place we recognise. Here, Paxton masterfully crafts a tale that is equal parts family drama and apocalyptic dread. Comments made by June strongly indicate Holly suffered some sort of mental health issue as a child, and that experience taints the relationship between all three generations. Both sets of mother and daughter (or daughters) have unresolved, festering anger towards one another, thus spoiling any chance at unity facing this challenge as a family may demand. As A Banquet moves towards a conclusion, the intensity only builds, but when the somewhat ambiguous ending does come, it’s difficult not to view it as one of merciful release rather than destruction.

A Banquet is an excellent, challenging, and impressive debut feature from an equally impressive director.

Thank you for visiting! If you’d like to support our attempts to make a non-clickbaity movie website:

Follow Film Stories on Twitter here, and on Facebook here.

Buy our Film Stories and Film Stories Junior print magazines here.

Become a Patron here.

Related Posts