Writer/Director Peter Hengls feature debut, family dinner, combining the jitters and tingles of an awkward family dynamic at the dinner table with holiday horror. In this case, the holiday is Easter, a rarity in the genre. family dinner unfolds its methodical, slow-burning story in the days leading up to Easter Sunday, focusing on fleeting relationships and austere, quirky holiday traditions to create deep-seated psychological angst.
15-year-old Simi (Nina Katlein) arrives at her aunt Claudia (Pia Hierzegger) house just before Easter weekend. Simi hopes her aunt, a renowned nutritionist and bestselling health book, will help her lose weight, although she waits until she gets there to ask Claudia for advice. Claudia agrees and immediately imposes strict calorie restrictions and strict rules on Simi. Then Simi has to deal with her hostile cousin Filipp (Alexander Sladek), while Filipp’s stepfather Stefan (Michael Rosa) is unusually affectionate towards her. The closer Easter Sunday gets, the more tense the family becomes. The truth behind the behavior is more staggering than Simi could have ever guessed.
Hengl lets his naive young protagonist fall into a tangled web. It’s obvious from the start that Simi doesn’t know her aunt or cousin very well, her rare visit being prompted solely for personal reasons. This ignorance of their surroundings and people creates immediate uneasiness. Simi and the deputy viewer are constantly nervous when she walks on eggshells to avoid triggering Filipp or Claudia’s anger. Claudia is initially much warmer and more welcoming than her son Filipp, but falsely placed evidence of hidden snacks brings Claudia’s anger towards Simi and accusations of not taking her diet advice to heart. Observing the volatile relationship between Stefan and Filipp becomes a source of paranoia, another clear warning sign that something is wrong.
family dinner puts constant pressure on the psychological horror, sending Simi from one uncomfortable encounter to the next in an increasingly claustrophobic household. Food and its lack play a crucial role in instilling fear. Food and the ritual of eating are inseparable for Claudia, who has built a whole career around it. How Hengl frames and engages food offers more insight and answers where the dialogue doesn’t; the filmmaker isn’t interested in spelling things out for the audience in more conventional ways.
Because the narrative is framed from Simi’s perspective, Claudia and Stefan are consistently out of reach. In order to preserve the mysterious fear, Hengl considers the adult figures to be strangers. Simi’s closest and most frequent interactions are with her cousin of the same age or on the phone with her mother. Keeping Claudia and Stefan at a distance adds to the unsettling atmosphere, but softens the impact of the revelations.
Easter brings the slow simmer to the boil. Tense psychological fear explodes into intense terror. Hengl’s foreboding abilities mean audiences can vaguely guess where things are going, but his grisly details will leave you guessing. While the third act brings a more explosive payoff, it’s still slightly understated. It’s because of the depressing mood and atmosphere family dinner shines the brightest. Hengl’s flair for imagery and exploitation of character insecurities goes well beyond creating a twisted family reunion of nightmarish proportions. Much like the diet obsessed and special Claudia, family dinner wants you to enjoy the details. It requires more patience, and its payout may not quite reach the explosive heights intended. Still, it leaves you with a lot to chew on.
family dinner made its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, with no release date announced at the time.