There’s an instant sense of dread as Family Dinner, a horror film premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival, begins to play. We’re taken down the winding back roads of the Austrian countryside, past dead trees and empty fields, a dream that could so easily become a nightmare.
A strong feature debut by Austrian writer/director Peter Hengl, Family Dinner takes place around the Easter holiday, which isn’t a first for the horror genre; however, it’s certainly a sharp detour from the average Halloween or Friday the 13th, and one that isn’t typically depicted in film.
Our lead is 15-year-old Simi (Nina Katlein), who is exhausted with feeling self-conscious about her weight. She hopes that her aunt Claudia (Pia Hierzegger), a published nutritionist, will be the answer to these problems, and true to those aspirations, Claudia sets her on a rigorous routine. However, at the same time, Simi has to contend with her unusually bitter cousin Filipp (Alexander Sladek) and Claudia’s venereal husband Stefan (Michael Pink), as the eccentricities begin to build up around her.
Much like the film’s opening drive, the second Hierzegger appears, she’s uncomfortably off-putting. She brings a sense of unfamiliarity to Claudia that should be unfounded with a family member, especially since we’re in Simi’s shoes — instead, it’s the opposite, and I found myself nervous about what Claudia and her all-too-wide smile would do next. This is especially the case after strange occurrences begin to take place, followed by increasingly concerning things.
Simi feels the opposite of welcome in Claudia’s house, as do we, the audience. The claustrophobia takes time to set in, but once it’s there, it’s there to stay. We’re left constantly on edge, just waiting for something unpleasant to happen that could give us an answer as to what exactly is going on.
Much of that is due to the performers, who truly elevate their dialogue and milk the silences for all that they’re worth. A small cast, numbering only four, is a great opportunity for each and every one to shine, and this film definitely makes full use of their talents in crafting an atmosphere filled with terror and suspense, even when what’s happening on-screen would suggest anything but.
Family Dinner refuses to shy away from drawn-out sequences of discomfort. Simi goes hunting with Stefan and Filipp, and we’re subjected to a protracted sequence that will cause some to avert their eyes. However, I find the brutality fascinating, even engaging, and the death of a rabbit perfectly epitomizes how I felt watching this movie. We’re there every step of the way during Simi’s visit, and just like the rabbit, we’re not granted a swift release. Filipp finds himself unable to finish the job and simply holds the rabbit while it flounders and suffers, just as we are left to watch the events of this increasingly terrifying Easter weekend play out, utterly powerless. Even when the rabbit is killed, it’s not over — just as the denouement of Family Dinner is the most intense and frightening sequence of them all. This is not a bad thing by any stretch; in fact, it’s a testament to Hengl’s commitment and unwillingness to shy away from cruelty of any sort, plus great symbolism work to boot.
Family Dinner is beautiful and disturbing, and I respect its commitment in featuring an unfettered look at the subject of bodily insecurities, which much of pop culture either avoids or elects to portray in a disparaging light. I hope that Family Dinner becomes the quintessential Easter horror flick, not just because of the lack of entries in the sub-genre, but also because of its willingness to address what would otherwise be ignored. It’s a masterclass in methodical horror.
Family Dinner premiered at Tribeca Film Festival 20222 on June 10.