A family get-together will always be a mixed bag, regardless of how tight-knit your family unit may be. The simple fact of the matter is, families can be a lot to handle. Now, this doesn’t always necessarily imply something inherently wrong, but if you ever found yourself at an Easter celebration akin to Peter Hengl’s debut film, Family Dinner, perhaps some familial reflection would help a considerable amount. Celebrating its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival in the Midnight category, this deliciously thrilling genre film slowly but surely tightens its grip on the viewer and builds to a holy (read unholy) crescendo. With so few horror films choosing the ripe and often untapped potential of Easter, writer/director Hengl opens a window to a simple story that deals with more than a fair share of complex themes.
On a holiday getaway seemingly in the middle of nowhere, 15-year-old Simi looks to her aunt Claudia for help on losing weight. Known for her best-selling health books, one would assume that the added bonus of being family would allow the two not only an added level of chemistry, but to learn from one another and grow as a unit. Yet it is quickly apparent that aunt Claudia is a bit idiosyncratic in her methods, and Simi can’t help but feel as if she is imposing at every turn. Of course, she’s not, but as an insecure 15-year-old, even the most minor inconveniences to those around us would seem akin to a cataclysmic event. Just with this basic introduction to the film setting, Hengl is able to exploit this universal emotion and craft it into an effective chamber-play that slowly reveals its disturbed core.
Touching on everything from fad diets to self-image, Hengl describes Family Dinner at its core as a “coming-of-age story… and how people we trust influence us in our development”. But of course, the fun spin on all this is the story is obviously told through a genre lens. Within the genre of horror, filmmakers are often given much more room to play with their ideas, no matter how bold they may be. In the case of Family Dinner, Hengl wanted to be sure “that the film didn’t make a clear statement”. To add to the importance, and sometimes necessity, of horror, he stated, “(Horror films) are instantly unique. Horror touches our deepest primal fear”. With visual examples of Simi being practically imprisoned, we witness her spiral declining into madness, never sure on whether it’s her aunt’s diet methods causing these issues. It’s fascinating to witness the concept of an unreliable narrator be thrown onto the narrator by way of dietary methods. This concept allows for Hengl to completely pull the rug out from under his audience in a wicked third act.
While newcomers Nina Katlein (Simi) and Alexander Sladek (Filipp), who loves throwing up a middle finger whenever possible, bring some understandable fear and confusion to their roles, it’s Pia Hierzegger as Claudia who shines. More accurately, it’s Claudia who casts an ominous shadow over Family Dinner in the best way possible. With a stare that can shift from loving to blank at the drop of a hat, Hierzegger constantly plays with audience perception of her character. Interestingly enough, she cited The Shining as being one of her favorite horror films as a teenager; Both her and Jack Torrance latch onto a sense of dedication in finishing what you started, no matter how detrimental that may be to yourself or those around you.
Set in a single location with a literal handful of characters, it’s clear Hengl understands what makes a genre film not only fascinating and thrilling, but entertaining. The emphasis on minimalism allows each beat to feel more impactful and resonate deeper with the viewer. With concepts based off of fears he had as a child, Family Dinner does indeed feel like the holiday vacation from hell. And for deep fans of the genre and all that comes with the territory, this film can claim quite literally that it is the stuff of nightmares.
Family Dinner is celebrating its World Premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. Tickets for screenings and more information on the film can be found right here.