The Dinner Party, 2020.
Directed by Miles Doleac.
Starring Jeremy London, Bill Sage, Sherri Eakin, Lindsay Anne Williams, Ritchie Montgomery, Miles Doleac, Sawandi Wilson, Alli Hart, Mike Mayhall, Judyth Daley, and Kamille McCuin.
A budding playwright and his wife attend a dinner party hosted by wealthy, cultural elites, who have promised to bankroll the writer’s latest play to Broadway, but, in fact, have darker designs in mind for the couple.
Miles Doleac’s The Dinner Party owes plenty to “eat the rich” commentaries like Ready Or Not or The Cannibal Club. Horror exists in the realization that societies or cults or communities have been committing literal murder for undisclosed amounts of time without penalty. “You’ll never get away with this,” barks a restrained supporting character in any one of these scenarios. It’s on a film’s narrative to decide if justice will finally prevail. Doleac and co-writer Michael Donovan Horn stay true to this familiar formula, with an emphasis on “familiar” with smells of Stanic Panic as a host of kitchen-sink subgenre additives present themselves. It’s all well-acted and deceptively batty, but at nearly two hours, one has to wonder if The Dinner Party bites off more than it can chew.
Playwright Jeff (Mike Mayhall) and wife Haley (Alli Hart) arrive per invitation for a swanky night of alcohol, hors d ‘oeuvres, and parlor games. If everything goes right, Jeff could be leaving with a fully-financed theater production deal. Haley is immediately disturbed by one of the hosts (“wicked” Sebastian, played by Sawandi Wilson), but Jeff demands his wife “relax.” Too bad, because Haley’s intuition is on the mark. As the night progresses, Jeff and Haley find themselves the guests of honor to a much more sinister gathering. One that can’t be forgotten with a $12 bottle of brown-bag pinot.
Any worthwhile social event requires a cast of characters who’re entertainers at heart, and The Dinner Party is no different. Everyone clutches their own secret, playing up snootiness and decadence with a villain’s grin. Bill Sage licks his chops as homeowner Carmine, obsessing over charcuteries with the snicker of a cartoon wolf. Lindsay Anne Williams wears the wardrobe of a forest nymph and draws upon Mother Earth’s aura as some hippy high-priestess who dictates through tarot cards. Doleac himself steps into frame as a mysterious man with scars up and down his forearms, pushing more aggressive agendas. It’s a gallery of sometimes nude, sometimes treacherous rogues emphatically acted by performers who find deliciousness in darkness.
Enter Jeff and Haley, representing the film’s unknowing victims. We suspect selection by chance, but then Jeff begins to belittle his partner’s anxiety in the hopes of professional fame. The Dinner Party isn’t just about lunatics who prey upon weak targets. Haley’s relationship with abuse and trauma brings to light how gender oppression exists in plain sight, introducing an underlying theme of shrugged-off mental illness treatment (and Jeremy London as, well, the film’s toughest to swallow and most mishandled note). Doleac is ambitious in addressing multiple everyday issues, but this is where The Dinner Party starts bursting at the seams. In trying to touch upon everything, motivations and messaging become lost in exploitation diversions as opera conversations over vino turn to violence. All in the name off…well, try and keep pace.
By now, you may have clued into the exotic flavors served from Carmine’s blood-slathered kitchen. Expect some grisly imagery translated through juicy, glistening cuts of “meat” massaged with olive oil and garlic. The Dinner Party works best when weaponizing mealtime as hungry eyes dart from one plate of flesh-tone steaks to the next, but is still a genre film hindered by expectations. The foiled escape, the outsider who doublecrosses, constant vomiting as if the gross-out factor wasn’t high enough already. A few bits of practical goriness leave entrails dangling outside gutted abdomens, yet it’s tabletop spreads of “exotic” entrees that leave the most searing impression. A bit disappointing given how much time fixates elsewhere on pitchfork-tongued mind games, the “chase” when Haley becomes a final girl type, and wilder plot advancement that enters a mythical realm.
The Dinner Party polishes all its silverware and sharpens its blades, albeit more for show. Miles Doleac’s hodgepodge of psycho-sexuality, bizarre barbeques, and folklore incantations feel at odds with one another. There’s an eerie understanding of lighting and composition (Carmine butchering away, shrouded in darkness), and performances are indulgent, yet narrative throughlines sometimes escape Doleac. It makes for a messier cleanup during the film’s final act, one that reads more tacked-on than motivationally earned. Maybe you’ll be enchanted by ritualistic bloodlust, or perhaps left starving after another snazzy refitting of the same taste-driven chamber pieces you’ve seen with only the slightest recipe alterations. All will depend on the maturity of your horror-loving palate.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Matt spends his after-work hours posting nonsense on the internet instead of sleeping like a normal human. He seems like a pretty cool guy, but don’t feed him after midnight just to be safe (beers are allowed/encouraged). Follow him on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd (@DoNatoBomb).