ANALYSIS: Dinner is Served – A Tasting Menu of Mealtimes in Horror

Spoilers

Family get-togethers can be hell. This Thanksgiving, Rebecca McCallum pulls up a chair at the worst dinners in horror history…

Mealtimes are often seen as a communal event: a time for families and friends to come together and enjoy drinks, nourishment and good conversation. Horror cinema shines a light on such occasions, exploiting the conflict and tension that can spill out and those intolerable moments of silence which occur when we congregate to break bread… and maybe each other. So grab a seat, pass the cranberry sauce and make yourself comfy as I take a look at my favourite mealtimes in horror: prepare for a night of explosive conversation, hot-tempted tablecloth pulling and – of course (for those who are game enough) – a huge of helping of headcheese.

Rosemary’s Baby (1968) dir. Roman Polanski

A meal with Rosemary’s (Mia Farrow) good friend Hutch (Maurice Evans) looks like my ideal Sunday dinner. However as wine and (sacrificial?) lamb are served, viewers should be careful not to allow the tantalising thought of indulgent mouthfuls to distract them from learning some key information. While the trusty Hutch (who is soon to fall prey to ‘all them witches’) removes the hunky cut of meat from the oven, he tells his wide-eyed and attentive guests Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes) of the Black Bramford, which also happens to be the couple’s new home: an early warning sign comes when the host confesses ‘I wish I could get you out of it’.

As wine is poured and dishes dutifully make their way around the table we hear all we need to know via mention of the Trench Sisters, Adrian Maccato, cannibalism and witchcraft. Such tales might have some couples putting their rental on hold for good, but neither Rosemary nor Guy seem to take Hutch’s words seriously at first, even conceding that ‘awful things happen in every apartment’. However, Rosemary’s nonchalant demeanour slowly changes when he informs them of an infant found wrapped in the newspaper in the basement of the Bramford. In short, there are lessons to be learnt at Chez Hutch: that words of wisdom should be heeded, that men who wear bowties can often be trusted and that sometimes circular tables are due a comeback.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) dir. Tobe Hooper

Could there be a dinner party more gut-wrenchingly terrifying than that featured in Tobe Hooper’s masterpiece The Texas Chain Saw Massacre? Teenager Sally (Marilyn Burbs) is the only survivor of a road trip following the savage murders of her brother and three friends by one of horrors’ slasher icons, Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen). Our nerves are already shred to ribbons following the heart-stopping discovery that, just when Sally thinks she is safe in the hands of the Cook (Jim Siedow) at the gas station, he huddles her into a sack before taking her back to his family home where Leatherface is waiting, stopping to pick up the Hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) along the way. It’s quite the spread that has been laid on back at the homestead, and its impossible not to find yourself retching at the sight of bones, rotting flesh and a plate of what almost certainly includes the remains of Sally’s friends.

But the ordeal is far from over, and it’s all Sally can do to scream and struggle as she is tied down and gagged. Cue the arrival of Grandpa (John Dugan) for dinner… and this is when things really turn nightmarish. Held down by the Hitchhiker, Sally’s eyeballs (which look as though they are ready to burst) tell it all. There’s a moment of calm as she closes her eyes followed by a welcome silence. However, the pause is only temporary and before we can relax and exhale she screams again as though remembering where she is, reliving the horror all over again. The screams are echoed and mimicked by the family in the most horrific of ways, but it is Sally’s howls that reach deep within our psyche. As she begs for her life, there is a desperate sadness to her hopeless plea: ‘I’ll do anything you want’. The close-ups of her tortured eyes and continual crying leave you utterly shaken and feeling as though you are experiencing Sally’s horrific ordeal first-hand. With the mask of a human face hovering over the table as a lightshade, Sally’s meal remains untouched as she is dragged to a bucket for further torture. Barely able to stand due to fear and anxiety, it’s fair to say we are rooting for Sally to engineer an escape plan.

Alien (1979) dir. Ridley Scott

Dinnertime on the Nostromo begins jovially enough as the crew tuck into Tupperware supplies over a pleasant hum of conversation. While the meal might be plentiful, seemingly it’s not that palatable as Kane (John Hurt) assures his fellow-diners ‘the first thing I’m going to do when I get back is to have some decent food’. Smoke free laws are also clearly not yet in place as Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) puffs away on a cigarette whilst being subjected to terrible sex-related puns that are so bad she is able to duly laugh them off. Director Scott creates a sense of routine and safety: this is just a group of workers sharing a meal and there’s nothing dangerous in that, right?

Soon after helping himself to a rather large serving from a nearby bowl, Kane begins to choke and – while everyone jumps to attend to him – ginger cat Jonesy will not be driven from his feed as he continues to nibble away on his feline dinner. It quickly becomes apparent that this is more than a case of food going down the wrong way, as Kane lays on his back writhing across the table. As his friends hold him down Kane lets out a primal scream of intense pain as blood stains the middle of his t-shirt. What follows is one of the most famous scenes in horror cinema as a phallic creature erupts from his chest, splattering Lambert in the face with gore. Resembling a creature only ever seen in nightmares, the alien rises up – erection-like – and slowly takes in its surroundings before letting out the most alarming squeal. If Alien is proof of anything, its that in space, cats still don’t give a damn.

The Lost Boys (1987) dir. Joel Schumacher

A cheery Lucy (Dianne Wiest) makes preparations in the kitchen for her new beau Max (Ed Herrmann): he’s coming to dinner, but is not so welcomed by everyone else in the household. Suspicions are well and truly roused about the guest, even before he steps over the threshold. He’s first greeted by a brooding teenage Michael (Jason Patric) – ‘and you must be Max’ – who in return, both patronisingly and yet all too conveniently, insists in being officially invited in by the ‘man of the house.’ The table is set with care with its tall candles and vase of flowers, lending the occasion a touch of gothic romance.

Things seem cordial at first, but when youngest son Sam (Corey Haim) arrives with his ‘dinner guests’ – the incomparable Edgar (Corey Feldman) and Alan Frog (Jamison Newlander) – Max finds himself in for a night of testing and tricks designed to ascertain whether he is who he claims to be. Max looks tentatively at the new additions to the dinner table, but is able to keep up the perfect veneer (at least on the surface), complimenting Lucy’s efforts at spaghetti making. While Lucy remains a polite and courteous host, Sam and the Frog Brothers prove themselves to be nightmare dinner guests as they ply Max with garlic, throw water over his suit and push a mirror before his face after switching the lights on and off.  Tension mounts as Max concedes ‘I think I know what’s going on in here tonight…’ prompting a worried look from the trio: is Max onto them? Is he the Head Vampire? And does the family dog Nanook really have bad breath?

Kill List (2011) dir. Ben Wheatley

In a dinner party that sets you on edge before its even begun, director Wheatley conveys a troubling undercurrent of doom as he shows couple Shel (MyAnna Buring) and Jay (Neil Maskell) getting ready separately, clearly something horrible brewing beneath the surface. As Jay’s friend Gal (Michael Smiley) and his new girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer) arrive, Shel does her best to uphold a high-spirited mood as she welcomes the guests whilst Jay remains notably absent in conversation. As everyone settles in over a few drinks, a dinner of rack of lamb, vegetables and gravy is served and – for a moment – the possibility of a pleasant evening seems plausible. Fiona probes what Shel and Jay do for work, and we hear that as a British soldier Jay could often be away for up to three months at a time, leaving Shel alone with their son. It’s clear that the scars of service are still very raw for Jay and that he is unable to move forward, which is causing conflict in his relationship with Shel. While both guests are briefly away from the table, Jay berates Shell for trivialities such as serving gravy in a Pyrex jug, and its obvious the tension is bubbling higher, ready to burst.

With the guests back at the table, the couple try to keep a lid on things, but one snippy remark is traded for another and before long Jay turns his plate upside down and rips off the tablecloth in anger, the polite façade well and truly stripped away. A horrific screaming match ensues, indicative of the disharmony in their relationship as Gal takes their son to bed and a cat nibbles at the leftovers, blissfully unaware of the chaos. Despite Jay being the cause of the destruction, it is Shel who is left to clear the mess up, face Fiona and make apologies. When Shel declares ‘he was the one you know’, rather than finishing this with ‘the love of my life’ as we (and Fiona) expect her to, she shakes her head muttering ‘no, the one who started it’.

Mealtime in Kill List might seem vaguely familiar to many as it portrays the push / pull between politeness and conflict that underpins many dinner parties. Let it be known though that there is absolutely nothing wrong with serving gravy in a Pyrex jug, but no rack of lamb should be served without those little chef hats.

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) dir. Dan Trachtenberg

Stuck in a bunker, sheltering from the unknown perils of the outside world, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Howard (John Goodman) share a meal of spaghetti. But Emmett’s dinner table talk about passing the time by playing Monopoly irritates an already tense-seeming Howard. The bubbling of a fish tank filter is the only background noise we can hear as Michelle continues the conversation about board games. She seems to have grander designs than chit-chat however, as she asks Emmett first for a napkin, then salt and lastly pepper while Howard gets increasingly uptight and suspicious at just what is taking place.

However when Michelle gently touches Emmett’s hand it’s this that really sets Howard off as he slams the table with his fist, rising to corner her and firing questions about what she’s up to. Meanwhile, Emmett is told to remain in his seat whilst Michelle reaches for an object that might just rescue them both from Howard’s control. As Howard glares at her directly she returns his gaze, conceding an apology, but as she returns to her seat there is a pregnant pause as she cradles a set of keys in her hands underneath the table. Throughout this unpredictable mealtime, Michelle stays alert and aware, waiting for an opportunity to flee for her life. Observant and intelligent, she exploits Howards’ weaknesses and skilfully manipulates him… and who wouldn’t go to similar lengths in order to evade a game of Monopoly?

Hereditary (2018) dir. Ari Aster

A subtle and lingering rendition of the dinner from hell, what is most notably tragic in Hereditary is the vacant seat at the table, unoccupied due to a recent death in the family. It is this death that is the catalyst for the resentment, tension and horror that is about to ensue. Here, food is not enjoyed, instead it’s picked at and prodded with cutlery creating sounds that echo about the room, serving to highlight the prolonged agony. The silences are excruciating, and when people do speak to one other it’s in clipped dialogue. Mother Annie (Toni Collette) seems genuinely surprised when her son Peter (Alex Wolff) asks if she is okay and he can barely return her gaze. While this might be mistaken for concern, it’s clear that his underlying motive is to press her buttons and elicit a response: in truth what Peter craves is some display of emotion, rather than the vacuum the family have been living in.

As things become heated between mother and son (it’s notable that when father Steve – played by Gabriel Byrne – speaks it is only as a referee) it is evident that there will be no resolution, as questions are met with more questions, providing a feeling of hopelessness. Frustrated at the lack of response, Peter swears at Annie causing her to rise to her feet, reminding him that she is his mother as she releases not only the hurt and pain she has been harbouring since ‘the incident’, but resentment that has been building over many years. Annie expresses a wish that she could shield Peter from his own hurt and pain and even laments that the death of a family member has not been able to bring them closer together, citing Peter’s lack of responsibility for holding them in this state of limbo. Rather than clearing the air, Annie’s yelling seems to inspire further resentment from Peter, who continues to probe, questioning her own involvement in events. The scene shows that the family are doomed to hurt one another rather than heal together. Consider this as a warning to never swear at your mother at the dinner table!

Rebecca McCallum

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