Whether or not you actually agree that "torture porn" is indeed a genre niche, it's hard to argue that over the years the horror genre has been mired by a deluge of torture. It's invaded from every corner of the planet, often usurping sophisticated characters and plot for extreme violence. There are film franchises that have made a literal game out of placing paper-thin characters up against razor-sharp wire simply so they can spill as much of the red stuff as the audience can endure.

I mention this not because Bitter Feast is one such film, but because that may be the type of film people are expecting from a plot that revolves around a chef, Peter Gray, (James LeGros) who exacts revenge on the food critic, JT Franks (Joshua Leonard), whose perpetually scathing reviews of his meals have finally cost him a career as a celebrity chef. So Peter kidnaps JT, takes him to his isolated house deep in the woods, and makes the blogger pay for all the bad reviews he's written over the years. Combine a plot like that with the current state of the genre and it's oddly natural to expect Peter to break out a pair of pliers and turn JT's body into a canvas of pain. What he actually does is, in a lot of ways, worse.

All Peter wants to do is make JT understand that because his words have consequences he better actually know what he's talking about. What he doesn't realize is that JT is a bit of a self-loathing jerk who has completely lost his lust for life. So it's going to be a little hard for Peter to break through to JT. Unfortunately for the latter, the former has all the time in the world and a house deep in the woods. Things start off simple. Peter reads to JT one of his reviews criticizing the chefs ability to cook an egg. He then gives JT a bucket of eggs and a frying pan. The critic is allowed to eat every egg that he cooks flawlessly over-easy, but if the eggs are imperfect in any way, he won't be eating. And thus begins an "eat your words (or don't) war between the two.

I usually hate to mention expectations for a film in its review, but I think it's important for Bitter Feast in order to understand just how unique of a film it is. Had Joe Maggio written the script and not directed it, it's easy to see all the corners most modern horror directors would have cut to make the film. The characters wouldn't have been as rich, their struggles wouldn't have the proper motivations and their clashes together would be a lot bloodier and far more in-your-face. But because Maggio is coming from a no-budget, character study background, his first stab at horror benefits from not having to give in to any trends currently going on in the genre.

On the flip side of that, however, I think his plotting in the script department is a bit too indicative of someone who is relatively new to the genre. Yes, this allows for a unique set-up of conflict, but the pacing and the highs and the lows may not come as complete surprises to watchers who watch more horror than any other genre. That said, even with a slight sense of pre-destination overshadowing the script, Bitter Feast is still a totally satisfying and engaging film. Maggio knows that showing less and implying more is a horror director's best skill. He also knows that actors who can do more than just fill a role, who can actually bring characters to life are his best tool.

James LeGros and Joshua Leonard both give completely to the essence of their characters. LeGros' Peter Gray is perfectly believable as a celebrity chef, but it's clear from very early on that he is completely unhinged and that the only thing that's prevented him from swinging wide open is a strong enough breeze in the wrong direction. Leonard, who most will recognize as "I gave you back the map!" Josh from The Blair Witch Project, is great as that strong breeze. He gives the character just enough damaging arrogance and swagger to keep his breaking point nearly invisible, which makes him a perfect match for Gray's tactics.

It's those very tactics that really seal the deal on Bitter Feast being such a special, worthwhile film. I always admire films that can take an otherwise mundane setup and make it absolutely gripping. To that end, I can guarantee that you've never been more invested in whether or not someone can properly cook a medium-rare steak than you will be here. And if Maggio can have you more fearful for what's going to happen if/when that steak isn't cooked properly, then he's done everything he needs to just right.
categories Reviews, Horror