Thursday, April 6, 2023

‘Family Dinner’ Director Peter Hengl on Easter Feasts, Bonfires, and Folk Horror [Interview]

Writer/Director Peter Hengl’s feature debut, Family Dinner, mines the discomfort and cringe of awkward family dynamics at the dinner table to deliver memorable holiday horror. In this instance, the holiday is Easter, a rarity in the genre space. 

Just in time for Easter, SCREAMBOX Exclusive Family Dinner will be served on April 7. The Austrian horror film follows an overweight teen to her aunt’s farm before the Easter holiday, hoping to lose weight, only to discover something deeply wrong.

Ahead of the release, Bloody Disgusting spoke with Hengl about Family Dinner. The filmmaker discussed its origins, the importance of food and food styling for his feature debut, and finding inspiration from his love of folk horror.

Family Dinner

“I remember childhood nightmares that I can’t mention because they would be massive spoilers to the end of the film,” Hengl teases about the personal origins behind Family Dinner. “I remember those nightmares, which are funny because I come from a very, very happy, very loving family. I have very, very, very loving parents, very supportive parents. But somehow, there was this idea that probably came at an age where for the first time as a kid, I became aware of the, let’s call it, the imperfection of my parents, realizing that your parents aren’t always perfect. I guess my subconscious kind of made me aware of the potential that parents can be evil. That’s essentially from where it came, combined with many different things.

“For instance, my producer/wife used to study nutritional sciences at the university before she chose a career in film. And so lots of different puzzle pieces came together. My wife has absolutely nothing in common with Aunt Claudia [played by Pia Hierzegger] and would be very angry about any comparisons. But somehow this turned into this weird coming of age story, and I think all good horror films are coming of age stories.”

From there, Hengl tells us how his childhood nightmares evolved into Family Dinner.

He explains, “Another thing that’s a huge influence for me is movies. There are a lot of horror movies I love, and I have a particular sweet spot for folk horror. From the beginning, I knew that I wanted to incorporate folk horror elements. It also made a lot of sense with the whole spiritual side of Aunt Claudia, and a lot of religious celebrations have a lot to do with food, which for most of the time we all love that, particularly with Easter, at least in the Catholic faith, which I was raised in. There are a lot of connections to food there as well as in the pagan background of Easter, which is already a religious tradition that has a lot to do with food and, of course, with fasting and withholding food and then ultimately splurging at a big celebration. So that fits the story’s requirements quite well and worked well with the rest of the story and where I wanted to go.”

Family Dinner food scene

Food is essential to Family Dinner in its eponymous Easter feast and the constant temptations for protagonist Simi (Nina Katlein). While Hengl’s film is fearless in turning up the horror, and it does, he took great care in ensuring the food looked enticing.

I knew from the start that the food and the way the food looks had to be perfect,” he tells us. “My production designer and I got together very early on and essentially created a menu for the film. We created a menu of food we wanted to serve, and then we hired a food styling company that usually works in advertising. They created, I’d say, 80% of the beautiful food you see in the film for us. Interestingly, and that was very surprising to me when you think about food styling in advertising or films, the cliché you always hear is that they use a lot of stuff that’s inedible like hairspray to make, I don’t know, salad leaves glimmer or whatever. The guys we had didn’t do that at all. They were aware of those techniques, but they said, ‘No, we only create food that is edible.’ So everything you see on screen was completely one hundred percent edible. It sometimes didn’t taste too good because it had been standing around for quite a while or in the cold for prolonged periods, but everything was edible, and most of it was pretty tasty.”

Beyond food, Hengl shared his cinematic influences for Family Dinner, revealing a deep love of folk horror in the process.

Family Dinner 2023

“I mostly did this with the crew and the heads of department. There are a couple of movies that I suggested to everyone to watch. One of my all-time favorite movies is 1973’s The Wicker Man,” Hengl reveals. “One of the most recent movies I enjoyed and that left an impression on me regarding my own filmmaking was Ari Aster’s Hereditary, which is not just an amazing movie, it’s also an amazingly well made movie. Every single shot he has in that film is perfectly crafted, and it’s meticulous regarding its camera movements and everything. This is something that we really try to work towards.

“Of course, we were probably not able to live up to such a great example, but tonally, I felt this was a good inspiration. Although, of course, we tried to do our own thing. Also, during shooting, because we shot during Covid and we had to essentially stay in a hotel for the whole production. Most people even chose to stay in the hotel over the weekends because that was the safest way to do it, apart from testing and so on. I did movie nights on the weekend to show off some of my favorites. Some stuff like The Wicker Man and The Shining were films I screened and that they, especially our two young actors, greatly enjoyed watching. I hope.”

Family Dinner also introduces an old Easter tradition that never made its way stateside but perhaps should: an Easter bonfire.

Hengl explains, “It is a local tradition. It’s common in rural Austria to have bonfires around Easter, usually on Easter Sunday or the night before Easter Sunday. So that actually is a piece of local folklore, and I felt that fit the whole motive of the film very well.”

Get ready for a gnarly horror feast this Easter with Family Dinner, exclusively available to stream on SCREAMBOX beginning on Good Friday, April 7, 2023.

Family Dinner poster

The post ‘Family Dinner’ Director Peter Hengl on Easter Feasts, Bonfires, and Folk Horror [Interview] appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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