Ah, the filthy rich. They delight in humiliating plebes like us, don’t they? At least that’s how it goes at the opening of Miles Doleac’s new thriller The Dinner Party.
Ambitious playwright Jeff (Mike Mayhall) and his neurotic wife, Haley (Alli Hart), have been invited to attend a dinner party at the plush estate of the wealthy doctor Carmine (Bill Sage). Jeff is hoping to score some investment money to produce his new play on Broadway, so this is a big night for him.
They are greeted by the doctor’s effete companion, Sebastian (Sawandi Wilson), who tells them he has no idea who they are. They must leave immediately, he admonishes, or he’ll call the police. Then he slams the door in their stunned faces.
Haley is desperate to leave, but Jeff is just as desperate for the money and knocks again. The door flies open, and they are confronted by a roaring creature in a devil mask.
Then the creature begins to roar with laughter. He pulls off his mask — yep, it’s Sebastian again. Still laughing, he ushers them inside and confesses that he enjoys being cruel. This sets the tone for the remainder of the evening.
Next, they meet Sadie (Lindsay Anne Williams), a fortune teller who tries her hardest to be mysterious by speaking in hushed and oblique tones. She only has eyes for Haley, serving her some wine while ignoring Jeff. The rest of the party consists of the famous mystery novelist Agatha (Kamille McCuin), the English-accented Vincent (director Doleac) and Carmine himself.
The evening seems to have been designed for maximum discomfort on the part of Jeff and Haley. People show up naked at inopportune moments, and the discussions are designed to be over the heads of the couple, no matter how hard Jeff tries to keep up. And he’s a playwright?
The wealthy snobs enjoy mocking their modest lifestyle at every turn, even chortling at the price of the wine they’ve brought.
After some awkward dinner table conversation, a “special” bottle of vintage is served, and the stories become decidedly confessional. Haley reveals that as a child she’d witnessed her mother killing her stepfather before slitting her own throat. Carmine confesses that his parents considered him a spoiled brat and, as punishment, made him eat a human liver.
These stories are intended to serve as foreshadowing, of course.
Then Sadie reads her tarot cards, Sebastian plays opera on a Victrola, and the sinister intentions of the evening are gradually revealed.
Here, it gets a little dodgy. As written by Doleac and Michael Donovan Horn, the first hour of the film consists of bucketloads of dialogue that positively groan with import. It’s all delivered in such weighty, deliberate tones that it becomes rather risible.
Fortunately, in the second hour, the thrills finally kick in. Not to reveal too much of the plot, the blood runs thick and the machinations get twisted enough to boost the viewer’s interest.
The Dinner Party is one of those frustrating films that has you tapping your fingers, yet you have to wait it out — because you want to know how it ends.
This is especially due to the intriguing performance by Hart. She really makes you want to see where Haley’s character arc is going, and it takes a surprisingly vicious turn in the final act.
For what surely must have been a micro-budgeted film, the mostly indoor cinematography by Michael Williams is color-drenched and moody. Composer Clifton Hyde provides an appropriately acid-tinged score, and Doleac’s direction holds interest, especially when it gets to the bloody payoff sequences. His script just needed less dialogue. A lot less.
Not entirely perfect — but never really boring — The Dinner Party is a fun choice for a weekend party when you just want to shout at the screen. For those with more delicate sensibilities, make sure you eat your dinner first.
The Dinner Party is available on DVD and Digital from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, Fandango Now, Xbox, Dish Network, Direct TV and through local cable providers.