"Bitter Feast": Mario Batali's straight-to-DVD horror debut

The American Iron Chef stars in "Bitter Feast," a surprisingly strong new entry in the culinary horror film genre

Published January 8, 2011 4:01PM (EST)

Mario Batali
Mario Batali

We've all gotta eat, so you think that food would be the subject for more horror films. We've seen an endless amount of horror movies that deal with sex or death, even though most of us eat more often than we schtup and you only die once. But culinary horror films are few and far between. Sure, there's Renfield munching on bugs in so many productions of "Dracula" or zombies digging into a steaming pile of butcher's scraps, but the horror of those acts isn't really about the kinds of food that you and I eat at the dinner table or buy in the supermarket. The shock value comes from the rejection of a nicely cooked steak or a bag of chips in favor of cockroaches and/or intestines.

What few culinary shockers there are have given us some memorable movie moments however. Soylent Green is people. Hannibal the Cannibal ate the census taker's liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti. The Leatherface clan has its award-winning chili in "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2" (1986). Herschell Gordon Lewis gave us the mad caterer Fuad Ramses in his pioneering splatter flick "Blood Feast" (1963). Vincent Price, himself the author of several popular cookbooks, strays into the realm of food prep as he dispatches of hostile drama critics in "Theatre of Blood" (1973). Price drowns one columnist in a cask of wine and another is tricked into eating his beloved poodles baked in a pie. Yet after 1989's "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover," the Grand Guignol potential of the gastronomic has mostly gone untapped despite how many "Hell's Kitchen" viewers must fantasize about filleting Gordon Ramsay each week.

Writer/director Joe Maggio's "Bitter Feast" gives foodie horror a much-needed update for the age of the Food Network and Yelp with surprisingly tasty results. James LeGros ("Zodiac") is Peter Gray, a TV chef who spends way too much airtime lecturing his audience about which local farms his ingredients come from or how he hunts and slaughters his own venison. J.T. Franks (Joshua Leonard) is a popular food blogger for a site called Gastropunks.com who gets his writing style from the Iron Sheik, a bad guy wrestler who "kept Sgt. Slaughter in check." When Franks leaks that Gray's show is about to be cancelled, Gray is also fired from his restaurant and loses a deal for his own line of cookware. Faster than you can say "Misery," Gray kidnaps the petulant reviewer and chains him up in the basement of the chef's remote second home in the woods. Like a deranged Iron Chef, Gray gives Franks a series of cooking challenges. If Franks succeeds, he gets to eat. If he doesn't, he starves and gets beaten with a hot skillet.

Now there is some torture here, but it isn't really "Saw" level stuff. Most of the gore comes in the form of close-ups of raw meat sliding around in a bowl with the occasional axe murder or knife through the hand. LeGros and Leonard manage to make you care about their characters when neither is especially likeable, and director Maggio raises the stakes at just the right time to keep his movie suspenseful through its last act. "Bitter Feast" doesn't have a master of horror on the level of Vincent Price, but it does have American Iron Chef Mario Batali as the smug restaurant investor who cans Peter Gray. Unfortunately, Batali himself doesn't grind negative Yelpers into foie gras, although you know he wants to. Still, there's always the hope that foodie horror flicks will finally take off, maybe even giving us the chance to see Batali crush Emeril's head in a duck press. If any film could start the trend, it's "Bitter Feast."

By Bob Calhoun

Bob Calhoun is a longtime Salon contributor and the author of "Shattering Conventions: Commerce, Cosplay and Conflict on the Expo Floor" (2013). Follow him on Twitter.

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