aliens, Ben Huber, body horror, cabins, cinema, co-writers, dark films, directorial debut, feature-film debut, film reviews, films, Hanna Brown, Harry Treadaway, Honeymood, horror, horror films, husband-wife relationship, isolated communities, Leigh Janiak, Lovecraftian, Lovely Molly, low-budget films, Movies, Phil Graziadei, possession, relationship, Rose Leslie, writer-director
Every relationship has its “honeymoon” phase: whether weeks, months or years, there’s always a sweet spot in any new union where cloyingly sweet pet names are common, arguments are unimaginable and every couple seem joined at the hips. These are the times when lovers can while away an entire afternoon just staring into each other’s starry orbs, whispering sweet nothings while hand-feeding one another grapes. While the honeymoon is always great, it’s never where the actual meat of a relationship lies, however: once the initial “puppy-dog” phase is over, couples have to actually get down to the business of dealing with each other, a process which misses as much as it hits. For every couple that grow old together, there are plenty that implode after the rose-tinted glasses (and gloves) come off. Being with someone during the good times is easy: you know that you’ve found a partner for life when the bad times are equally appealing.
Leigh Janiak’s Honeymoon (2014) is, both literally and figuratively, about this happy little time: we pick up with the film’s lead couple right as they arrive at their honeymoon destination, immediately following their wedding. Bea (Rose Leslie) and Paul (Harry Treadaway) are that aforementioned google-eyed pair of lovebirds that make everyone else gag and roll their eyes: he calls her “honeybee” and she “buzzs” while lovingly touching his face, every comment is some sort of “sassy” quip. They’re obviously in love and perfect for each other, the kind of “quirky” renegades who serve Indian food at their wedding as a reference to their first-date food poisoning and have a cake made out of cinnamon rolls. She’s an outdoorsy-type who spent 12 years as a Girl Scout, he’s a city boy who doesn’t know how to fish…it’s the ultimate meet-cute, as if we’re beginning with the triumphant conclusion to any number of generic modern rom-coms.
But then, of course, little cracks begin to appear in the smooth surface veneer. Paul makes an extremely odd comment about Bea’s “womb” which seems to surprise him as much as her…a childhood friend of Bea’s, Will (Ben Huber), lives in the nearby town and there seems to some underlying sexual tension between the two…the swamps and woods that surround Bea’s childhood home seem to be teeming with life, yet we see very little of it. Things come to a head when Paul discovers Bea missing, one night, and frantically searches the woods for her. Upon finding her nude and crouched in the dirt, Paul is (rightfully) worried but Bea passes the incident off as mere sleep-walking. As Bea’s behavior becomes ever stranger, however, Paul is confronted with the disturbing notion that something terrible might have happened to his wife in the woods. Was she attacked by Will or is there something altogether darker involved, something with motives no rational human could comprehend?
After a somewhat shaky first act (Bea and Paul are so nauseatingly cute and broad, at first, that the first 15 minutes or so almost play out like a parody), Honeymoon smooths out into a reasonably tense, atmospheric chiller, albeit one that manages to be both a little too vague and a little to on-the-nose (no mean feat, if you think about it). While none of the events in the film are ever really explained, there’s a point, towards the end, where Bea still manages to give us a recap, of sorts, similar to the point in many films where we finally “see” how all of the events transpired. If it reads a little confusing, it actually plays even more so: rather than wrapping everything up with a bow, she just re-explains what we saw, without the benefit of any new insight whatsoever. It’s similar to asking someone for the score to a sporting match and then having them recap said match without ever mentioning the final score. I’m certainly not a fan of hand-holding but Honeymoon’s many “clues” come across as red herrings simply because we’re never given quite enough to go on.
Even if Honeymoon ends up making imperfect sense (I hope it’s a rather clever, subtle take on Lovecraft’s Shadow Out of Innsmouth but it could also be a much less interesting alien visitation tale…I’m really not sure), there are plenty of creepy scenes here and some genuine pathos to the relationship between Bea and Paul. While Leslie and Treadaway aren’t always convincing as a couple (Treadaway, in particular, has a certain way of delivering lines that renders particular moments rather artificial, especially when he gets more agitated), they have a reasonable amount of chemistry together and the final scene packs a fairly hefty wallop. Leslie, known mostly for roles in hit TV shows like Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones, strikes a nice balance between kooky, sweet and distracted: when it all comes together, she projects a quite winning balance between aloof and vulnerable. While Treadaway isn’t quite as impressive here as he was in either The Disappeared (2008) or Cockneys vs Zombies (2012), he’s still solid and largely sympathetic.
As a film about a relationship, there’s plenty of authenticity to Honeymoon. More than anything, the film is about the subtle little ways in which couples feint and maneuver around each other, digging into past injuries, hinting around bigger issues and feigning smiles when in-depth conversations might better serve. In some ways, the film can be seen as a microcosm of a fledgling marriage, with the crisis that befalls Bea and Paul serving as their first real “issue.” One of the subtlest, most effective scenes in the film is the one where Paul stares surreptitiously at Bea as they toast marshmallows: even as they’re supposed to be having fun, we can see the pain and suspicion festering in his eyes. Despite the couple’s desire to just enjoy their time together, their internal dialogue speaks volumes. In a genre that’s often criticized for being about “nothing,” Honeymoon actually has something to say, which is a nice change of pace.
As a horror film, Honeymoon is also effective, although it often feels like a modified take on a traditional found-footage film, minus the subjective camera element. We get plenty of staples from that sub-genre (shadowy figures appearing behind Paul, security cam footage, the notion that things are happening just out of frame) along with some (subtle) Lovecraftian elements and a particularly slimy ode to either Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981) or Scott’s Alien (1979)…take your pick. Throughout the whole thing, first-time director Janiak (who also co-wrote the film with Phil Graziadei) displays a fairly deft touch with establishing mood and tension. That being said, I couldn’t help but feel that the film could have benefited from a much darker, grimmier tone, ala Eduardo Sanchez’s knockout Lovely Molly (2011): aside from the ending, Honeymoon never digs the screws into the audience (or its characters) as much as it could, which ends up being a little disappointing.
That being said, there is a lot to like here. While Paul ends up being the focus of the story, in many ways, it’s always refreshing to watch a horror film that gives equal screen-time to the female lead: much of the body horror here is feminine in nature, which provides another parallel to the aforementioned Possession. The film is never out-and-out terrifying, so to speak, but it’s certainly a slow-burner, worming its way under your skin and culminating in a suitably sad, striking finale. For a low-key, low-budget indie horror film, Leigh Janiak’s Honeymoon strikes plenty of right notes: here’s to hoping her follow-up continues to raise the bar.