Terror in the woods horror is almost always a safe bet, at least for those of us horror heads who appreciate the great outdoors. One might say the old tropes that come with backwoods horror flicks have worn thin, but some of us never tire of seeing city slickers out of their element, met with a maniac assailant, vengeful forest, or violent crew of inbreds. Sometimes formulaic is fine. Within a subgenre littered with movies that hardly stray from the norm, though, a unique chiller that introduces new techniques and original points of terror is of course appreciated. Writer/director Devereux Milburn sets out to create just that with his directorial debut Honeydew. It is, in fact, unique. Captivatingly strange. It might disappoint those expecting fanfare woodsy horror fun, however.
As you can tell from the Honeydew trailer, the movie is surreal and at times thoroughly disturbing ride into backwoods eeriness, but with such a heavy emphasis on mood and deliberate weirdness that it veers into tedious territory. Unique, perhaps overbearing sound design makes for a powerfully uncanny feel, and Honeydew has its skin-crawling moments, but this is little more than an artsy, gross out exercise in mood. Newbie director Deveruex Milburn clearly has a flare for the grippingly strange. Between what's heard and what's sensed, this fresh filmmaker knows how to craft sullen absurdity that may spur the creeps. While feel's important, "couple stranded in a woodsy shack with cannibals" horror deserves more pulse-pounding thrill and outright fright, and Honeydew derives all of its horror from creepy character quirks and a spirit of foreboding that isn't satisfactorily met with horrific payoff outside of standard stomach-churning antics.
Rylie (Malin Barr) and her boyfriend Sam (Sawyer Spielberg) are headed into the Dust Bowl for Rylie's studies of decaying American farmlands. She's on track to receive her PhD in Botany. Sam's an actor, running lines on the toilet at their gas station pitstop where a dead-eyed gangly man stares on, indicating their upcoming camping excursion may pack darkness.
The two decide to camp for the night in an open field, where they have a round of unenthusiastic tent-sex before being startled by Eulis, a local yokel on a tractor who urges them to get off private property. Once they're packed up and ready to go, however, they discover the car is dead.
Sam and Rylie decide to do what any normal couple would do when stranded in the sticks in the middle of the night - they approach a stranger's cottage and knock. They're greeted by a grinning old woman with empty eyes named Karen (Barbara Kingsley) who, based on her delayed responses and inability to make eye contact, may be senile. She welcomes them in for overnight shelter and a supper of meat and potatoes, assembled from a questionable carcass in a filthy refrigerator. Sam's on a no-cholesterol diet and Rylie's a vegan, but they make due.
Sitting across from them throughout this unpleasant meal is a child-like obese man named Gunni (Jamie Bradley,) who's visibility bleeding from his face beneath a large bandage wrapped around his head. Gunni sits quietly, animalistically chewing away at lemons and watching Betty Boop cartoons between occasional seizures.
After dinner, Karen sets the couple up for the night in a basement bedroom. Rylie reads as an old television plays in the background, and Sam, for some bizarre reason, whacks off in the shower.
Following his shower session, he heads upstairs for a late-night snack while Rylie investigates strange noises in the basement. Sam falls into a nightmare, which entails food, familiar characters with blacked out eyes speaking in disturbingly baritone voices, and a pulsing tumor of sorts on his stomach. He awakes ready to grub. As Sam chows down on cupcakes and ambiguous meat, he gets spooked by Gunni, who creeps into the kitchen to just stand quietly.
From there, cannibalistic madness begins, shocks ensue, and we're subject to a Lena Dunham cameo in which she plays a limbless zombie of a woman who speaks in cries and moans, kept alive only by Karen feeding her bits of "steak" dipped in lemonade.
Credit where it's rightfully due: Honeydew is soaked in a spectacularly grim, almost otherworldly feel that couldn't be described as atmospheric so much as "moody." The film's score, which consists mostly of eerie metal tings and clangs and the occasional drum, meshes with the clanking of plates and scraping of forks. Nightmare sequences spiral into hypnotic strangeness. The camera lingers over partially eaten foods, liquids dripping from various places, and wounds. Between the film's creepishly slow pace and constant, nearly mind-numbing sound design, a real sense of some unsettling, hallucinatory other place is created. Milburn, with his first feature film, illustrates a gift for pulling the audience into this uncanny realm, leaving us mesmerized, disturbed, and frankly a little bit annoyed.
The flick falters in being arthouse style over substance for its duration, exhibiting a forced obsession for oddity that resembles the energy of a person who describes themselves as "quirky." Weird is never a bad quality in a horror picture. Heavy mood is almost always a plus. Honeydew is strange, dream-like, and oozing with a sense of something terrible to come, but by the time terror does arrive you've sat through so many shots of food, Gunni seizures, and useless young couple tiffs you're just bored and a little nauseated.
Thrill might be heightened if there were a stronger sense of danger, but that requires someone to root for. Neither Sam nor Rylie incite any level of care. They're dull, not particularly likeable characters who are through and through horror victims. From the beginning they trade fed up, sarcastic remarks. Neither want to make matters pleasant, and if they don't care, why should we?
Karen and Gunni, on the other hand, are a spectacularly creepy pair of horror villains. Gunni airs on the side of repulsive, which for some might raise hairs. Karen is a chilling, demented old lady who's difficult to read and spookier because of it. Together they make for a formidable horror duo of nightmarish old lady and her slimy, slow son. Their disturbing sets of behaviors do serve chills, but that can't carry the horror in its entirety.
Honeydew does offer strong performances across the board. While Sam and Rylie might not be the most compelling of characters, both Malin Barr and Sawyer Spielberg are believable and not without their acting chops. Spielberg, son of that Spielberg, is quite smooth; funny when he needs to be and someone who's not unexciting to follow. Barr is in the moment, visibly terrified and often sweating, making a lame character perhaps more engrossing to watch than she should be. The two have chemistry - they just could have been given more to work with.
Barbara Kingsley and Jamie Bradley are superb as resident creep cannibal hicks. Kingsley's hollow, yet smiley. Seemingly wholesome, yet sinister. Even when she's being warm and welcoming, you see through her gateway-to-Hell eyes that something awful awaits. Bradley's a disturbing force. Together they're cause for immediate and memorable discomfort, but by mid-film, when you're waiting for backwoods butchery to ensue, their spine-chilling nature has worn off.
As a whole, Honeydew is stylistically impressive, and pleasingly odd for genre fans who revel in that sort of hallucinatory strangeness. Its score, relying on noises rather than anything that could be called music, is a special touch that reeled me in and had me hopeful. Our shack-dwelling, people-eating pair of villains are remarkably creepy for at least the first half of the film. Honeydew just doesn't pack the middle of nowhere fright necessary to warrant a recommendation or repeat viewing. Its eeriness is a gimmick that fades before the true terror you so desperately await creeps in. One exceptionally positive takeaway, though, is this flick expresses the promising artsy flare and grim sensibility of director Devereux Milburn, who surely has more atypical, interesting stuff in the works. Honeydew will be available on VOD, Digital HD, and DVD on April 13th.