Dir Leigh Janiak
Written Phil Graziadei, Leigh Janiak
Starring Rose Leslie, Harry Treadaway
HONEYMOON begins with one of the most terrifying suggestions the horror genre has ever been able to muster: the threat that it’s going to be found footage. But fear not, the opening scenes of Bea (Rose Leslie, that Game of Thrones show everyone is always jawing on about) and Paul (Harry Treadaway, BROTHERS OF THE HEAD) talking to a video camera are just prelude; these are clips of their wedding video, an introduction to these two crazy kids who have just tied the knot and are now hunkering down in a Cabin In The Woods to settle into their honeymoon. This movie is about a literal honeymoon, it’s not like a play on words where they’re named Mr. and Mrs. Detective John Honeymoon or something.*
This is a horror movie, but it’s a rare horror movie in which the human element is at least as important as the red corn syrup. Bea and Paul make a genuinely charming pair, and Leslie and Treadaway are both terrific at crafting immensely likeable characters (which is good, because they’re the only people on-screen for 99% of the movie). They have an easy and affectionate banter and an absolutely magnetic chemistry that makes their relationship seem utterly natural and believable. This seems to be the relationship everyone wishes they had, except witter and prettier and with way hotter movie sex. But you can’t be mad at them, they’re just so nice. They really seem to like each other, and the feeling is contagious. I think I could happily hang out with these two for 87 minutes even if they never got to the unspeakable evil.
Boy, I hope nothing bad happens to them in this horror movie called HONEYMOON.
Unfortunately, they haven’t had very much time to affectionately tease each other and/or fuck each other’s brains out before things start to go wrong. Paul, awakening early for a pre-dawn fishing expedition, finds that Bea is not in bed. An increasingly frantic search in the woods finds her naked, in some kind of hysterical trance. There are signs of violence on her clothes and body, but she insists nothing is wrong and isn’t interested in discussing the matter any further. The next morning, she seems to be cheerful as ever… but something is off. She doesn’t remember things she should know by heart. She doesn’t know how to make French toast or coffee, mixes up details about their past. Paul catches her furtively writing details about her own life in a notebook, as though she’s trying to keep them straight. And most worrisomely, the once-amorous redhead keeps uncomfortably eschewing sex. Something ain’t right here.
Well, horror cinema has no shortage of these symptoms, and HONEYMOON fits comfortably into a tradition of paranoia that your friends and family are not who they say they are. There’s even a psychological term for this: a Fregoli Delusion. Every single other review of this movie felt the need to name-check INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS --which is not completely unreasonable, as that film’s “Pod People” have become a cultural shorthand for this premise-- but there is a much longer and richer fictional history of this fear. The recent Austrian import GOODNIGHT MOMMY is nearly entirely precipitated on this phobia. The 1936 Boris Karloff sci-fi THE MAN WHO CHANGED HIS MIND hinges on the same thing. And they’re hardly alone; everything from Jack’s gradual slide from sanity in THE SHINING to the undead Olivia Wilde’s personality shift in this year’s execrable THE LAZARUS EFFECT play off this same fear, that our loved ones return to us changed. They look the same, they say the right things, they have neat little explanations, but we know better.
Or… do we? How well can you ever really know someone? HONEYMOON’s most interesting trick is to nestle this unsettling notion in the context of a relationship which has just entered new and uncharted waters. These two kids know each other very intimately as people, but they don’t know each other at all in their new role as husband and wife. They’re new at this. Maybe the effect of making this leap into long-term commitment changed them in some way, unnoticeable at first but are slowly gnawing away on the foundations of their mutual trust. Is Bea’s odd behavior the result of villainous supernatural chicanery, or is she fretfully wondering if she’s made a terrible mistake? Certainly, her evasive shiftiness takes a toll on Paul, making him question his own role in their relationship, and filling him with doubt about his own adequacy as a partner.
It doesn’t take magic or aliens to turn a person you think you know into someone totally unrecognizable -- many a real-world relationship has come to a sudden end with the words “you’ve changed.” We need, psychologically, to believe in the fundamental stability of the world, and especially the people we love and trust, but the truth is, circumstance and identity are in constant flux. The person you are today is not the person you will be tomorrow, but, like Al Gore’s frog in boiling water, you don’t notice. Until one day you wake up next to the person you love and realize you don’t know them anymore. Maybe you suddenly realize it’s been years since you did. Maybe they changed, or maybe it’s you that changed --and probably both of you did-- but somewhere, some subtle, imperceptible shift occurred, and over the years that tiny course correction has transformed something which was once so familiar into something you don’t even recognize. It’s a premise which attacks our certainty about ourselves, and our ability to understand our most intimate relationships. Is Bea really acting suspicious, or maybe, just maybe, are these two lovebirds drifting apart, and projecting their frustration and confusion onto each other?
The movie might be a little stronger if it lingered on that ambiguity a little more, but this is a horror movie, after all, so it wastes little time in heavily suggesting that something far more sinister is afoot here. There’s an uncomfortable look at shifting relationships baked in here on a subterranean level, but it’s not a spoiler to tell you not to worry, there are definitely monsters at work here. Even so, HONEYMOON moves along with uncommon patience, perfectly content to stew in the unnerving strangeness of the situation. Tension builds slowly but surely --even elegantly-- and by the time things start to go really nuts near the end, it’s been quite a ride. And while the final revelation isn’t anything too earth-shatteringly original (especially for a film which takes such a leisurely path to get there) it does have an agreeably unique angle on an old classic which feels uniquely appropriate to its intense focus on this specific couple. It eschews a cheap “twist” reveal, instead pushing boldly onward into new shocks, bolstered significantly by the care that’s been put into developing the characters. Because we actually care about them, the reveal itself is not as important as how the characters react. It’s honestly a little heartbreaking --rather than simply alarming-- to see these nice young kids find their love for each other twisted by circumstances. So even once the movie turns from a paranoid slow-burn into a visceral shocker, it never loses its focus on the human center. It’s a movie about a honeymoon right up to the end, just one of those honeymoons horror stories people like to tell. With an emphasis on the horror.
Directed and writer Leigh Janiak (with co-writer Phil Graziadei) is wise to keep the relationship at the center of the film --particularly since the chemistry between the two leads is so remarkable-- but the filmmaking is resolutely strong throughout (which is key, since so much of the horror early on is implied rather than explicit). She works wonders with the isolated location, finding beauty and subtle threat in the stately wooded locale, and the cinematography confidently reflects the script’s enigmatic shifting between the comforting real world and the the intruding, ineffable strangeness which has descended upon it. Strong editing and subtle musical cues add the finishing touches to an atmosphere which is heavy with nebulous, hidden threat. The fact that the film shows its hand a smidge too early is the only tell that Janiak is a first-time filmmaker, but even that slight miscalculation is mostly forgiven in light of the surprises which follow, and the rock-solid performances which keep things engrossing. With two terrific actors, a smart script, a keen eye for detail and a patient ear for tone, this is exactly what I look for in American micro-budget horror. My only regret is that I’m torn between being seriously excited for Janiak’s followup film and a desire for it to suck so that I can begin by review with “The Honeymoon’s over.”
*No, I’m not tired of this joke yet.
|And a very strong four at that.|