Directed by Leigh Janiak; Starring Rose Leslie, Harry Treadaway
Netflix is full of hidden treasures from the horror genre, whether overlooked-but-quality efforts from the past, or from more contemporary independent offerings that flew under the radar upon release.
It’s also full of crap. I end up quitting more movies than I finish, but every now and then, I find a diamond in the rough.
Honeymoon (2014) is a competent, paranoid, suspenseful little horror movie that knows its limitations and does a good job of telling us a simple yet disturbing tale of early marriage.
Bea and Paul (Rose Leslie and Harry Treadaway) tell us, through their recently-shot wedding video, the story behind their relationship. It’s full of cutesy/gross anecdotes about their first date, and populated with semi-sweet (or saccharine, depending on your level of cynicism or expectations of the script) narratives about their coming together in holy matrimony.
Having characters talk directly to a camera within a camera is a lazy conceit, and had me worried this would be another found footage clunker. Luckily, the film abandons this narrative model almost immediately, and we find the couple taking their honeymoon at an old cabin on a lake (once frequented by Bea’s family when she was young).
Leslie and Treadaway do a good job building up the couple’s dynamic, and they both have several opportunities to shine as actors. The film starts off more as a hopeful drama than a science fiction-horror movie. I can see why the scores and reviews of the film are generally mixed—there’s not a lot here for hardcore horror fans—at least, not at first. And that’s okay.
The weirdness within the woods soon encroaches, however. We see a strange light shining in through the cabin’s windows while they sleep. Soon after, Bea runs into a childhood friend who seems to be having anger issues, paranoia, and committing domestic violence against his frightened shell of a wife.
Then Bea wanders off in the middle of the night—losing her clothes in the process—and her husband begins to suspect that all might not be well in Marriedville.
That’s most of the plot, in a nutshell. Rather than ratcheting up the tension with a series of increasingly weird events—although there are a few of those—the focus of the film is trained firmly on the dynamics of the newlywed’s suddenly-fraying relationship. Memory, meaning, sexuality within marriage, and the core of who a person is and sometimes becomes are the real stars of the show. This is a drama trapped within the mythos of some high strange events, and the script’s tension with itself and the limitations of budget (few locations, lots of close ups and medium shots) can sometimes bog down the drive of the film.
Yes, this is a film that I would categorize as high strange. There’s some spooky stuff happening in the woods, and most audiences will likely chalk it up to a certain memetic pattern prevalent in our culture, (“I’m not saying it’s aliens … but it’s aliens”) but the paranormal elements are actually more in line with authentic high strange events than those of Hollywood. They don’t have clear-cut explanations, and nothing is quite as it seems.
I don’t want to fault a horror film for attempting to emphasize pathos and characterization over scares, but some scenes—one of the dozen or so interplays between Bea and Paul—tend to drag. There’s a fine line between focusing on character and focusing on plot, and Honeymoon doesn’t always quite thread the needle, if I’m allowed to mix metaphors. Leslie and Treadaway turn in good performances considering the film’s limited scope and resources, but the “Talk to me!” / “No …” dynamic wears thin very quickly.
I didn’t enjoy The Babadook for the same reason. That was a film with perpendicular themes of family paranoia. At some point we get it, and it’s time to move on. Another four or five scenes emphasizing the same message isn’t dramatic; it’s indulgent. Give me more spooks and scares to balance out the messaging.
And what message are we to get from Honeymoon? Marriage changes a relationship, especially when those married suffer from emotional damage, doubt, and their past. Paul gradually distrusts Bea as he learns more and more about what happened that night she went sleepwalking, and the lies she tells to cover up the truth are meant to keep their marriage normal and without conflict—an impossible task, considering what has happened to her within the woods. White lies meant to protect the relationship ultimately harm the relationship. There is a lesson from all of this, for sure, and the film should be commended for trying to say something beyond the scares and gore.
Yes, there are scares—but they are of the more subtle variety, rather than jump scares. The filmmakers wisely decided to show us only shadows, light, and implication. I was fearful that What Crept In The Darkness would be revealed in some awful, CGI-laden final scene—but this was not so. The film does imply a particular explanation, but never really spoon feeds it to us, which is refreshing and far more effective. By putting the creepy-crawlies in the background, the emphasis is on the drama. As I’ve said, this balance doesn’t always work, but it’s better than the inverse, certainly.
The special make up effects are simple but disturbing. “Vaginal horror” is a term thrown around a lot in science fiction-horror, and this film definitely takes that angle. But it’s never gratuitous or lazy, although there are a couple of straight-up “gross out” moments toward the end of the film.
Ultimately, this is a story about marriage, relationships, and the alienation that can occur therein. I really appreciated the filmmakers’ dedication to these themes, but couldn’t help wanting to see more of the high strange events surrounding that lonely cabin in the woods. That, I suppose, is a compliment, and a testament to the filmmaker’s restraint in deploying fictional spookies to tell us some hard truths.
If you enjoyed films like Xtro or Almost Human but are in the mood for something a bit more character-focused and restrained, make the trip into the woods and enjoy Honeymoon.
4/5 Cabins In the Woods