A lot of modern films, sometimes much to their detriment in a Screenplay 101 kinda way, take Chekhov’s rifle extremely literally.
But few films display the discipline that Leigh Janiak’s Honeymoon does while turning every single prop introduced before the 45-minute mark into its own Chekhov’s rifle, poised to explode in the second half without the audience knowing quite where it will fit in.
Rope? That’s going to get some use. The idiosyncratic call-and-answer pet-name the protagonists repeat? That comes back. The camcorder? Double yup, both for its form and for its expositional content. The skewer used to cook s’mores?
Not even s’mores are sacred in Janiak’s world.
All of this planting and revisiting is necessary, because the best way to describe Honeymoon without spoiling it is that: it’s a horror movie that’s fond of sci-fi but it likes to use the native language of the mystery to communicate.
Wait, that was all confusing, let me start again.
Every horror fan likes to whine, but they’re not often specific enough when they do their whining to effect change.
Well then, you ask: I’m a horror fan, so what’s my biggest problem with genre cinema, even when you get to its more edgy and indie fringes?
Answer: I’m annoyed by horror’s propensity for using the most broad-based, over-used fears to work with. I think that whole “find a universal fear to exploit so everyone can relate” tactic is garbage.
Fear of the dark, claustrophobia, fear of the “other” (whether they be bumpkins or whatever), fear of histrionic bodily harm. Those fears all get a lot of play and it’s not that Honeymoon doesn’t touch on any of them, it does, but those aren’t the main interest.
Fear of intimacy? Fear of commitment? Fear of starting a family? Fear of second-level betrayal, a violation of who you thought someone you loved was? Those are the kind of paranoia deep-cuts that don’t get a lot of play in modern horror cinema. What Leigh Janiak (who not only directs but co-writes Honeymoon) understands is that specificity does not always upend relate-ability.
I am not married, but I understand getting into a fight with my girlfriend. I have not had the displeasure of discovering my girlfriend cold and lost in the Canadian wilderness, but I can understand that sick double-edged sword of fearing for both her vulnerability and possible culpability in the act. And that’s what a well-made, confident film can do: it can use the emotions its audience has experienced as analogues for the emotions it hasn’t.
Why am I being so vague and so wordy when talking about Honeymoon? Well, mostly because I’m such a spoilerphobe that I don’t think I’m capable of discussing the specifics of Honeymoon’s plot without completely giving up the ending.
Honeymoon is a movie that would lose all power, may even fall prey to being called “predictable” if it wasn’t capable of subverting your expectations. But subvert expectations it does, even with its first line of dialogue.
Honeymoon is the rare horror film where the actors are tasked with doing most of the heavy-lifting. Harry Treadaway and Rose Leslie are not only the stars of Honeymoon: they are the only actors on screen for 98% of the film.
What’s interesting about these stars is how I (and I’m guessing a lot of other American viewers) perceive them before the movie begins.
These are two of the most British/Scottish actors I can think of. Leslie rose to prominence in a supporting, but memorable, role in Downton Abbey, but later traded in her maid’s uniform for furs when she moved beyond The Wall to join the Free Folk as Ygritte on Game of Thrones. Likewise, Treadaway plays Victor Frankenstein in Showtime’s (unbelievably good, so much better than its premise should allow) Penny Dreadful.
Picking up the Blu-ray and looking at the above-the-title stars, I just assumed that Honeymoon was a British movie, one of those flicks that is prefaced as having been “awarded funds from the National Lottery.” That British-ness brings with it a surfeit of preconceptions. I was prepared for some folk horror, maybe some Hammer/Amicus-tinged Gothic melodrama.
But the film’s not British and doesn’t fall into either of those catagories, it’s a movie about Americans (Brooklynites, at least for Treadaway’s character, Paul) who go honeymooning in a remote lakeside cabin in Canada.
It’s that kind of displacement that starts a movie that has, at its core, a “are you really the person I married?” mindfuck. So touché, film, I officially don’t know whether I’m supposed to criticize your star’s accents or not. Their inconsistencies (and even a few egregious ADR inserts) could very well be part of the text, could be what Janiak wants. But even that stuff doesn’t matter because, whether it’s the performances or the script, I buy Leslie and Treadaway as a couple.
If any of the stuff above sounds at all like I didn’t like Honeymoon: it shouldn’t. I enjoyed this movie as a whole and loved the last fifteen minutes so damn much. In fact, it’s one of those movies I’m really sad I was asleep at the wheel for its theatrical/VOD release, because it has a handful of stylistic and thematic links with Starry Eyes, so much so that would I really have to think about which movie I prefer.
Many debut feature films feel like debut features. Even when they’re great that greatness often feels like it’s carrying an asterisk. They have indulgent dialogue, deep flaws in logic, and stylistic flourishes that have to be overlooked as soon as the director makes a newer, superior film, but here Leigh Janiak has made a movie that doesn’t possess any of those blemishes. She’s honed Honeymoon into a sharp one hour and twenty seven-minute blade, a blade that’ll make audiences feel the shock of its body horror (easier, when the gag is right) and the sting of loss (a much more advanced maneuver).
Without spoiling it: damn are a few of those last bits good.