From the Archives: Honeydew review

From the Archives: Honeydew review

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.

Originally posted on MovieJawn.

Right out the gate I’d like to state that a movie like Honeydew is most definitely not for everyone, but in a world of “content” made to please as many people as possible, this grimy, lurid, rural horror flick is just what the doctor ordered. I mean, holy hell, this shit is wild. The general consensus is that its main point of comparison is The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and while that’s not necessarily inaccurate, it’s worth pointing out that the two films, despite their shared DNA—namely, backwoods folk and their questionable dining practices—ultimately have different aims. While Tobe Hooper’s masterpiece is an exercise in unrelenting, aggressive terror, Honeydew traffics more in thick, syrupy dread. But much like its forbear, once Honeydew is careening towards its stunning finale, it’s sure to put your jaw through the floor (and send you running for hand sanitizer).

Our story follows a young couple on a camping trip. Sam (Sawyer Spielberg) is an aspiring actor preparing for an audition, but for the weekend, he’s currently serving as an assistant to his girlfriend Rylie (Malin Barr) who, as part of her masters program in botany, is researching an ergot-like fungal infection that has recently affected the local crops. There’s some tension between the two lovers, partially due to their disparate current interests (acting & plants), and partially due to the fact that Sam, for health reasons, has been eating clean. He doesn’t love it, and since Rylie is his coach/champion/constant reminder of it, there’s some resentment in the air. Since this is a horror movie, their GPS craps out almost immediately and they are forced to set up camp in an open field with the intention of getting back on the road in the morning. But when a shady landowner shows up late at night and asks them to vacate his property, their plans change.

Wouldn’t you know it? Now their car won’t start. Yep, there’s definitely a horror movie brewing…

The couple finds shelter at the home of a kindly old woman and her (to borrow a term from the opening crawl of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) invalid son. Food is provided, as is a bed, but it quickly becomes apparent that things aren’t quite so innocent.

I won’t go further, as the slow unspooling of plot information is part of the film’s charm. Can we call such a thing charmAppeal maybe? Demand to keep one’s eyes morbidly focused on it like a trainwreck occurring in slow motion?

Yeah, that sounds about right.

The deliberate pace of the first two acts will surely turn off some viewers, but the back end mostly validates the slow burn. I’d even go one step further to say that the information revealed in the final reels grant the film a solid potential for rewatch. Small, cryptic details are given context, creating the feeling in the viewer of having juuuuust missed getting hit by a truck, and only realizing it long after anything could have been done. Now this isn’t to say that the film traverses any unexpected avenues of plot. It goes pretty much where you’d expect, and since the general idea is well-worn territory, it’s easy to feel the length a bit. Still, it takes this narrative journey in enough of a different shape than is typical that if you key into the film on its own terms, the pace becomes a feature, not a bug. And when Honeydew eventually gets to where it’s going, it goes extremely fucking hard.

By the time the credits rolled, I was genuinely upset on a cellular level. The film had creeped under my skin something fierce. I was not okay. This is a huge compliment.

Both Spielberg and Barr make great central characters. Their relationship, with all its tensions, feels real, and most of its texture is depicted through their interactions. There’s very little by way of bald exposition, and really, it’s not needed. Each player’s reaction to the behaviors of the other speak to a relationship being tested at a time when it was already experiencing a rough patch. Sam and Rylie are easy to care about, and easy to feel frustrated by on the other’s behalf. But the real star of the show comes in the form of their host, Karen, played with a creepily batty sensibility by Barbara Kingsley. Is she just a little strange in her old age, or is something more sinister afoot? Naturally, we all know that the latter is the case, so it requires Kingsley to dig deep in order to sell us on her seeming transformation from a host in mental decline to a villain worth writing home about (AND DOING SO IN ALL CAPS).

Honeydew is successful beyond the plot/story pleasures as well, specifically in the departments of cinematography and score. You know that feeling when you’re in a clean house, but it’s a different type of clean than you’re used to? The cinematography, by Dan Kennedy, who co-wrote, captures this wonderfully, and applies this lens to food (which plays a huge part in the story) in such a way as to make the film frequently grotesque without ever being outwardly graphic. The score, by John Mehrmann, drives this home as well. I’ve never really heard a soundscape like this one, which invokes classic horror tones intermittently, while mostly employing choral chanting that feels simultaneously folksy and circusy. Also mixed in are the sounds of knives being sharpened, greaseless axles squeaking, and throaty, guttural groans and pops from a chorus of what I imagine to be mouths full of unbrushed teeth.

Writer/Director Devereux Milburn finds many opportunities for visual ingenuity where you’d least expect it, often employing kinetic split screens and detailed close ups to drive home the fact that we aren’t experiencing just one person’s story — and to make sure we in the audience can see every drip of sweat, smudge of schmutz, or suggestion of…poor digestion. Milburn also edited the film, showing a proficiency toward keeping things tight in the moment, while withholding necessary visual information until the last possible second. If this is his film debut, I am as excited as I am scared of what’s coming next. Whatever it is, it’s going to rock.

The goal of Honeydew is certainly not one of manifesting comfort in the viewer. An educated guess would say that it’s much the opposite. And if that’s the case, it’s a massive success. Be it disgust, delight, discomfort, or nausea, few will finish this movie feeling nothing, and it’s precisely that which makes this chilling, effective thriller a welcome entry into the American rural horror canon.

You think you are ready, but you are not ready. Dinner, however, is ready. Go wash up.

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