Director Devereux Milburn‘s debut feature is an arthouse riff on the isolated farmhouse/murderous hicks trope that has been a staple of horror cinema since before Leatherface put… leather on his… face. It’s a stylish and enigmatic offering, but it doesn’t have a great deal new to offer in a saturated sub-genre.
Sawyer Spielberg plays Sam, the somewhat churlish partner of Malin Barr‘s Rylie. Rylie is researching for her botany thesis, with a particular emphasis on fungal infections of crops in rural areas. We get a few shots of medieval illustrations of peasants succumbing to the hallucinations of ergot poisoning, hinting that all will probably not be well in the all-American farmlands that they are travelling to.
The couple set up a tent to camp overnight, but when a farmer curtly informs them that they are on private land, and they discover their car’s battery is drained, they make for the nearest farmhouse. A friendly but vague old lady (Barbara Kingsley) prepares them a meal, along with her son – who sits silently at the table with a weeping head wound, watching cartoons – while they wait for a tow truck. As far as set-ups go, it’s a solid offering that ticks off reliable rural horror tropes with glee.
Milburn’s background as a music video and short film director serves him well here. The film is visually and aurally rich. The interior of the farmhouse is highly textured and weighty, with steaming radiators and creaking fridges amping up the tension and sense of unease. The sound design is equally immaculate. Expertly crafted by John Mehrmann to set your teeth on edge, it is full of vague but unsettling clanks and shudders.
The atmosphere that Milburn evokes is palpable, with occasional oversteps that call attention to the artifice. For example, in the opening, Rylie listens to a lecture about fungus, but the sound crackles and hisses and the lecturer’s voice sounds like he’s doing an impression of a BBC Open University seminar from 1972. It’s just a touch too anachronistic, and ends up distracting from an otherwise immersive and gripping opening.
The performances work perfectly with the general tone of trepidation and uncertainty. Rylie and Sam’s relationship is clearly faltering, though neither acknowledges it. Their conversation is stilted, their sex is uninspired, and they constantly subtly undermine and contradict each other in conversation. Their interests do not overlap, as Rylie studies her research materials, and Sam, an actor, obsesses over an upcoming audition. Even the camera heightens their divide, splitting the screen between the two of them even when they share the same car. It’s a well handled portrait of a relationship on its last legs, and underpins the general sense of tension and paranoia that marks the opening of the film.
Barbara Kingsley also gives a superb performance. She is friendly but spacey, as if in a narcotic haze or battling with dementia. She mumbles and loses her train of thought. It’s a great way to inject uncertainty into every conversation, even if a large man with a bleeding head wound wasn’t already sat at the table, giving Rylie a glassy stare.
As the film progresses, the strangeness only intensifies. The focus on food and digestion are particularly disturbing, with more mystery meats on display than in a Royston Vasey butcher’s. We are encouraged to recognise a thematic divide between the urban couple who live lives of denial and abstinence (Sam is on a restrictive diet and Rylie is a vegan) and the rural community who, it is hinted, may have succumbed to their base appetites.
The editing and a particularly disconcerting dream sequence create a sense of surreal dislocation for our characters, and we start to wonder what might have been in that meal they ate earlier. In this heightened world, everyday things like ceiling insulation or the abrasive crackle of TV static can take on nightmarish proportions.
The issue horror fans will no doubt have with Honeydew will be that, having created all this pregnant atmosphere in its opening acts, it lets them all evaporate in a bland casserole of a finale. There’s a bit of gore, a bit of ick and some proper peril, but there isn’t much of a story to hang them on.
All in all, the film relies too heavily on atmospherics and not enough on plot, inserting some well-worn tropes into the cracks in its foundations in order to shore them up. On a technical level, the cinematography, sound design and performances are all first rate, and the film has a real presence. Watching it is an experience, immersive and raw, but ultimately unsatisfying. For a film with such a focus on food and indulgence, it’s shame that it is likely to leave its audience feeling somehow undernourished.