Having studied at the feet of the master – Stephen King – I understand that horror is about contrast. At its most reductive, King’s horror is about the colonisation of the ordinary by the extraordinary; normal people confronted by the abnormal. HONEYMOON, from first time co-writer/director Leigh Janiak, is also about contrast. Far from the idyllic getaway newlyweds Bea (GAME OF THRONES’ Rose Leslie) and Paul (Harry Treadaway) were expecting, the couple see their relationship unravel as Bea’s behaviour becomes increasingly bizarre and inexplicable. It’s a film of two halves, a deliberate exercise in compare and contrast, and in that regard it’s a resounding success. But to get to the good stuff (and the second half is very good, not to mention very nasty), we have to sit through forty five minutes of saccharine preamble. As noted above, I understand the principle – there’s no darkness without light – but Janiak and co-scribe Phil Graziadei approach the central relationship without a hint of nuance. While it makes their descent into isolation and mistrust all the starker, it’s hard to watch three quarters of an hour of loved-up spouses cooing at one another and sucking face.
It’s a shame the marriage is treated with such Hallmark sentimentality, as there’s a lot to like about HONEYMOON. In a film that’s a virtual two-hander (Leslie and Treadaway rarely encounter anyone else), chemistry is paramount, and the two leads have it in spades. They both give superb performances, and their relationship, although overbearing at times, is believable. The other major factor in the film’s favour is the wonderfully ambiguous nature of the threat. The story is littered with clues as to what’s going on, as many (or more) of them red herrings as actual signposts. At any given point the culprits could be aliens, body-snatching pod-people, nature gone awry, the creepy neighbours, or a good old-fashioned mental breakdown. Janiak keeps us guessing until the end, and even if the conclusion is less conclusive than we might have liked, it’s still a fascinating journey.
Like the best directors, Janiak turns the production’s limitations – in this case a restricted budget – to her advantage. The cabin in the woods is not only a classic horror trope, but its claustrophobic interior serves to heighten first the couple’s intimacy and emotional intensity, then their alienation, as it transforms from an exotic fuck pad to a jail cell. Janiak is a master of mood, and is brave enough to deliver a sucker-punch of an ending that’s both true to the characters’ psychologies, and in keeping with the rules of the genre. It’s hardly pioneering, and it takes an effort of will to put up with the cheesy first half, but taken as a whole HONEYMOON is smart and satisfying indie horror.