It can be an old cliché that men never quite know what is going on inside a woman’s head. Yet, leave it to a female director to spend her first feature actualizing that phobia into an imprecise terror that, through sheer strength of creativity and writing, crawls under the skin, and worse, pops back out again.
A genuine marriage of budgetary restraints and malevolent ingenuity, Leigh Janiak’s Honeymoon is a seedy throwback to the psychological-cum-body horrors that interested David Cronenberg at a time when he wanted to see the heads of his characters explode just as much as the audience’s. A slow boiling menace of marital bliss turned Jack Finney nightmare, Honeymoon wallows in that uneasy sensation hidden somewhere in the small spaces between every couple: do I really know my partner?
In Janiak’s story, the problem may be he knows her a little too well.
The star-crossed romance of Bea (Rose Leslie) and Paul (Harry Treadaway) begins like an idyllic one. As a couple of New Yorkers who can’t handle their Indian food any better than wedding planning, the two might have doom stamped on their foreheads when they travel to Bea’s childhood summer home for their honeymoon. It has everything a rustic cabin (or large house) in the woods needs for these kinds of films. There’s no cell phone service, no wi-fi, and not even a DVD player. Of course, this is going to end well for the lovebirds.
However, the beauty of Honeymoon is how much of its brisk running time is spent developing this quixotic existence for the couple, who are very much in newlywed mode. Whether it’s sharing an equal fear of jumping into the ice-cold lake or canoodling in a steamier bathtub’s waters, these two behave entirely as freshly minted spouses, which makes the inevitable shoe drop that much more eerie. Despite featuring several red herrings early in the picture, involving the movie’s only other onscreen characters, Honeymoon primarily boils down to why she is acting so strangely, particularly ever since Paul found her “sleepwalking” nude in the woods during the pre-dawn hours…
To discuss the amusing invention of the film’s second half would be to give the game away, however it can be said that Janiak finally provided the groom his version of Rosemary’s Baby. Just as Roman Polanski inspired brides for generations to come to keep a wary eye on their husbands-to-be, especially if they ever get job opportunities in Paris, Janiak in a more modest, but ever satisfying fashion, forces audiences to ruminate with Paul about what exactly is wrong with Bea. Starting with going to her ancestral, girlhood home, Paul is invited to peek at another side of the woman he loves, including her past crushes like Will (Ben Huber). She may have chosen to spend the rest of her life with him, but that does not mean he knows everything that life can entail.
As Bea’s peculiarities begin to ratchet up after that fateful night and Paul’s city-boy neuroses come bubbling to the surface, the movie turns into a ticking time bomb of dread, crescendoing into a third act reveal that Freud could fill a manuscript analyzing.
The cleverness of the screenplay, written by Janiak and Phil Graziadel, helps overcome some of the movie’s visual limitations. Savvy workarounds—such as depicting Bea and Paul’s wedding via a post-reception video interview—still appear to be mostly that in a movie that has only four actors and a handful of locations. While the effect obviously adds to the claustrophobia and insidious exasperation of Paul’s cracking psyche, it nonetheless causes one to wish a story like this could receive a little more care in its presentation if production circumstances had been different.
The movie is also aided immensely by Rose Leslie’s performance as Bea. Already a genre actress with a healthy geek following from Game of Thrones, Leslie is allowed to ditch the parka and the glower for a character who actually smiles and enjoys life. It’s also effective because it becomes so much more telling about her state of mind when the smiles stop. Leslie’s Bea must remain an abstract entity that mystifies more than connects with audiences, but Leslie’s frenzied mood swings and gesticulations add the smallest hint of tragedy to this auburn haired albatross.
Treadaway, who is about to have his own premium cable spotlight next month in Penny Dreadful, also grounds the sadness and madness surging through Paul with sincere empathy. However, the actual chemistry between both talents prior to the point of narrative divergence never mixes as well when compared to their moonlight strolls into the mouth of matrimonial hell.
Honeymoon is a strikingly smart horror movie that relies on characterization, plotting, and performances long before they care to show you what is going bump inside Bea’s mind. And when that moment finally comes, many a man may wish it remained a mystery all along. Such a stimulating approach to several tired genres crossed over in the picture makes this honeymoon a destination spot for any coupling genre enthusiasts looking to get away from it all in the 2014 horror doldrums.