An eerie, yet familiar setting of a couple journeying into the hollowed-out rural caverns of the Dust Bowl, flanked by shadows that dance in the darkness. When night falls, there are encounters with characters that evoke a visceral sense of unease, the kind that hints at a grisly and inevitable end to the long night. Such atmospheres of dread make one think of films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Deliverance, as these tropes have emerged as staples in the horror genre, having been over-used to the point of exhaustion. This anxiety of influence hangs like a dark shroud over Devereux Milburn’s Honeydew, which chronicles a tale as old as time, albeit replete with discordant sound design and needlessly inserted split screens. Honeydew feels derivative from start to finish, its arthouse elements lending an aura of inauthenticity to an already-lackluster backwoods nightmare.
Honeydew cements its stylistic preferences right from its opening frame, which attempts to weave carefully crafted visual cues into a hallucinatory fabric of atmospheric terror. There’s a vintage cassette player, a child devouring steak and eggs while debating the nature of love with religious zeal, and an unsettling, veiled old woman at a funeral. These elements manage to grant an atmospheric edge to the film’s opening moments, which then pivots to couple Sam (Sawyer Spielberg) and Rylie (Malin Barr), who seem to share a perfunctory relationship from the get-go. While Sam compulsively recites lines from a script in a gas station toilet, Rylie watches videos about the degradation of wheat crops due to an ergot-type fungus in the area they are currently visiting, as she is a Ph.D. student pursuing botany. Things inevitably go awry when the duo is run off their campsite by local farmer Eulis (Stephen D’Ambrose) and a flat car battery forces them to seek help at the nearest homestead.
The joyless couple make themselves comfortable until help arrives, which is promised by Karen (Barbara Kingsley), the seemingly sweet, elderly owner of the desolate farmhouse. Despite emitting an aura of warm hospitality, a kind of sinister menace lurks beneath Karen’s every move, even when she is seen baking oat-sprinkled bread and sizzling meaty steaks with chopped green beans. Sam is the first to succumb to the lull of the space, which is marked by a TV set that plays old Popeye and Betty Boop cartoons, and the presence of a mute, bandaged man named Gunni (Jamie Bradley), who seems to be Karen’s son. Food plays a seminal role in the entrapment of Sam and Rylie, wherein the former is on a restricted, meat-free diet due to his profession, and the latter follows a vegan lifestyle.
However, these dietary preferences are abandoned in an almost-feral manner over the passage of time spent inside the homestead, with Sam ravenously gorging on Karen’s steak dinner during a late-night trip to the fridge, and Rylie devouring cupcakes in the middle of the night. While Milburn manages to create a palpable amount of atmospheric build-up, the sound design does little to heighten anxiety, as it starts feeling stale after a while. The film’s central characters act in ways totally removed from the realm of practicality, such as when Sam repeatedly ignores the telltale signs of Karen’s missed social cues and vacant stares, along with Gunni’s increasingly anxious behavior, replete with guttural groans and fear-fueled seizures.
Apart from this, Sam and Rylie’s inability to look out for one another in the face of danger makes them an easier target for the film’s antagonists, as they seem to have absolutely no regard for one another even when stranded amidst strange waters. A perplexing cameo by Lena Dunham as the mute, amputated Delilah might be Honeydew’s only element of surprise, as the rest of the plot plays out in ways expected of an atmospheric horror-slasher with gore and cannibalism.
As per performances, Kingsley is especially sinister as the deranged, vacant-eyed Karen, as she is able to infuse an appearance of motherly warmth with a tangible sense of unease. Spielberg and Barr play their respective parts fairly well, while Bradley manages to evoke a considerable around of sympathy for the eternally trapped, tortured character of Gunni. Despite these factors, Honeydew fails to eclipse its hackneyed tropes and cinematic influences, which is exacerbated by the fact that it chooses to end in a way that is wildly predictable in terms of genre plotlines. All in all, Honeydew relies too heavily upon its inspirational predecessors, and its convoluted stylistic choices are not nearly enough to mask the utter lack of narrative depth and characters worth rooting for.
Honeydew will be available on digital/VOD on April 13, 2021, courtesy of Dark Star Pictures. The film is 106 minutes long and is not rated.
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