The woods is always a surefire setting to tell a horror story that plays with isolation, especially when cell reception needs to be rendered useless. Low-budget chamber horror-drama Honeymoon isn’t just another excuse to throw gallons of karo syrup on a couple of nubile kids and make gore fans stand up and notice. Rather, it’s a deliberate disintegration of a relationship, a nightmarish metaphor for interpersonal alienation and paranoia, and a horrific twist on the end of the “honeymoon phase.” Leigh Janiak makes her directorial debut, working from a screenplay she co-wrote with Phil Graziadei, and sure knows how to skillfully blend an empathetic, increasingly tense relationship drama with straight-up horror. Executed with intimacy, unease and a growing storm of doom and gloom, this minimalist, slow-burning something-in-the-woods chiller is brief and contained at 87 minutes, but also demonstrably haunting.
Twentysomething newlyweds Bea (Rose Leslie) and Paul (Harry Treadaway) have just celebrated their marriage. For their honeymoon, they decide to leave the city and head to Bea’s family cottage in a small lakeside town where they are guaranteed to be alone. A couple nights later, Paul’s phone alarm goes off in the wee hours of the morning, so he can prove his outdoorsiness and go hunting for food. But Bea goes missing before Paul leaves the house, and then he finds her naked in the woods without any recollection of how she got there. Was she just sleepwalking? Bea begins acting not herself, like forgetting how to make coffee and French toast for breakfast, making excuses to get out of being intimate with Paul, and twisting her words around (she’s going to “take a sleep,” for instance). Why does Bea keep lying to her husband and forgetting things about herself? Are those mosquito bites on her upper thigh? When will movie characters learn that nothing good will ever come of vacationing in a cabin in the woods? Hopefully never, or else we wouldn’t have a movie with conflict.
Singletons probably won’t be able to relate as much, but even those in an unmarried relationship would be horrified to discover the person you’re living with and sleeping next to is not the person you thought you knew. Finding a sense of horror in this idea, Honeymoon can be suggestively sinister and understatedly creepy. It marks time before tipping its hand, but Janiak and Graziadei’s screenplay cleverly plays out Bea’s transformation with key details and shrewdly avoids too much exposition that might just come off outlandish. (Besides, clean, concise explanations are sometimes overrated.) Structurally, the film is simple and uncomplicated, only adding two other characters, Will (Ben Huber) and Annie (Hanna Brown), to the mix for one or two scenes. It’s at its strongest when the mystique is there and we are given time with a relationship that isn’t what it used to be.
From the performances by Rose Leslie (TV’s Game of Thrones), who could almost pass for Emma Stone’s sister, and Harry Treadaway (TV’s Penny Dreadful), the film is spectacularly acted. Like a piece of theater, this (mostly) two-hander takes its time to evolve between Bea and Paul. Bea and Paul are established instantly as a likable, charismatic couple of newlyweds blissfully in love; it doesn’t take any length of time to believe them as two people who love each other and know each other like the back of the other’s hand. When their dreamy romance turns on a dime, becoming distorted and slowly crumbling before it rots, Leslie is tasked with playing a slightly off version of Bea and Treadaway navigates an arc for Paul that allows for the character to be simultaneously proactive, angry and loving.
Even once the secret is out about what is going on with Bea, co-writer/director Janiak still keeps things ambiguous enough, leaving much more up to the imagination. She also proves practical effects—squishy, gooey ones at that—are the way to go when resources are few, and for what she accomplishes in her film’s “body-horror” moments, it’s pretty impressive and impressively icky. The destination takes no prisoners, and the final shot of Bea and Paul’s post-nuptials testimonial video is a chilling counterpoint to when we first met them, all smiles and ready to start their life together. This couple’s life journey together is short-lived, but for those watching, it decidedly burrows its way under the skin like a fungus. Good luck cutting it out.
Honeymoon premieres on video-on-demand platforms Friday, September 12th, and will open in select theaters the same day.