2014 | R | USA |Leigh Janiak | 87 min
There seems to be an emergent mini sub-genre of films about couples who head into the woods for some quality time—about to get married or just married—and then very bad things happen. I’m thinking in particular of Eden Lake (2008), Willow Creek (2013), and Backcountry (2014)—all great films, and two of which I’ve written about here.
I just discovered another addition to the canon, Leigh Janiak’s Honeymoon (2014), that’s streaming on Netflix and I definitely recommend you watch it. It’s worth pointing out (since women directors of horror are still relatively rare) that Janiak is a woman. She also wrote the screenplay, along with Phil Graziadei.
The recently and (for now) happily-married couple, Bea (Rose Leslie) and Paul (Harry Treadaway) are heading on a delayed honeymoon to a cottage in the woods where Bea grew up. Things go swimmingly until Paul wakes up one night to find that Bea is gone. He eventually finds her (in a highly creepy moment) standing in the woods, in a state of dazed virtual unconsciousness (think Micah and Katie in Paranormal Activity, although worse since Bea and Paul are deep in the woods, not on a suburban patio). The couple writes the strange event off to sleepwalking—albeit with a hefty dose of anxious self-deception, since Bea has never walked in her sleep before.
From that night on, though, Bea’s behavior becomes increasingly strange. She’s withdrawn, silent, wanders off, and scribbles obsessively in her journal. And she starts to change: she uses words that aren’t right, is seemingly unable to remember things about herself, about Paul, about their relationship. Paul catches her practicing ways to tell him she doesn’t want to have sex—and, shortly after, events spiral into the horrific.
It’s never completely clear what happens to Bea, and Janiak brilliantly keeps that question open by evoking several possibilities, not least through references to other horror films. Is this an adultery film (Unfaithful, 2002)? A possession film (The Shining, 1980, Paranormal Activity, 2007)? An alien film (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956, and the recent They Look Like People, 2015)? Or is it a zombie/infection film (The Evil Dead, 1981, Cabin Fever, 2002, or Severed, 2005)? I thought of all these possibilities—prompted by the rich suggestiveness of the film.
There are also definite hints of Ira Levin’s two novels about paranoia and marriage, both made into films—Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Stepford Wives (1975). Certainly, the camera and screenplay create a stifling claustrophobia around Bea and Paul as they head off into the woods alone together, spending their time in the car recounting stories about their first date, their wedding, all signaling an extreme insularity that appears to admit no one else. Cracks soon surface, though—around the issue of babies (he wants one, she says she’s not sure but clearly doesn’t), around what emerges as a profound difference in their pasts and interests (she hunts and fishes, he has no earthly idea how to do either), and as they meet a man from Bea’s past. The viewer soon senses that the claustrophobia we feel about their relationship (well, I certainly did) may well be shared by Bea: all is not as (nauseatingly) happy as it seems.
The claustrophobia, and the sense that Bea is not immune to its grasp, is intensified by the clearest intertextual reference in the film: Bea starts writing her name and her husband’s name (“My name is Bea,” “My husband’s name is Paul”) over and over in her journal, and the evocation of The Shining is clear, specifically Jack Nicholson’s going slowly crazy when trapped in a snow-bound hotel with his wife and son—and with ghosts from the past. Bea’s repetitive writing of her husband’s name, and things about their relationship, moreover, mimics the way, early in the film, they had told stories about their relationship, pushing what might have seemed benign in the beginning into the realm of something more disturbing. Bea seems to be trying to paper over the cracks, to convince herself she’s something that deep down she doesn’t want to be.
This is where The Stepford Wives comes in: is Bea just struggling with intimacy and the weighty expectations of married domestic life (sex, cooking, and reproduction)? Janiak’s expert writing and directing definitely leaves open this possible subtext of the film—especially given what happens at the end. Indeed, there are several scenes in which rope figures prominently—as Bea and Paul take turns tying each other up for various reasons. The meanings of these scenes increasingly turns toward the sinister, toward overt entrapment—and while it’s Bea who gets tied up at first, the tables are turned at the end in ways that could be expressing desires that Bea may not have allowed herself consciously to feel.
The weight of this film rests on its two actors, who are virtually alone—with the fleeting (albeit important) appearance of a man from Bea’s past and his wife. Rose Leslie and Harry Treadaway are both absolutely sensational in carrying this weight. Leslie does a fantastic job of expressing a sense of disquiet (in her marriage) well before things turn toward the truly strange—and Treadaway is great at expressing the kind of unambiguous, puppy-dog adoration—the desire never to let his wife out of his sight—that undoubtedly produces Bea’s ambivalence.
While what happens to them may in the end be about forces beyond their control, like every good horror film, Honeymoon exploits the cracks in “normality” before the truly uncanny erupts. Janiak (whose previous credits as director include only a couple of TV episodes) both knows a good horror film and knows how to make one. She is someone to look out for.
Here’s the trailer—to whet your appetite for what is a real treat!