Science and religion unite in an unconditional manner with writer/director Devereux Milburn’s Honeydew. Making its world premiere at Nightstream Festival, Honeydew is as auditorily savory as it is visually sadistic. A blend of horror sub-genres, Milburn proves that he has a talent (and an appetite) for serving audiences a disturbing new take at an exploration in the countryside gone wrong.
Rylie (Malin Barr) is a PhD student who is doing her thesis on a specific parasite that has invaded crops in a certain region. As a result, large amounts of cattle in the area died off and several people experienced physical ailments from ingesting the grain. While researching the countryside on a road trip with her boyfriend Sam (Sawyer Spielberg), the two end up accidentally trespassing on a piece of property. Having to pack up and find another place to stay for the night, they encounter a small house in the woods owned by an old woman named Karen (Barbara Kingsley). She attempts to help Rylie and Sam by calling a neighbor to fix their car, but he never shows. Karen cooks a late dinner for the couple and leads them down into her basement so they can stay the night in a room tucked far away from sunlight. Once they start getting ready for bed, hallucinations start to kick in and their evening quickly spins into an uncontrollable nightmare.
There are several familiar elements at play in Honeydew. The storyline is reminiscent of Hansel & Gretel, The Hills Have Eyes, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre at various points. Rylie and Sam have a strained relationship from the beginning and get easily frustrated with one another. Their chemistry is subtly toxic and creates a tension on camera before they even enter Karen’s house. Once they meet the old woman, the film grows increasingly distressing but is disguised as hospitality through Karen’s kind demeanor. Aloof yet friendly, her avoidance on certain topics and insistence on them staying becomes awkward and demanding. With nowhere else to go, the couple complies.
What sets Honeydew apart from the films and sub-genre it is reminiscent of is its incredible sound design. Composer John Mehrmann utilizes organic sounds in order to create a menacing atmosphere that is unlike any other. While many horror films use string instruments to induce terror or silence to induce madness and fear, Mehrmann utilizes an interesting combination of sounds that are almost like a symphony of foley. Sounds of a sharp object being slid across metal, popping or bubbling noises people would normally make with their mouth, and heavy rhythmic breaths all accumulate in various ways to create dread in a deceptively welcoming environment.
At times, the film’s composition is harrowing and abrasive. For example, echoing and loud chanting occurs as if a demonic choir’s singing is rising straight up from the depths of Hell. Other moments have a soundscape that is light-hearted and boppy, even during scenes that are particularly stress-inducing. The music complements the characters as they both tease the overall tone of the film. Just when viewers think they can let their guard down for a minute, the sound design and odd characters suggest otherwise.
The unique audio is coupled with visual split screens that contribute to Sam and Riley’s hallucinations and distorted sense of time and place. The use of multiple scenes being shown at once provides a collective horror that is heartbreaking and deeply uncomfortable. It asks the question: what is scarier and sadder, to be in a dangerous situation alone or with the one you love but there may not be anything you can do about it?
Kingsley is an engaging terror as Karen. While she is able to be sweet and inviting by humming Christmas songs over a warm stovetop, it is the reason why she is cooking and why she is so happy to have company that makes her kindness turn sinister. Karen’s religious devotion is an answer to everything that ails her and her community after the plight of their crop. Her religious dedication is delusional and foils Rylie’s scientific and analytical mind. Barr does a fantastic job at subduing her emotions in order to appease Sam, who is eager to dismiss continuous red flags. Spielberg successfully delivers an engaging and complex character as Sam. While he bickers with Rylie, Sam also has a distinctive relationship with food that is normally attributed to female characters on screen. There is an element of body image from a male perspective and health concerns which prohibit him from indulging in items like sugar, salt, and carbs. So, when Karen offers him to help himself to any leftovers, Sam sneaks away in the middle of the night and ends up eating with Karen’s eccentric and mute son. This plays into one of the film’s themes of deprivation and indulgence which is interesting to view through a male character.
Honeydew is a nightmarish exploration of religious perversion and the dangers associated with what we consume both physically and mentally. Mehrmann’s sound design and composition is a refreshingly rare addition to the horror genre and allows for the tone of the film to freely fluctuate under a veil of perpetual danger. Milburn’s directorial debut is sinister, shocking, and unlike its title, far from sweet.
/Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10