The slow-burn horror movie is one of the trickiest to pull off effectively. A big, huge, scary-as-hell ending is one thing, but a filmmaker also needs to pepper in enough scares or creepy intrigue throughout the body of the piece so as not to drive audiences away through boredom. A short running time helps, and so does having compelling actors carry the story so that when the scary really starts happening, we’re all the more unprepared. This is the case with Leigh Janiak’s stripped down terror film Honeymoon, her first as director and co-writer. Its ever-increasing sense of menace and focus on only the two main characters makes it a very close and real experience even as the unearthly is depicted onscreen.
Honeymoon, co-written by another first-timer Phil Graziadei, is a movie where you are always aware something eerie is lurking around the edges of the frame, but you’re never quite sure what that threat entails…until you do. The setting of a cabin in an idyllic wooded area, by a lake in this case, is one that’s been around for a very long time, but Janiak shoots it in a way that makes it both pretty and inviting and monstrous and engulfing. Unlike Evil Dead, though, which presents the woods themselves as evil or sinister, the forest in Honeymoon isn’t the scary thing, it’s where the scary things lurk, and apparently have lurked for quite a while.
The movie stars Rose Leslie of Game of Thrones and Harry Treadaway of Penny Dreadful as a newlywed couple from New York who drive up to her family’s summer cabin in the Canadian lake country for their honeymoon, a secluded and cut-off area perfect for just-married groping and the like. Pretty quickly, though, Leslie begins acting strange, not largely at first, but steadily stranger. They eventually come upon a former childhood sweetheart of hers and his wife who appear to be the only other people anywhere around. They both seem nervous about something and, before he recognizes her, the man tells the couple to leave as fast as they can. Always a good sign.
One night, Treadaway wakes up to find his new wife not in bed, and indeed not in their house. He frantically searches the darkness for her and eventually sees her, without a nightie, in a daze standing in the middle of the forest. He takes her back to the house and she seems intensely out of it, but the next morning she maintains nothing’s the matter, even though she can’t remember simple things like how to make eggs or even certain details about their life. Treadaway becomes increasingly concerned when he hears her talking to herself in the bathroom and then later she says the exact sequence of words to him, as though she had been practicing it earlier. She always becomes weirder and less responsive when he tries to get intimate, which is a big red flag for him, that and her new, weird marks that don’t look like any a bug could make.
As the film continues, the true nature of what has happened to the new bride comes into focus and then it becomes truly terrifying and immensely shocking and unsettling. The film more or less rests with Leslie and Treadaway and the believability of their relationship and the strain it is put under. They both do an impeccable job, though I’d wish Janiak hadn’t forced these two British actors to do American accents for seemingly no other reason than they’re supposed to be New Yorkers. Lots of British people live in New York.
When the movie kicks into high gear, it really kicks, though, and the final act is one of the most skin-crawlingly creepy and disturbing of any modern horror movie. Movies like this are why horror exists; it’s not necessary to have big special effects or monster makeup when you have mood, atmosphere, and heightened tension throughout. The explanation for everything seems very formulaic, but it’s handled in a really understated way and it never gets too ’80s sci-fi.
Honeymoon is a gritty and disturbing horror movie that will leave you feeling the need to shower, never go into the woods again, and be wary of all lights in a seemingly-serene night sky.