A young couple finds themselves stranded in the middle of the countryside, and given a kindly welcome by an odd elderly woman. A Hansel and Gretel story that could be likened to a Motel Hell one.
I’m struggling to know where to begin with Honeydew: this feature debut from director Devereux Milburn is absolutely loopy, and I loved it.
Rylie (Malin Barr) and Sam (Sawyer Spielberg) are traveling in the New England countryside: she plans to study the effect of a fungal outbreak on farming in the region, and he is rehearsing a script while accompanying her. They find themselves a bit stuck – of course – in the middle of nowhere and pitch a tent for the night, but the landowner turns up and packs them off. Fortunately, they spy a house and stop to ask if they can use the phone. Elderly and scatty Karen (Barbara Kingsley) invites them in…
Sam and Rylie are a young, middle-class city couple, perfectly likable, but just slightly disconnected from each other; which is sometimes enhanced by a split-screen presentation showing their different interests. Interestingly, she is somewhat controlling of Sam, and he is the one with eating issues; a reversal of the gender alignment we might be familiar with. Karen, at least at first, is a very similar weird woman to Rita Tushingham’s Mrs. Huggins in The Owners; but just wait until you get to know her better, not to mention the other freaky residents, Gunni (Jamie Bradley) and Delilah (Lena Dunham).
Honeydew, written by Milburn with Dan Kennedy, is a backwoods horror that some have compared to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but without any madman running around, with minimal action and hardly any gore. So much madness and terror is suggested by what we almost see, and so much confusion about what is real by the hallucinations the visitors develop after their late dinner. It’s full of drama and tension, though, so that even simple scenes like waiting for a tow truck never feel slow at all. The run-down farmhouse is kind of timeless too, with no-one keeping standard eating or sleeping patterns, and black-and-white cartoons on the kitchen television.
Food is the major feature of Honeydew, with Rylie enforcing eating boundaries just as soon as Karen offers the pair steaks; and later Sam sneaking down for illicit goodies. They really ought to wonder how such fare is generated, knowing that farms have struggled since the infections Rylie is studying. Nutrition, disease, sacrifice, hospitality, pleasure… food has many aspects and they are all played with in this film; not to mention the old religious tenet of the body being a temple.
Honeydew had me utterly hypnotized, just as Sam and Rylie fell under Karen’s spell. The camera gave simple objects extra, odd attention at times, and then didn’t quite let you see what you were half expecting to see. John Mehrmann’s score really added to that style; made it, even. Like Zuckerman’s score to Lucky, this one was not overdone in the slightest; patient and rich, with a blend of voice and electronic sounds.
I adored Honeydew, nasty though it was. Some have compared the style to Lynch or Strickland; Caro and Jeunet’s Delicatessen came to mind as I watched it, and perhaps a little Coen twisted charm. None of these are quite right. This is Milburn’s film and I’m excited to see what comes next.