Director: Devereux Milburn
Notable Cast: Malin Barr, Sawyer Spielberg, Barbara Kingsley, Stephen D’Ambrose, Jamie Bradley, Lena Dunham
The love letters to past horror styles recently have been, to some degree, all-consuming. All art influences art further down the spectrum, but the intentional replication of past decades by young filmmakers is certainly an overarching theme in horror as of late. Fortunately, most films that attempt that approach are not just recreating the choices of previous cinema, but are often remixing it. Honeydew, the debut feature from director and writer Devereux Milburn, is one more film to reach for that blend. Combining elements of 1970s rural terror with a sly, modern angle on the material is the name of the game for this flick. The mixture proves to be impeccably intriguing, particularly as the film is laying the groundwork, but it’s also one that promises far more than it can fulfill by its finale.
Following a young couple, played by Sawyer Spielberg (yes, THAT Spielberg - who else has that name?) and Malin Barr, the film sees them end up in a bad situation. They’re stuck in the wilderness with a car that won’t start and it’s the middle of the night. The place they stumble across houses a strange lady, played with incredible screen presence by Barbara Kingsley, and her awkward son. They seem nice enough and offer the couple a meal while the mother calls the neighbor to help them out. Yet, like any horror movie that starts off with this formula, not all is what it seems and the night will not end in a pleasant manner.
There is a craftsmanship to Honeydew that betrays the fact that it’s a debut film for the director. The balance of tone, the steady hand that builds a sense of dread, the use of realistic character interactions - even if tense - between the two leads, and the ability to inject a dose of pitch-black humor is impressive. The 70s rural touch, pronounced definitively with split shots and a classic title card in the opening sequence, is obvious in many of the choices in the film and influences from classics like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre only strengthen the intention. Honeydew, despite its name, is rarely sweet and regularly dabbles in the uncomfortable and bleak, boosting itself with the sense of humor that comes from an audience eager to break from the dread and awkwardness of the situation. It’s a bit low-key in a lot of its style outside of a few key moments, but Milburn is making some intriguingly bold choices here.
While the direction is certainly an impressive piece to Honeydew, it’s the script that tends to derail the overall strength of the film. Despite a cold open meant to leave question marks scribbled over the viewer’s understanding of the plot, most of the film plays in a relatively straightforward manner. For the first two thirds of the film, it’s the style, nuanced performances - again anchored by a film stealing turn from Kingsley, and tonality that carries the experience. When the third act rolls around, the film has to ratchet up the stakes and its weakness in plot crumbles under the weight. Even a surprise reveal and a generally shocking final moment don’t have the gusto to punch Honeydew to that next level. It all suffices, but for a film that was laying the groundwork to soar, it seems dissatisfying.
All in all, Honeydew is a solid directorial and writing debut for Milburn. There is an effective sense of atmosphere, the tonal shifts from dread to dark humor are fantastic, and the performances uplift the mediocre script. It’s a film indebted to the lessons of 1970s rural horror, but contains just enough modern pizzazz to garner fresh and shocked reactions even if its setup is far superior to the way that it culminates.