More often than not, horror films aren't really about what they're about. No other genre employs metaphorical imagery quite as frequently as horror, as many filmmakers attempt to use larger-than-life horrors as stand-ins for real-life horrors. Such attempts are often clumsy, amateurish or dull, of course (horror also boasts one of cinema's worst hit-to-miss ratios), but every so often you'll find something that really gets under your skin and hits home in a powerful way. There are moments in which Leigh Janiak's metaphorically-charged directorial debut Honeymoon comes close to achieving the sort of unsettling power it's clearly aiming for, but it doesn't quite stick the landing. Still... certain scenes linger with you.
The film tells the story of Bea (Rose Leslie, best-known as Ygritte on Game of Thrones) and Paul (Harry Treadaway, Penny Dreadful), who have just gotten married and are enjoying their honeymoon in a humble cabin by a secluded lake. Initially, the honeymoon plays out as you might expect: they eat, they have sex, they sleep, they have sex, they go boating, they have sex. But then – because it's not a horror movie without a “but then” - strange things start happening. Loud throbbing noises occur at night, bright lights shine over the couple while they sleep and Bea has a strange sleepwalking incident.
Soon, Paul begins to notice that Bea isn't quite acting like herself. She's suddenly forgotten how to make French toast, and she starts describing things rather strangely (calling a suitcase a “clothes box” and saying that she's going to go “take a sleep”). Mysterious bite marks of some sort have appeared on her thigh, and she begins making excuses to avoid any sexual activity with her husband. Paul suspects something is up, and he begins wondering whether Bea's old friend Will (Ben Huber) – who happens to run a restaurant near the lake – might have something to do with all of this.
Honeymoon is fairly compelling for its first hour or so, and it gets at an idea bound to resonate with commitment-phobic millennials (or, to be fair, anyone contemplating a long-term relationship): what if the person you've agreed to spend your life with isn't the person you thought they were? Once the “honeymoon phase” of a relationship concludes, each member of a couple inevitably begins to notice their partner's flaws. What if those flaws are more than just minor irritations? What if you realize you never actually knew who your spouse was when you agreed to marry them? It's an intriguing variation on an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style horror premise, with fear of our inability to truly know each other replacing fear of brainwashing.
Leslie deserves much of the credit for the film's success. She makes a remarkably smooth transition from smart, funny, free-spirited, sexually voracious bride to panicked, secretive victim, and avoids the temptation to play the latter incarnation of her character as a mind-controlled zombie. Leslie plays Bea as a woman fighting to retain her own identity as some mysterious force attempts to strip it from her. It's an internal battle essayed with subtlety and surprisingly moving intensity.
Disappointingly, the movie drops the ball in the third act as it shifts into conventional horror mode. During its closing stretch, the movie simultaneously becomes bloodier and less interesting. Part of the problem is that Janiak seems to be caving under pressure to provide a familiar horror movie ending (complete with dark twists and squirm-inducing gore). The other part of the problem is that she starts mixing her metaphors: the whole marriage/identity angle gets dropped in favor of a more heavy-handed statement on sexual abuse. There's some strong imagery here, but the movie doesn't build up to it effectively enough to make it stick. The film's ending might have worked under different circumstances, but it feels like the ending to a different movie than the one Janiak actually made. However, I'm eager to see what she does next. There are numerous things to admire about Honeymoon, even if they don't quite form a satisfying whole.
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 87 minutes
Release Year: 2014