The synopsis for Honeydew reads like a horror setup that’s been done countless times over. A couple finds themselves stranded in a backwoods area in need of help, and they wind up at a house in the middle of nowhere inhabited by a deranged family. Devereux Milburn, making his feature debut, takes that familiar setup and transforms it into something wholly original. Honeydew makes for one idiosyncratic and deranged backwoods voyage.
Sam (Sawyer Spielberg) and Riley (Malin Barr) are taking a road trip through rural America, and opt to camp in an open field for the night. They’re awoken by the land’s property owner and forced to leave. Only they can’t, because their car won’t start and there’s no cell reception to call for help. Along their walk to find aid or shelter, they stumble across a lone house. It’s owned by Karen (Barbara Kingsley), a strange older woman who invites them in for a meal and her phone. Karen, who lives with her weirder son, Gunni (Jamie Bradley), seems off right away, and the couple’s night is destined to get unhinged.
Honeydew bides its time presenting the horror elements. Not much about the visual language initially suggests horror. Instead, Milburn slowly unsettles with minimalism, peculiar character behavior, and camerawork. Gunni’s vacant stare as he fixates at vintage cartoons, gauze wrapped around his head a significant clue he’s not alright. Karen spaces out on occasion and misses social cues the more Riley presses for updates on the tow they’ve called for. Closeups of the sizzling meat in the frying pan in conjunction with Karen’s insistence upon feeding her new guests plant insidious clues that something might be amiss with the food. This place is far more dangerous than Karen’s sweet, absentminded persona suggests.
Milburn keeps the viewer off-kilter in several unique ways. The sound design is quirky and atypical of genre fare, adding a playfulness that furthers the film’s macabre sense of humor. Sam and Riley are rendered as intentionally unlikable leads, creating a feeling of uncertainty of rooting interest, if any. This couple may be road-tripping together, but they don’t seem very compatible and barely get along even in the best circumstances. However, their clashing personalities and dietary preferences make it that much easier for trouble to befall them.
The longer the couple stays within Karen’s home, the more off the rails the movie gets. Time gets distorted, hallucinations ensue, and weird characters manage to get even more bonkers. The infamous dinner scene in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre deeply unnerved not just for the torture its heroine endured, but the depraved humor Tobe Hooper infused in the ghoulish scene. Milburn manages to deconstruct that off-putting tonal blend and uncomfortable feeling of dread and stretch it out into an entire feature, using his distinct voice.
With Honeydew, Milburn takes the familiar tropes of a subgenre and reconfigures them with a wacky new take that favors the unpredictable. Every single element of this feature is meant to make the viewer as disconcerted and unsure as Sam and Riley, to question whether the appropriate response is to laugh or cringe. The answer is both. Honeydew gives a fresh take on a tired concept, stretching the bounds of horror-comedies to deliver something truly bizarre. Its idiosyncrasies likely won’t appeal to mainstream tastes. But for those willing to take an insane trip to a hallucinatory and hellish night of terror, Honeydew makes for one depraved mood piece full of warped humor and shocking violence.
Honeydew made its World Premiere at the Nightstream Film Festival.