What’s the worst fate that could befall a vegan? You can guess what a horror movie might surmise, although Honeydew charts a course that’s disorienting enough to mask its true, gruesome destination. The feature debut of writer/director Devereux Milburn, it’s a thriller that has an appetite for the grisly, not to mention a thing or two to say about venturing into the middle of nowhere—and taking a bite out of morsels that come from unknown origins.
Premiering on VOD on April 13, Honeydew begins with a bevy of bewildering sights and sounds, including a veiled older woman at a rural-field funeral, a heavyset man in a balaclava catching and skinning a wild animal, and narration in which a woman recites a wacko religious prayer: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the holy spirit? Who is in you. Who you have received from God. You are not your own. You were bought at a price.”
What this all means is far from initially clear, and Milburn continues stoking confusion once his attention turns to graduate student Riley (Malin Barr) reading in her car about sordico, a poisonous spore that infected crops of New England wheat, eventually driving the animals that consumed it mad before killing them altogether. At the same time, her actor boyfriend Sam (Sawyer Spielberg) is in a bathroom rehearsing lines from a script—an introductory sequence that Milburn dramatizes through hectic cross-cutting, split-screens, and multiple dialogue sources that destabilize as much as they clarify.
Spielberg is the son of the legendary director, and his harrowing circumstances will eventually echo those of a famed archaeologist in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Still, Honeydew’s true inspirations are more along the lines of backwoods nightmares like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Wrong Turn.
Riley is a vegan who’s convinced Sam to eat likewise and they’re on a camping trip that, after a run-in with a strange mute bicyclist (Joshua Patrick Dudley), leads them to a remote field. Following some satisfying sex, they’re visited by a white-bearded gentleman named Eulis (Stephen D’Ambrose) who informs them that they’re on a patch of his 500-acre estate and must promptly relocate. This turn of events is as jarring for Riley and Sam as it is for us, and Barr and Spielberg capture the bickering prickliness of people who have just exited the honeymoon phase of their relationship, and are now comfortable sniping at and prodding each other. To make matters worse, the pair discover that their car battery is dead, forcing them to trek through the dark with only their phone flashlights as a guide.
Milburn bifurcates his screen in slashing lines, employs whiplash camera movements, and embellishes his unexpected cuts with unsettling noises, all of which creates an air of upheaval, as if the film itself were infected by a strange mental affliction. Honeydew generates suspense through schizoid formal means, startling via an array of editorial tricks and a soundscape that combines hushed chanting, cow bell-like clanging, and xylophone Christmas songs—the last of which become ever-present once Riley and Sam make their way past a forest bear trap (beneath a buzzing treetop lightbulb) and to the home of Karen (Barbara Kingsley). The kind old lady’s smile is so weird as to immediately mark her as dangerous, but given their desperate straits, the couple have no choice but to accept her aid.
Karen’s abode is a quaint farmhouse decorated with furniture and appliances from an earlier era, and her beaming disposition manages to convince Sam and Riley that they should heed her advice and, instead of calling AAA, wait for car assistance from Karen’s nearby neighbor. In the meantime, Karen insists that they stay for dinner, which it turns out will also be attended by Gunni (Jamie Bradley), a young portly man with a bandage wrapped around his head (and on his cheek), who sits at Karen’s kitchen table watching old black-and-white Popeye cartoons while sucking on lemon slices dipped in sugar, sipping juice through long straws, and gurgling like someone suffering from severe head trauma. Gunni is an unnerving presence (to say the least), and so too for Riley is the meal served by Karen: big cuts of meat sizzled on the stove, and freshly made cupcakes for dessert.
Unwilling to be rude to their hospitable host, Riley and Sam dig into this food, and then—since auto repairs aren’t quickly forthcoming—are shown a thoroughly eerie basement room (previously inhabited by Gunni) where they can stay the night. Honeydew’s characters would seem more foolish, and its plot more pedestrian, if not for the way in which Milburn constantly jangles the nerves through sudden aesthetic jolts and perspective changes, which become even more persistent once digestion takes place and Riley and Sam start falling into a semi-hallucinatory fugue. Whether it’s the bread baking in the oven (presumably with wheat culled from formerly toxic fields) or something more sinister is almost irrelevant at a certain point, as the two soon find themselves at the mercy of forces with demented ideas about nourishment and holiness—and, also about continuing on their legacy.
Honeydew may have flesh on its mind, but it’s never overly gory; Milburn keeps his nastiest elements off-screen, the better to disturb through suggestion. Whereas the film’s first half maintains tension through raucous style, its latter passages take a more slow-burn approach, with each new horror allowed to settle in—for maximum icky potency—before a subsequent one is trotted out to further up the ante. That’s most true in the material’s coda, during which the director’s chief bombshells are teased to their breaking point, and then play out with excruciating deliberateness. Even when it’s obvious what’s around the corner, there’s a queasy edginess to the filmmaker’s orchestration of his creeping-death revelations.
When Sam calls 911 and informs the police that he requires help at a house located “between Pleasant Street and Trouble Street,” Honeydew lets slip its playfully deranged sense of humor. For the most part, though, the real sick joke of Milburn’s film boils down to the idea that you are what you eat—or, at least, that what you devour often has the capacity to drive you out of your ever-loving mind.