Sunday, 21 September 2014

Why Leigh Janiak's "Honeymoon" Is The Genre Movie You've Been Waiting For | Feature


Honeymoon, dir. Leigh Janiak, wr. Phil Graziadei, Leigh Janiak, st. Rose Leslie, Harry Treadway, Ben Huber, Hanna Brown

So here's the thing: how did a film that begins as yet another lost-in-the-woods frightener end up as one of the most tender, moving films I've seen all year? Or to put it another way, how did Honeymoon, nominally marketed as a horror film, manage to pull off a subversive ending without cheating?

Actually, it's amazing that there are as many successful horror movies as there are. The whole way the genre is machined sets it up for failure come the closing act. Dramatic conflict (or in the horror genre's case - tension) arises from the discomfort of mystery. What are we seeing? Why is this happening? Is it demonic possession? A trans-dimensional anomaly? Is it imaginary or the Devil himself? Is the guy in the mask just a guy in a mask? The tropes have been worn down to their bluntest nubs, used, reused, discarded, retrieved, plundered and pumped for every last nutritional atom. This has ultimately resulted in two things: First, that we the audience have become adept at second guessing the provided signposts, and two, that the films therefore have no choice but to either awkwardly invert expectation in order to avoid exposure, or continue headlong into the grim realm of predictability, 'cos hell, why not? It's just a movie. And when people exclaim that getting there is half the fun, they're not wrong, it is. Half the fun. Movies - especially horror movies - need a payoff. This is not the same, I might add, as closure. Some mysteries are effectively better left as. But these kind of endings need to be earned and not employed as one might chuck some Jeff Buckley over a montage for cheap and instant emotional gratification.

Which brings us to Leigh Janiak's Honeymoon (and spoilers), a low-budget thriller that stars two gifted actors of contemporary television - Game of Thrones' Rose Leslie as Bea, and Penny Dreadful's Harry Treadway as Paul. Newly married, the pair head off for their titular romantic getaway in the family cabin situated deep within a secluded wood. Not long after their arrival, Paul finds Bea naked and disorientated in the woods, and soon after that Janiak introduces the manifestations of weird. Bea tries to make french toast without batter and coffee with unground beans, and out in the woodland, at the spot where Paul found Bea, he discovers her shredded nightgown and a strange viscous substance. Bea repeatedly insists her increasingly erratic behaviour is nothing to worry about despite the strange markings on her legs (that she insists are nothing but bug bites), her repetition and odd turns of phrase, and in one particularly eerie scene, Paul secretly witnessing her practice a convincing excuse to herself in the mirror, one she later recites when he tries to initiate sex. So far, so formulaic; the woods, the strange lights, the clearly dodgy neighbouring restaurant owner and his skittish, wide-eyed and mousey wife who tells them they have to leave. But even at this stage, before the scene that changes everything, you suspect Janiak wasn't really ever in the business of constructing a horror film at all.

Maybe it's as a newlywed myself I was more acutely susceptible to such provocation, but I couldn't help shake the feeling Janiak was trying to tell us something about marriage and parenthood. A year into my marriage, I love my wife more than I have ever loved her before. I lie awake, my head buried in the back of her neck, genuinely amazed at what I've discovered, and my heart similarly lurches every time I fear she's in any kind of pain. She's my entire life and it would utterly destroy me to watch her disintegrate in front of my very eyes. In addition, we too are navigating the rocky coastline of starting a family - both on the same page, luckily, but it's a tricky bit of sailing all the same. So Paul's reaction to Bea's irregular behaviour is chillingly familiar. The rising panic you try and suppress, the wild fiction you try to abate with rationalism. But Bea's change of temperament could also be read as a symptom of anxiety at starting a family of their own. When Paul quips about her "resting (her) womb" because of the previous night's frenetic lovemaking, Bea questions the precise use of his language. A careless and throwaway gag is just enough to give pause to the couple's easy chemistry. Is this the source of Bea's unease? One begins to think how Janiak's horror-film conventions might merely enrobe a deeper discourse concerning the permanent reality of marital relationships, how, in her own words, "Even small moments can drive a wedge between people."

But then, after a film that's been heavy on atmosphere and menace, but light on any real scares or visceral jolts, comes a scene that gives credence to our suspicions that Bea may have been violated that night in the woods. Clearly Bea's erractic behaviour is set up to echo the trauma that follows assault, and we see a few times in the film where Janiak takes pains to illustrate Bea and Paul's intense and loving sexual attraction to one another. After confronting her and begging for an explanation he's convinced she's keeping from him, Bea locks herself in the bathroom and proceeds to perform some kind of self-abortion on her own body. On breaking into the washroom, wide-eyed and disbelieving at the sight of his beautiful bride so violently mutilating herself, once again, Bea jumps up and begs Paul to forget what he has seen, and for the two of them just to return to bed. When the struggle between them turns violent, Paul uses a length of rope (the same rope he had previously playfully teased Bea with in the film's first act) to secure her to the bed. It's a disconcerting scene indeed. In one sense, we see a husband desperately attempting to restrain his newly-feral wife from further self-harm, and in another, given that we suspect the nature of Bea's trauma, we see Paul assume the role of Bea's aggressor. Certainly, it's the only time we've actually seen Bea come into harm's way. This unease is further compounded by Paul making his way up Bea's trussed body, slowly, delirious and tear-stained, feverishly asking what she's done with his wife, why she looks like her, but isn't. It's framed as a criminal act as invasive as the one he suspects has befallen Bea. And then he touches her and asks her how it feels and his hand comes away from between her legs with a placenta-like membraney substance, and she asks him to help her.

By now there's no doubting the correlation between the anxiety, the threat almost, of consensual pregnancy and enforced gestation. As he pulls the umbilical-like spore from her, Paul looks on with a mixture of dissociative shock and immense sadness. But critically - and this is where everything changes - Bea is ok. There doesn't seem to be any pain. And she explains, finally, regretfully, what happened to her in the woods that night. The dark figures implanted something within her, something that's slowly changing her. Her consciousness is being slowly erased, ever diluted, being replaced with the entity's drone-like, worker-bee biology - and worst of all, Bea can feel all of this happening. She has always known what was to be. In many ways, this reveal is the polar opposite to that 1995 episode of The Outer Limits, Quality of Mercy, which stands as a perfect representation of this kind of nefarious misdirection. In the future, humanity is at war with an alien race when a soldier, Major John Skokes is taken prisoner. Soon, a young female cadet called Bree is thrown into his cell with him. The aliens periodically take her away, ostensibly to tortuously experiment on her with alien-skin grafts. At the episode's end, when Bree is on the verge of physically and mentally losing her humanity, Skokes confides in her one last bit of hope she might take with her to her demise: Earth is not lost; their near-collapse is a ruse that will lull the aliens into a false sense of victory before humanity attacks with a concealed fleet of ships. The alien guards enter and Bree calmly walks towards them. He doesn't understand, she tells Skokes. "They're turning me back."

Whilst this sucker-punch twisty ending carries with it its own nihilistic satisfaction, it's a great example of the duplicity inherent in such characters. They seek, like the Devil himself, to distort and confuse. Their mission is to subvert, to lure and persuade for their own diabolical ends, and everything in Honeymoon points to Bea perfectly inhabiting this mould. We are certain the reveal, when it comes, will be of this nature. Bea is concealing the darkest of agendas. Her pleas for reconciliatory calm are no different to Bree's feints of fear every time the guards enter the room. But actually, Bea's confession to Paul changes all of that. She knows what the entities were doing to her, she could feel herself slipping away from him, the man she loves with every fibre of her ebbing being, and she lied and denied just so she could spend the last few days together with him, her soul intact. She just wanted their honeymoon. Janiak's film isn't actually a horror film at all; it's a love story. The subterfuge perpetuated by Bea wasn't, in fact, a device to promote dread in the minds of Honeymoon's audience as in the case of most characters of her ilk. Honeymoon isn't even about alien abduction. Rather it's a story about two lovers whose time is up.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with straight genre films. I'm not alone, I suspect, in wishing there was more original narrative creativity and less form-over-content underhand endings that seek to breathe life into a dying saga by illogically undermining our expectations. But what Honeymoon does so perfectly - so audaciously - is to ask us to consider our own expectations and assumptions about genre. It lays out a conventional horror story and then tells us it doesn't matter because there's something more important at stake that we've failed to notice - something that's there right under our noses from the opening reel; the immutable and incorruptible bond of total devotion.