Back in the early 1970s, Americans became a bit preoccupied with what you could call (among other things) hillbilly horror. It goes like this: A group of usually relatively attractive and young people head to a backwoodsy place that they have no business being for some sort of doomed trip or vacation that always goes terribly wrong—usually at the hands of unwelcoming locals.
More or less following this scheme, we got “adventure thriller” Deliverance in 1972 (adapted from the eponymous 1970 novel), followed by Tobe Hooper’s full-fledged horror show The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1974, and then Craven’s classic The Hills Have Eyes in 1977. Naturally, the last four decades have birthed a lot of derivations on the formula, some excellent and some not so much, but these are the standout OGs in my mind—the movies that defined the kind of terror this premise is known for and is now responsible for delivering, a terror that all subsequent forays in the genre are, for better or worse, always judged against.
Going into writer/director (and editor) Devereux Milburn’s feature debut, Honeydew, I wasn’t exactly sure what I was in for. I’d seen the trailer, I’d read the ad copy (and even a Fango piece not that long ago), but all of these things were delightfully vague (and my memory is also trash). As you may have guessed by now, what I ended up getting was a very interesting derivation on the hillbilly horror formula. One that it pleases to me report isn’t simply a worse version of something listed above.
Doing my best not to spoil more than I already have, the overview of Honeydew is that a couple (played by Sawyer Spielberg and Malin Barr) finds themselves camping on land where they shouldn’t be, which leads them to spending a night at the nearby homestead of creepy old woman Karen (played by Barbara Kingsley, who does a great and quite believable job). Just to clarify, Karen’s house is another place that this couple absolutely should not be.
Our sort of protagonists—or at least our POV characters—Sam and Rylie aren’t necessarily a couple anyone will be shipping, though I imagine that most of us who have been in a relationship or two can very much relate to them. It’s easy to see how there was once love and passion between them, but nowadays, it’s more a memory of what used to be rather than the reality of what currently is. They give off the impression of a couple that’s still together primarily because of inertia—a couple of individuals who truly left each other a long time ago.
Sam is a man whose spirit has been weakened and dulled by the trajectory his life has refused to take. He wants to be an actor, but we get the impression he’s never really gotten a part. He can’t call himself a waiter, as he’s between jobs there too. This weekend, he’s been relegated to his PhD-earning girlfriend’s “research assistant,” which we can clearly tell is a look he’s not loving this spring. To boot, his cholesterol sucks and his doctor has ordered him to stay away from every food item that makes life worth living. Good thing his vegan, type A-style girlfriend is there to aggressively police his every potential indulgence.
The thing about Sam is that he’s not inherently likable or unlikeable. And Rylie, for her part, is very much the same. While her descriptors as related to Sam’s perspective make her sound like a relentless and insufferable nag, she’s really not. Rylie is on a research trip this weekend. It’s work that’s extremely important to a demanding curriculum that she’s committed herself to, and she’s trying to share the experience with her partner, making an adventure out of what otherwise would have just been work. And Sam? He won’t stop chewing on his fingers. He’s passive and indirect. He won’t provide any support, but he also won’t say how he feels. He blatantly ignores silent cues for help from Rylie, choosing to abandon her in the strange and creepy dynamics of Karen’s labyrinthian house, passing his cruelty off as if he simply failed to notice Rylie’s apparent pleas.
I feel it’s important to spend so much time describing these characters because you need to understand going in that you won’t necessarily be rooting for them. I’m telling you straight up that you absolutely will not be rooting for the baddies either, so this is your big, seemingly necessary warning that you probably won’t be “rooting” for anyone. And do you know what? That is okay. In fact, in this reviewer’s opinion, it makes the vibe all the more unsettling.
Not having a character to root for makes audiences incredibly uncomfortable, which is why many of them seem to rush to turn down their thumbs. However, “there was no one to root for” is really only a reasonable negative critique when the film promises a hero that it fails to deliver. This film absolutely does not make those promises at any point. If you want to enjoy it, don’t go in expecting a hero that wasn’t promised, and you probably will.
I don’t want to give away much more about the story, I’ve said enough, but I will say a few things about the style. Milburn and cinematographer Dan Kennedy (who shares a story credit with Milburn) made a lot of really interesting technical choices that immediately drew me in. I found myself marveling at how much I liked a lot of the early shot compositions. The filmmakers also made really creative use of split-screen editing and shot pairings, playing with different perspectives and scene subjects. It was all very interesting and felt fresh to me, especially as it’s not something you see very regularly these days.
I’ve also seen some smack talked about the sound design, which is another slight I disagree with. Especially in the beginning, there were a lot of sound cues that matched up with creative editing choices, and I liked that a lot. I think that, overall, the sound design was quite successful at building tension and also keeping the audience’s rapt attention.
While the hillbilly hostage horror genre is not one that really calls to me personally or usually tickles my specific horror sensibilities, I was quite captivated watching Honeydew and definitely really appreciate what Devereux Milburn (whose name is just so cool, right?) accomplished here. If genuinely not-stale hillbilly horror is your thing, mixed with arthouse-esque vibes and creative editing, Honeydew is the one for you.