‘Honeydew‘ Review: Sawyer Spielberg and a Baffling cameo Can’t Stir This Road Trip from Hell. This anticlimactic thriller resembles the Brothers Grimm meets “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” with Lena Dunham making an unexpected appearance.
Those who expected more overt terror from a young couple’s sojourn in a middle-of-nowhere farmhouse from hell in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” may find something to love about Devereux Milburn’s first feature “Honeydew.” Adrift in the twilight zone between “Hansel and Gretel” fairytale and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” this gross-out, slow-dripping, arthouse horror draws dread from deadpan settings. Even while shouting whatever that is loudly, “Honeydew” isn’t sure what it wants to say, leaving it unsure what it should be afraid of.
It’s possible that Milburn’s background as a music video and short film director helps to explain “Honeydew.” “Honeydew” has the feel of a germ of an idea stretched to feature length. Sawyer Spielberg, the son of Steven Spielberg, makes his debut in front of the camera as Sam, one half of a stagnant relationship with Malin Barr as Rylie. Her work on the deteriorating farmlands of America paves her and her boyfriend on a journey into a hollowed-out pocket of the Dust Bowl. From the opening moments, it’s clear that this is going to be a bad ride. There’s a gaunt guy with lifeless eyes standing around a petrol station. Sam, an aspiring actor, prepares lines for an audition while sitting on the toilet, and Rylie watches YouTube documentaries about wheat crops dying in the belly of misery where they’re driving.
The lovers are washed away by a monsoon, but because the town clerk is so concerned about their safety, they unintentionally end up in the middle of a field without any food or water and must spend the night. They wind up camping out in the middle of a barren pasture, where they have sex joyless tent sex that adds nothing to the narrative. This establishes the stage for Eulis, an irritable tractor driver (Stephen D’Ambrose), to stir them. Eulis informs them that they are on his land at dead of night. It’s time to go. But when they pack up to depart, they find surprise: Their automobile is broken down. And their phones are also running out of power.
Sam and Rylie quarrel their way to a stranger’s home, where they’re greeted by a rictus-grinning old bat named Karen (Barbara Kingsley), her face a twisted visage of demonic glee under a porch light, in opposition to the grain of every horror-movie signpost that is screaming “all hope abandon ye who enter here.” Under a porch light, her narcotized speech patterns and inability to look you in the eye suggest someone who isn’t totally there. Karen provides shelter and a meat-and-potatoes platter whipped up from a questionable carcass inside the scariest fridge this side of Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion,” but Sam is on a no-cholesterol diet, Riley is a vegan, and there’s also a feral, obese man named Gunni (Jamie Bradley) at the table watching old TV shows on an ancient TV with his head swaddled like a baby in a bandage barely concealing an open wound seeping out of his head. And then he seizures.
The atmosphere of “Deliverance” levels of redneck oddity is certainly evocative, with Milburn’s detached touch balancing the precarious seesaw between the oddball and macabre. However, given the insanely stupid actions of the primary characters, it’s difficult to get comfortable in this unsettling environment – cranked up to maximum effect by a score that mixes ambience with clanging found sounds by composer John Mehrmann, which pulsates like an extraterrestrial radio dispatch just out of reach. When Karen installs Sam and Rylie in a guest bedroom in the unfinished basement while they wait for a tow, Rylie watches TV on the bed, and Sam jerks off in the shower with grim determination. Who does something like that in someone’s terrible house?
He may be possessed by a pleasure-starved demon. Sam, dissatisfied with his diet and girlfriend, decides to return to the kitchen to consume meat that as delivered by deranged Karen is almost certainly not of the bovine variety. Down below, Rylie investigates odd bumps in the night as she tries to find out what’s going on above her. The unavoidable trap they’re walking into is practically certain.
When the movie gets going, it quickly devolves into a terrible endgame that unfolds at a snail’s pace and is undoubtedly preconceived but lacks any purpose other than to shock you as you gnaw on your patience. All of this erupts with an unforgettable cameo from Lena Dunham as an armless, legless, footless woman whose thigh muscles are exercised by Karen while she eats tiny bites of “steak” dipped in watery lemonade. Dunham’s character screams and writhes in terror at the knowledge of her existence.
This is a strange film that consumes itself up its own empty gastrointestinal tract. And, for such a hollow film, “Honeydew” is loudly blatant in its formal approach to lifeless material, with split screens, striking title cards, nerve-twisting sound design, and occasionally Dan Kennedy’s stunning cinematography (who also has a story credit). Everything is afflicted with a redness comparable to a rash, fitting for a film that depicts everyone and everything as sickening. You have to appreciate the film’s dedication to its own uniqueness; loopy as it may be, the black-and-white cartoons unwinding out of the TVs in that abandoned farmhouse are heading to their own crazy dance.
The actors are adequate. Lena Dunham gives her diluted captress a lobotomized victim from Jeffrey Dahmer’s worst psychopathic fantasies, playing her like an unresponsive patient. Some of the dialogue is cringe-inducing in its bluntness, such as when Rylie asks Karen why poor Gunni falls asleep all the time (when he’s not violently shacking at the dinner table). “Like a narcoleptic?” “No.” But endless nihilism and foreboding aesthetics do not constitute a meal.
Now playing on Cinema HD.
Directed by: Devereux Milburn
Produced by: Dan Kennedy, Alan Pierson
Starring: Sawyer Spielberg, Malin Barr, Barbara Kingsley
Release dates: October 2020 (Nightstream), March 12, 2021 (North America)
Running time: 106 minutes
Country: United States