It’s hard to recall another recent horror film that recovers from an insular, tone-deaf opening to the degree that Honeymoon somehow manages. Admittedly, a romantic holiday in the woods is a time for insularity, and the strained obnoxiousness is certainly a conscious portion of director Leigh Janiak’s master plan. Bea (Rose Leslie) and Paul (Henry Treadaway) are twentysomething newlyweds in the flush of romance, which is to say that they’re pretty much insufferable in the tradition of all freshly minted lovers who falsely believe that they’ve encountered something undiscovered and unexperienced. They trade in-jokes that would appear to be unsalvageable even if one possessed the proper context. They baby talk. They isolate and pore over every banal moment, turning every gesture into an occasion for drawn-out courtship—a tendency that’s most pointedly irritating when Bea shows Paul the cabin they’re to spend their honeymoon in. The film waffles between dramatizing youthful self-absorption and succumbing to it, and this tonal instability comes to effectively mirror the domestic discord that’s eventually revealed to be its real subject.
Some of the material in the first act is convincing and resonant. Leslie and Treadaway have an impressive grasp of how young lovers touch each other: hungrily, yet lightly and probingly, as if they’re almost afraid that this happiness is an illusion. The actors have understandable trouble selling the dialogue though, which abounds in weirdly anachronistic howlers (how many millennials are really going to say “last one in’s a rotten egg”?). But even these dissonances soon begin to work in Honeymoon’s favor. You may get the impression that Bea and Paul were raised in a conservative religious community of some sort. There’s something square about them. They sometimes poignantly suggest children playing at being adults, though there’s an occasionally surprising suggestion of kink, such as when it’s implied that Paul ties Bea up for some of the rough stuff. That squareness begins to take on a sinister connotation when Bea wanders into the neighboring woods one night and seemingly returns as an entirely different person: remote, manipulative, and all of a sudden immune to the overheated horsing around that we’ve had to endure for the better part of a half hour.
There’s a potentially good joke in this development that Janiak doesn’t entirely mine: Paul’s incredulous because he finds himself whisked overnight from the heat of new love to the embattled remoteness of a relationship that’s fired by increasingly cooling embers. When Paul asks Bea why she didn’t laugh at his uncomprehendingly infantile joke about a fat frog, you may to want to exclaim: Because it’s not even vaguely funny! It’s as if Bea has all of sudden come around to the audience’s way of seeing these contrivances, which are born equally of the requisites of genre films and of real relationships, for what they are: ritualistic play-acting. The charade of the first act crumbles apart, and Bea and Paul grow more likable the more they’re besieged by an increasingly hostile invader, as their callowness is peeled away to reveal universal emotional turmoil.
Honeymoon is ultimately a game of “what’s happening,” as the events are arranged and structured in such a manner as to firstly twist you up in anticipatory knots. For that, there’s an element of impersonality to the film, and it’s regrettable that it never grows as wild as some of its foreshadowing would initially suggest. But the explanation for Bea’s erratic behavior manages to toe a reasonably satisfying line between the guessable and the unsettlingly irrational. And an image near the end, of Bea as she approaches her ultimate fate looking decidedly worse for wear, chillingly fulfills the film’s low-thrumming concern with the self-loathing that springs from symbolic domestic abuse. Honeymoon isn’t a major horror movie, but there are coils of suppressed weirdness that retrospectively expand in stature.