The body-snatching subgenre of horror and science fiction is a particularly pliable one that can serve any number of purposes. This is the genre in which some kind of invading force, usually from beyond the stars, comes to Earth and starts taking over human hosts. It’s a profoundly chilling thought: coworkers, loved ones, the friendly postal service person you tip every Christmas, are not who they once were. In some ways it’s worse than turning into a vampire or a werewolf or a shambling undead zombie, because those all feature some level of physiological transformation. With the body snatcher subgenre, it’s your unique you-ness that undergoes the mutation. With “Honeymoon,” the subgenre, previously utilized to lampoon cultural movements and political parties, is placed into the intimate setting of a two-person relationship drama. It’s a stroke of, if not genius, then at least insane cleverness.
“Honeymoon” starts with a found footage-y montage of a couple, Paul and Bea (played by Harry Treadaway and Rose Leslie from “Game of Thrones“), talking to the camera on their wedding day. They each tell stories and cram a Cinnabon in each other’s mouths (that’s what they got instead of wedding cake). They appear to be a fairly typical young professional Brooklyn hipster couple, and a few weeks after the wedding, they embark on their honeymoon to Bea’s family’s dusty cabin in upstate New York. (Seriously people, if there’s a creaky cabin in the woods, stay the fuck away. Especially if you can’t get cell service and the wifi is spotty.) Once there, they start to do honeymoon-y type stuff like go for playfully adorable canoe rides in the lake and have lots of just-married sex.
One night the couple walks into the barely-there town, where Bea runs into an old flame named Will (played by Ben Huber) and his wife Annie (Hanna Brown). The wife looks peaky, ashen and discombobulated, and Will grabs her arm forcefully, leaving Paul to wonder what, exactly, is going on. One night after their encounter, Paul wakes up to an empty bed, unable to find Bea anywhere in the house. He wanders outside and finds her naked, freezing cold and covered in mud. After he brings her back to the house, he notices some odd marks on her inner thigh. And things keep getting weirder from there.
Past examples of the body snatcher subgenre, from each iteration of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” to last year’s “The World’s End,” usually have something larger on their mind. With the original “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” it was the Cold War and the hunt for supposed Russian spies, with the ’70s remake it was suitably tailored to the conspiratorial tone of the post-Watergate era, and even the ’80s “Body Snatchers” dealt with uncomfortable issues about the military industrial complex. (The underrated “Puppet Masters” dabbled in similar themes.) With “The World’s End,” it was all about the “Starbucking” of the world, the swapping of old mom-and-pop operations with streamlined franchises (a metaphor that can be used on a number of things).
But what “Honeymoon” wisely does, with its tiny cast and limited budget, is scale things back to exist within the dynamics of a single marriage. It, like last year’s mind-bending “Upstream Color,” investigates how much of your own identity you have to give up when you are in a long-term relationship with someone else and if whether or not that kind of symbiotic relationship can actually end up taking some of your essence right along with it. Even more amazingly is how the movie is totally straight-faced. There isn’t a single reference, pop culture or otherwise, to gum up the emotions of the piece, and never is the scenario played for anything but drama. Is it really so much of a leap to go from thinking your wife might have had a fling with an ex-lover to believing that she might not be your wife at all?
Co-written (with Phil Graziadei) and directed by Leigh Janiak, the movie also has some fun with the “signs” that someone has been replaced. In the context of this being the couple’s honeymoon, it’s almost all things that you would expect to go on in the bedroom. (In a great sequence, Paul walks in on Bea practicing how she’s going to turn down sex with him. It’s unsettling but also darkly funny and oddly relatable.) Janiak also plays around with the idea of buyer’s remorse (what if the person you just signed on to spend the rest of your life with isn’t what you wanted?) and notions of gender identity (since Paul isn’t exactly the manliest man). Even if the more outrageous stuff doesn’t connect, it’s easy to relate to a sensation of knowing that a relationship is deeply wrong but still trying to make it work.
It’s just that sometimes you wish there was more to “Honeymoon” on a narrative level. We’re going to tread lightly here, as to not give away anything too pivotal, since the great joy of the film is watching how it blossoms from a tale of a somewhat difficult relationship into something altogether more… otherworldly… But if you want to not know anything, it might be best to turn back now. If you want to know what we thought, we really liked it. Still there? Okay. So something is obviously going on with Bea. But the question is: why her? And why the other woman in town? Is there something that makes them special? Have they been handpicked for some greater purposes? And wouldn’t Bea, if she had been to the cabin before as a child, heard or seen something spooky that might suggest spending time up there, alone, on the off-season, might not be such a great idea? Since we have so precious little knowledge about the couple, and are asked to care so deeply about them, it would have been nice for some additional context, personal or otherwise, just to lend some zing to the central mystery.
Which isn’t to say that “Honeymoon” doesn’t succeed, because it does. It’s creepy as hell, the kind of movie that worms its way underneath your skin and sits there. Then you’ll think about something, maybe from the squishy third act, and it’ll all come back to unsettle you anew. The atmosphere of dread isn’t just utilized to amplify the scariness of what’s going on, but it perfectly replicates the sensation of a romance that neither partner knows is going to end truly horribly. Typically, a honeymoon is a celebration of the new partnership two people are about to embark on. With “Honeymoon,” it’s about a new partnership alright. But between what? [B+]