Those who expected more outright 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 the “Hansel and Gretel” fairytale and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” this gross-out, slow-dripping, arthouse horror siphons dread out of deadpan places. “Honeydew” sure knows how to stage an atmosphere, but comes up woefully short in the ideas department, unsure of what it wants to say even when it’s saying whatever that is loudly.
That could be attributed to Milburn’s background as a music video and short film director, because “Honeydew” feels like a germ of an idea distended to feature length. Steven Spielberg’s son Sawyer Spielberg makes his feature acting debut as Sam, one half of a desultory couple opposite Malin Barr as Rylie. She’s a PhD student chasing her thesis in botany, whose study of the decaying farmlands of America leads her and her boyfriend to a hollowed-out pocket of the Dust Bowl. Frantic split screens in the opening moments telegraph they are in for something awful. There’s a skinny man with dead eyes hovering around a gas station. It’s there that Sam, an aspiring actor, drills lines for an audition while squatting on the toilet, and Rylie watches YouTube videos about the degradation of wheat crops in the bowels-of-misery region through which they’re road-tripping.
They end up camping out in the middle of a barren field, and, after some joyless tent sex that serves no narrative purpose, are stirred by a grouchy local on a tractor named Eulis (Stephen D’Ambrose). This sets the table for the yeehaw backwoods horrors to come. Eulis, in the dead of night, tells the couple they’re on his property. It’s time to go. But once they pack up to leave, they discover, surprise, their car is out of juice. And their phones are running out of it, too.
Going against the grain of every horror-movie signpost that is all but screaming “all hope abandon ye who enter here,” Sam and Rylie bicker their way to a stranger’s front door, 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. Her narcotized speech patterns and inability to look you in the eye suggest a woman not totally there. While Sam and Rylie arrange for help we know will never come, Karen offers shelter, and a meat-and-potatoes platter whipped up from a dubious carcass inside the scariest refrigerator this side of Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion.” Problem is, Sam’s on a no-cholesterol diet, Riley’s a vegan, and also there’s a feral, obese man named Gunni (Jamie Bradley) at the table, watching “Betty Boop” cartoons on an old TV, swaddled like a giant baby in a bandage barely concealing an open wound seeping out of his head. And then he starts seizing.
The setup for “Deliverance” levels of redneck eccentricity is certainly evocative, with Milburn’s detached touch straddling the precarious seesaw between the oddball and the macabre. But the eerie environment — cranked up to maximum effect by a score that mixes ambience with clanging found sounds by composer John Mehrmann, pulsating like an alien radio dispatch just out of reach — is hard to settle into given the absolutely ludicrous behavior of the main characters. When Karen installs Sam and Rylie in a guest bedroom in the unfinished basement while they wait for a tow, Rylie watches black-and-white TV on the bed, and Sam jerks off in the shower with grim determination. Who does that in somebody’s creepy house?
Maybe he’s possessed by a pleasure-starved demon. Sam, bored of his diet and his girlfriend, goes back to the kitchen and starts chomping on meat that, as served by the demented Karen, is most definitely not of the bovine kind. While he shoves a rubbery piece of well-done flesh down his gullet upstairs, Rylie investigates literal bumps in the night down below. The inevitable trap they’re walking into is a foregone thing.
The movie then spins out into a final, cannibalistic spectacle, unfolding at a dull tempo that’s surely deliberate but lacks any intentionality other to shock you while gnawing at your patience. And it all erupts with a most harrowing cameo from Lena Dunham as an armless, legless, amputated zombie of a woman whom Karen feeds little bits of “steak” dipped in watery lemonade. Dunham’s character writhes and moans and spews in agony, terrified by the fact of being alive.
This is a bizarre movie that disappears up its own empty gastrointestinal tract. And for a film so hollow, “Honeydew” is brazenly loud about its formal approach to lifeless material, with split screens, flashy title cards, nerve-jangling sound design, and occasionally quite beautiful cinematography from DP Dan Kennedy (who also has a story credit here). Everything is covered in a redness like a rash, fitting for a movie where everyone and everything is festering. You have to applaud the film’s commitment to its own weirdness, as loopy as the black-and-white cartoons unspooling out of the TVs in that derelict farmhouse, marching to its own deranged beat.
The actors are fine enough. Lena Dunham goes to town on her diluted captress, playing her like a lobotomized victim from Jeffrey Dahmer’s worst psychopathic fantasies. Some lines elicit wincing laughs in their bluntness, like when Rylie queries Karen about why poor Gunni falls asleep all the time (when he’s not violently shaking at the dinner table). “Like a narcoleptic?” “Nope.” But unending nihilism and sinister atmospherics do not a meal make.
Dark Star Pictures and Bloody Disgusting will release “Honeydew” in theaters on March 12, and on VOD, Digital HD, and DVD on April 13.
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