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Simon Read [Film Festival 07.02.14] horror

Leigh Janiak's debut feature is a superior horror film and it's very easy to recommend. Starring Rose Leslie and Harry Treadaway as newlyweds spending their honeymoon at a cabin in the Canadian wilderness, it's a skilfully constructed, paranoia infused blend of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing and Rosemary's Baby, yet it emerges as a distinctive, intelligent film in its own right, destined, I hope, for cult status among horror aficionados.

Paul (Treadaway) and Bea (Leslie) arrive at their cabin, full of excitement and happiness, and ready to spend a blissful week of hiking, sailing and love-making. A visit to a run-down local diner leads to the discovery of the owner, Will (Ben Huber) and his wife Annie (Hanna Brown), involved in a heated domestic argument. When Bea realises that Will is a former childhood friend, the couple calm down, although a palpable sense of apprehension remains. Annie delivers ominous warnings that they should leave immediately and not come back - which is never a good sign - while Paul is unnerved and suspicious about the nature of Will's past relationship with his wife. That night, as Paul and Bea are lying in bed, bright lights shine though the windows, and the cabin's ancient electrics start to fizzle on and off. Waking up alone, Paul ventures into the woods and finds his wife standing naked in a clearing, dazed but apparently unhurt. Bea seems confused, but insists she's fine. The next day, Paul notices changes in her personality, and begins to suspect her experience in the forest was something a little more sinister than just a bout of sleepwalking. His suspicions, naturally, rest with Will...

The strongest element of Honeymoon is its sense of mystery and foreboding. We see the film through the eyes of Paul, and as such we're left in the dark over what's happened to Bea, why she's acting so strangely, and to what extent any of this spells danger for the couple. When watching woodland cabin horror films, one always questions why the characters don't simply get in their car and drive away at top speed, but in Honeymoon, the problem initially seems only to exist in Paul's head. Bea's behaviour is erratic, sure; she also forgets what kind of food they ate at the wedding, and she seems to have had her sense of humour removed, but post-wedding exhaustion and the couple's angry bickering over Will may explain her sudden depression. It's not until it's too late that Paul starts to figure things out, and Janiak's slow-burn approach to leading us there creates a marvellous sense of suspense and anticipation. The story manages to confound our expectations too, as we can't immediately tell if the film is going to reveal itself as a ghost story, a Deliverance-style shocker or something altogether more outré (hint: it's very outré).

The performances from Treadaway and Leslie are very effective in translating their decline from the world's happiest couple to a pair of burnt-out and paranoid wrecks. Leslie in particular has several scenes towards the end which cannot have been easy, and deserves massive kudos in giving her all to such a difficult and unforgiving part. The film has only four on-screen characters for its duration, with Bea and Paul on centre-stage throughout most of the running time, but we never get bored of watching them interact as they really throw themselves into their roles. As an everyman type, Treadaway appears both well-meaning and funny, and as such he elicits a great deal of sympathy from the audience. His initial reaction upon meeting Will is a mixture of irritation and intimidation, but after Bea's ordeal in the woods, he projects concern, mistrust and eventually outright panic.

The story and script are well-constructed too; subtle hints and developments along the way tell us that something is wrong, without quite revealing the exact nature or full extent of the horror. Even towards the denouement of the film, the actual gore effects are agreeably underplayed, making those occasional, genuinely shocking moments all the more effective. That's not to say the movie pulls its punches; on the contrary, it simply chooses its moments very wisely instead of providing an over-the-top bloodbath. The key word here is tension, and it's something which exudes from the pores of the film.

In terms of craft the film is well shot and lit, utilising a low-key and brooding score to emphasise the story's creeping sense of dread. It's obviously a relatively low-budget production, but at no point does this show. The only real complaint I have is that the ending actually feels like the weakest link in the chain. When a story reaches such a fevered level of intensity as Honeymoon, it's very difficult to know where to go once that dust settles, and the closing scenes are somewhat anti-climactic. I would not let this put you off seeing the film, however, as everything up until this point is remarkably well-considered.

The buzz about Honeymoon was pretty high around the festival crowd this year, and the audience seemed genuinely affected by it. During one moment, a noise on screen scared one poor fellow so much he actually shrieked out loud, and everybody started giggling in relief. When a movie causes this kind of sudden, collective release of tension from an audience, it must really be doing something right.

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