“Before, I was alone. Now I’m not.” – Honeymoon
In The Tenant (1976), Roman Polanski’s drunk Trelkovsky asks when, after cutting off so many limbs and appendages, he ceases to be himself: “If you cut off my head… would I say, ‘Me and my head’ or ‘Me and my body’? What right has my head to call itself me? What right?” It’s a question that cuts to the core of body horror: the slow, unstoppable loss of self. Protagonists have lost themselves to ambition (Starry Eyes, 2014), mass conformity (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1978), and hubris (The Fly, 1986)—and all had their bodies horribly mutated along the way. Many of these films marry science fiction with body horror in an overall rejection of the natural order, the way things “should” be. For Women in Horror Month, we look back at Leigh Janiak’s 2014 feature debut Honeymoon, which spins this body horror yarn with the creeping destruction of a young married couple who slowly slip away from themselves– and each other.
Newlyweds Paul (Harry Treadaway) and Bea (Rose Leslie) start their honeymoon off with love and lust in a lakeside cottage. It’s short-lived; in the middle of the night, Paul finds Bea nude and entranced in the woods, beckoned by a mysterious bright light. Over the next few days she becomes distant and disjointed, and Paul suspects that he is losing his wife.
Janiak begins with an image of wedded bliss and new beginnings: tin cans trailing behind the “Just Married” car. Bea is the first one to speak, immediately acknowledging her new title on a wedding tape. “I guess I’m the first one to do this. I don’t know what I’m supposed to say…I’m now a wife!” The young couple’s respective video messages cut back and forth as they describe their first date and Paul’s proposal, both marked by acute illness. Bea’s first words on screen are important: they establish who she thinks she is. For her, being a wife is a part of her identity, and her union with Paul is part of what makes her…her. Throughout the course of the film, her grasp on the threads that make up her reality loosen, and both she and director Janiak question what really constitutes personhood. As the line between human and inhuman blurs, Janiak constructs a bifurcated horror film. For women: a loss of control of both body and person-hood. For men: the loss of control as protectors.
In her book Recreational Terror: Women and the Pleasures of Horror Film Viewing, Isabel Cristina Pindeo calls it “recreational terror,” the controlled simulation of peril that ebbs and flows with tension and release. She elaborates: “Much as the horror film is an exercise in terror, it is simultaneously an exercise in mastery, in which controlled loss substitutes for loss of control.” In Honeymoon, both the couple’s relationship and Bea’s body is the location of that controlled loss.
Most of the first act is intent on establishing who Paul and Bea are: she is a carefree jokester who cherishes her childhood memories and stays perpetually horny for her man (which he enthusiastically reciprocates). He is a practical, logical man who would do anything for his wife. After some flirting and fishing, they hit up a local diner that is empty save for the co-owners, one of whom, Will (Ben Huber), seems to know Bea from a long time back. He refers to her smile and it makes her visibly uncomfortable— on top of her husband, who is already feeling weird from the interaction. Then Will’s wife Annie (Hanna Brown) comes out and she is… out of sorts. She urges everyone to leave and Will strong-arms her back to the door she emerged from. For the newlyweds just starting to fall down the rabbit hole, the whole interaction gets curiouser and curiouser. That evening, they reassure each other that they’re “not them,” and not going to become that couple. Already, their fears of becoming completely different people, mutated by years of wedded misery, are surfacing.
Early the next morning, Paul wakes up to find that the power went out at some point during the night. He returns to the bedroom to find Bea missing. This is when, as previously mentioned, finds her out in the woods, naked and in a trance. Once back in the cabin, she assures him that she’s fine and apologizes for scaring him, chalking it up to sleepwalking. The following morning, she burns breakfast, seemingly forgetting how to make French toast. She still insists that she’s fine, but Paul suspects something is very wrong with her. She has small bite marks on her legs, too big to attribute to mosquitoes. She doesn’t laugh as much as she used to. She uses strange but technically correct phrases like, “I’m going to go take a sleep.” He discovers her nightshirt (that she wore when “sleepwalking”) in the dirt, covered in a clear mucus. Nearby, a footprint far larger than his own– or any man’s. Finally, he catches her rehearsing an excuse to opt out of sex, that she uses later that evening– headaches happen, and sometimes wifey isn’t in the mood, but within the context of everything else, it’s just one more bizarre step on the ladder. Framed within splintered perspectives and mirrored reflections, Bea is becoming a fractured, a generic copy of the woman that Paul married.
Leslie and Treadaway have a phenomenal onscreen chemistry, which lends itself well to the intimate plot and limited characters. From the second act on, Bea and Paul are staged at odds with each other. Two-shots, both wide and close (with both lovers in the same frame), transition into warring over-the-shoulder and reverse angle compositions as tensions and suspicions rise between the two. Every effort Paul makes to help the love of his life is rebuffed by her; she waterboards him with an unconvincing “I’m fine” at every alarming development. From their entrance into the cottage wherein he carries her over the threshold, to him pulling up her blanket and watching her sleep, Janiak makes efforts to quietly emphasize Paul’s image of himself as her protector. Not in a misogynist way, either– he’s shaking and in tears the first night that she disappears. His love and prioritization of her safety is genuine. With every distortion of her body and behavior, his sense of self and his sense of normality is undercut.
None of the bodily or behavioral permutations are aspirational for Bea– her violation is not consensual. Early in the film, Paul offers to cook breakfast for Bea, quipping “You should rest your womb.” It’s a throwaway joke about how rough their sex was the night before, but it catches Bea off-guard and leads to an awkward conversation; Bea insists that she’s not ready to expand the family, and Paul agrees. The changes that Bea undergoes later aren’t justified by her as a means to motherhood (a la 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby). The bites, the nighttime fugue states, the sudden revulsion to sex, and the personality shifts are all unwelcome, and resisted. In fact, it culminates in a climax in which (without spoiling too much) Bea goes from being the victim of violence (to her body) to being an agent of violence, in the name of protecting her husband. The problem is that it becomes impossible to tell, at any given point, when Bea is really Bea.
In a tightrope-taut scene, Paul’s desperate interrogation of his wife is both gut-wrenching and terrifying, recalling an equally tense interrogation sequence from a German horror film of the same year, Goodnight Mommy. Paul kisses Bea’s bound feet, confirming that the toes are her toes. He confirms that she smells the same, and even tastes the same. But why, he begs with tears in his eyes, can’t she remember their first date? Why is she reciting his name and her address as though she memorized it by assignment? For many of us who look at someone we’ve known intimately for years and no longer recognize the person they used to be, Honeymoon is a grim resurrection of the Other that we’re afraid our loved ones have or will become.
Good horror interrupts the social order and violates systems that we take for granted, whether that’s a sense of safety in the suburbs (A Nightmare On Elm Street, 1984), the binary of life and death (Dracula, 1931), or the freedom of individuality (The Stepford Wives, 1975). Through Janiak and co-writer Phil Graziadei’s careful storytelling, both husband and wife have the “privilege” of the upending of each of their personal senses of order. If the horror film is a steady exercise in confronting the things that truly frighten us, Leigh Janiak succeeds in constructing a two-pronged exploration of a universal fear of losing our grip on the world and systems we operate within.
“Honeymoon’ is currently streaming on Shudder.