Horror Double Feature: Honeymoon and Uncle John
Relationships…they can be rough. Whether your significant other is slowly changing into someone else, or your budding office romance is in danger of being sabotaged by a small-town murder committed by an affable family member, there’s always something that can (and will) go wrong. And if there is a theme to today’s Netflix Double Feature, then I can’t really think of a better one than “you can never really know the people you love.” So let’s do this.
A hit at the 2014 South by Southwest Film Festival, director Leigh Janiak’s impressive debut Honeymoon is, I think, best enjoyed going into it cold, as I did, because I really had no idea what was going on until near the end, which made the film a reliably harrowing experience (I‘m gonna spoil it here, though, so caveat emptor). It’s not quite up there with some other recent indies I’ve reviewed (They Look Like People, Starry Eyes, The Invitation), but it’s a solid slice of micro-budget horror/sci-fi that actually left a lingering impression on me for several days afterwards.
Starring two British actors playing hipster Brooklynites (Rose Leslie from Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones, and Harry Treadaway from Penny Dreadful and Cockneys vs. Zombies), Honeymoon draws great emotional power from the isolated setting and the all-in performances of its main characters. Essentially a two-hander (there are also two peripheral characters, but they’re only in a couple of scenes), the movie wrings ample tension from the idea that the person you know and love the most is not the person that you thought, mining that same vein of paranoia that infuses classic horror films like Rosemary‘s Baby, and most relevantly, Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Bea and Paul are sickeningly adorable newlyweds, and we meet them first through the precious conceit of their wedding video, where they talk about their first date and lament that some people weren’t happy that they had cinnamon buns instead of cake at their wedding. The lovebirds are next shown arriving at a remote cabin in the woods for their honeymoon, said cabin having belonged to Bea’s family for many years, though Bea has apparently not been there since she was a teenager. Interestingly, I didn’t notice any mention being made of where her parents were now, though I’ll save my speculations about that for later.
Bea and Paul waste no time getting into honeymoon mode, having sex, cooking pancakes, fishing out on the lake, and generally being their darling, ridiculously in-love selves. This buildup of their relationship is important, because it makes the horrible things that happen later all that much more gut-wrenching.
The first little thing that seems off occurs when Bea and Paul take a break from their constant shagging to walk down to a local restaurant. It looks deserted, but when they go inside, they run into Will (Ben Huber), who initially seems super aggro until he recognizes Bea as the girl he used to hang out with when they were both thirteen and their families both summered on the lake. They have an awkward catch-up, but something seems not-right about Will, and Paul can’t help but notice the weird way the guy is checking out his wife. Weirder still is the subsequent appearance of Will’s wife Annie (Hanna Brown), who looks ill and frightened, and tells Bea and Paul they need to get out of there. Bea also makes note of how Will grips Annie’s arm as though he wants to hurt her.
Later, in bed, Bea explains to Paul who Will is, and she seems unable to stop thinking about how strange the whole situation was. She makes a few playfully disparaging comments about Paul not being as “alpha” as Will, but then she seems to get down to the bottom of what troubled her about the exchange when she says, “You’re not like him. We’re not like them.” Foreshadowing, yo.
Only a day or two into the wedded bliss, Paul wakes up in the middle of the night to find that Bea is gone. After searching the house, he runs out into the woods yelling for her, clearly terrified that something dreadful has happened. He eventually finds her, standing out in the woods, naked and disoriented. He brings her back to the house and she insists that she’s fine, that she must have just been sleepwalking. Paul seems a tad skeptical of this explanation, but is mostly just relieved that he found Bea in one piece.
From that point forward, though, Paul notices that Bea is starting to change. She becomes a little distant and forgetful. When making breakfast, she forgets to batter the French toast and just leaves nude bread to burn on the grill, and she forgets to grind the beans in the coffee maker. She starts forgetting things about their wedding, which only occurred four days before. She starts writing things about her life, like her name, her address, and her birthday, in a notebook that she tries to hide from Paul. She starts using strange phrases (“I’m going to take a sleep,” for example, or referring to a suitcase as a “clothes box”). She starts losing interest in sex, even though she was previously all about it. Paul observes her standing in front of a mirror “practicing” things she’s going to say to him later. He even notices bizarre sores on her inner thighs that Bea insists are just mosquito bites. He tries to talk to her, but she just attributes it to being tired, of the stress from the wedding catching up with her.
Paul isn’t buying it, and thinks it has something to do with that night out in the woods. To this end, he goes out in the daylight to the spot where he found her, and discovers not only her torn “special honeymoon nightgown” out there covered with some kind of suspicious slime, but also what appears to be a large footprint. From this, he deduces that Bea and Will had some sort of tryst out in the woods, and that she’s been acting so odd because she feels guilty and is trying to keep it from him.
Paul confronts her about the nightgown, though he tells her that even if she did sleep with Will that night, that he still loves her and that he just wants to know, because otherwise he has no idea what is going on with her. Bea gets angry and defensive, and accuses him of ruining everything. Paul, terrified and confused about what is happening to this woman that he previously adored, decides to get some answers from Will.
But when he goes to the restaurant, he doesn’t find Will, though he does find Annie, who looks even more fucked up than before. She tells him Will is “hiding,” and that Paul should leave because, “We’ll hurt you.” Paul notices that Annie has the same sores on her inner thighs as Bea does, but of course Annie won’t tell him what’s going on either. After she takes off, Paul finds Will’s bloody hat floating in the lake near the dock. He also finds sheets of paper with writing on it, showing that Annie has also taken to writing down simple details about her identity over and over, just like Bea has. Hmmmmm.
From this point forward, things take a more body-horror type turn, as various fluids such as blood, slime, and weird webbing begin coming out of Bea’s vagina and other orifices. Paul is beginning to twig to the fact that Bea is not really Bea anymore, but she insists she still is. When he grills her on various aspects of their life and her identity, she has a hard time remembering them correctly, though she seems frightened by this and begs him to help her. Honestly, I thought this was really the best part of the movie, because Harry Treadaway did a fantastic job conveying how it would feel to see a woman you loved clearly changing into someone else while still looking like the person you married, and Rose Leslie was equally great at getting across the terror of knowing that you were changing but being unable to convince your loved one that deep down you were still you in there somewhere.
So, at last, after Paul reaches into his wife’s vag and pulls out an alarming item that looks something like a giant animate root, the explanation is forthcoming. That night in the woods, Bea finally admits, there was a bright light that came to her and put something inside her. She knows what it is and she knows what she’s supposed to do, and she knows that “they” are going to be taking her, and there’s nothing either of them can do about it. She says she just wanted to have these last few days with Paul be perfect before she got taken away.
So yeah…aliens. I mean, they didn’t come out and say it was aliens, but it was obviously something like that, some type of body-snatching extraterrestrial beings that didn’t want the men, but only the women, because of course Annie got taken over and impregnated too. At the end, Bea decides that she doesn’t want the aliens to kill Paul, so she decides to “hide” him from them (just like Annie did to Will). Unfortunately, her idea of hiding him entails knocking him out, then tying him to an anchor and dropping him to the bottom of the lake, since she has apparently forgotten that humans can’t breathe underwater. There was actually a nice piece of foreshadowing of this sequence earlier in the film, when Bea and Paul are out fishing, and Bea mentions while fastening a worm to a hook that worms can breathe underwater for five minutes, implying that the aliens who have overtaken her see humans as no different than earthworms.
In the final scene, we see Bea looking all gross, with yellow eyes and weird webby skin, and then a bright light comes and she goes to meet the aliens.
I really enjoyed this movie a lot, though I will admit that it’s always something of a letdown when the explanation is “aliens.” I realize that’s just me, though; for some reason I’m generally not a fan of movies where aliens are the baddies, with only a few obvious exceptions. And to Honeymoon’s credit, it must be said that it didn’t really smack you in the face with aliens, as it didn’t really show them as anything other than bright lights and a few vague silhouettes, and the word itself was never mentioned.
That said, the suspense in this was terrific, and I really was intrigued by the story, trying to figure out what the hell was going on with Bea. Additionally, both Harry Treadaway and Rose Leslie really sold the terror and confusion that would arise from such a scenario, and the movie works just as well as a straight horror/sci-fi flick as it does a sly metaphor about relationship breakdown, about that horrible feeling when you slowly start to realize that you have married a stranger.
I have to say that I think I would have liked a little more explanation about the nature of the body-snatching, though. Why did the aliens target the women in this particular remote location, or was this happening all over the world and we were just seeing it affect this one area? Did Bea know about the body-snatchers from before, when she used to spend summers there as a kid? Was she, in fact, an alien pretending to be a human all along? (I admit I don’t really buy this, since it’s suggested that she and Paul had been together for a long time before they married, but it’s still a possibility, I guess.) Where were her parents all this time, and were they also taken over by the aliens at some earlier date? I don’t know if the movie would have benefited from more explanation or if it was better left ambiguous the way it was, but I have to admit that I was left kinda curious. Which I suppose is the mark of a good movie, that I wanted to know more about it. So there’s that.
I would definitely recommend this for fans of body-snatching movies, horror/sci-fi crossovers, and general body horror (though it’s not nearly as disgusting as Starry Eyes was, I have to say), as well as fans of intimate relationship dramas gone monstrously wrong.
Speaking of relationship dramas (sort of), the second film in the line-up is actually not a horror film per se, but more like a Coen-Brothers-style crime thriller interwoven with a sweet and understated romantic comedy/drama. The end result is not quite as strange as that sounds, and even though the juxtaposition of the two genres is an audacious one, particularly for a first-time director, it somehow really works, producing a gripping film whose seemingly disparate plot lines nicely complement one another. And if you’re looking for some nail-biting suspense on top of that, this flick’s got that in spades.
2015’s Uncle John, directed by Steven Piet, starts out by introducing us to the title character, a stoic but friendly Wisconsin carpenter (played by veteran actor John Ashton) who happens to be right in the middle of murdering a dude and meticulously covering up the crime. Right away, the movie sucks you in, especially since nothing is really explained right off the bat, and additionally since after disposing of the body in a bonfire in broad daylight, Uncle John is seen bein’ a neighborly and well-respected member of the small farming community, sitting with his oldster buddies at the local cafe. So the viewer is like, what was that murder all about? Is this guy a serial killer or what?
Before we really get any definitive answers, though, the movie seemingly barrels off in another direction. Now we’re in a hip Chicago advertising firm filled with scruffy millennials. Graphic designer Ben (Alex Moffat) is being introduced to his new manager, a lovely young woman named Kate (Jenna Lyng), who he is instantly attracted to. They have some sweet and genuine banter, and there are hints that some romance may be developing between these two appealing characters in the very near future.
Then we’re back to the murder in Lodi, Wisconsin, where we learn that the man Uncle John murdered was named Dutch and that he wasn’t a particularly popular person in town. Evidently he had fucked a bunch of people over, but had just recently had a vision in which he had seen hell, and had subsequently given his life over to Jesus. He had spent the previous few weeks going to all the townsfolk he had wronged and trying to make amends, though obviously the wrong he did Uncle John was too big for forgiveness. No one seems terribly put out by Dutch’s disappearance, and the police are operating on the assumption that he just got drunk and drowned in the lake, but Dutch’s shady brother Danny (Ronnie Gene Blevins) has a hunch that Dutch was murdered, and is bound and determined to find out whodunnit.
Meanwhile, back in Chicago, Ben and Kate are having some will-they-won’t-they type interactions, and even though it sounds dismissive when I say it like that, these two characters really are adorable and funny and a pleasure to watch. Kate has just left a long relationship with a co-worker and has decided she won’t be dating any more co-workers in the future (sad trombone), but Ben decides to be her friend anyway, hoping that she’ll eventually see the light. Somewhere around this stage, we finally figure out the relationship between the two parallel plots: Uncle John is Ben’s uncle, and John raised him after Ben’s mother was killed in an “accident” and after he was abandoned by his father. Ben has nothing but praise for Uncle John, who he clearly loves and admires a great deal.
Back in Lodi, the search for Dutch continues, and Danny is growing ever more suspicious, particularly of John, though John keeps his Midwestern affability intact. I gotta say, I’ve seen John Ashton in a lot of movies, but I think this is my favorite role of his I’ve seen; he’s just so good as the quiet, friendly, small-town guy who decides to take care of business and is the last person anyone would suspect of doing such a thing. In fact, that’s kinda the great thing about this movie, is that despite Uncle John being a murderer, you can’t help but love the guy and defend his actions, especially when we learn that John killed Dutch because Dutch had been having an affair with his sister (Ben’s mother) and had treated her horribly, and that him leaving her prompted her to commit suicide.
In Chicago, Ben and Kate are working some weekend overtime together at the office when they decide they want to break for coffee and doughnuts. They initially plan to go somewhere nearby, but Ben mentions that he’s never had any doughnuts as good as the ones in his hometown, so on a whim, Kate suggests they finish up their work and then take the two-and-a-half-hour drive out to Lodi to visit the place where Ben grew up, and possibly spend the rest of the weekend visiting with Uncle John. And hence, the two plots finally converge.
When Ben and Kate arrive in Lodi, John is surprised to see them, especially since Danny has been sniffing around and making veiled threats, but everyone puts on friendly faces. Danny even stays over at John’s house while Ben and Kate proceed to grill some steaks, though after trying to needle John about his sister’s death, John takes him aside and has some words with him, after which Danny storms off. Ben and Kate, clueless as to what’s been going on, wonder what got up his butt, but John covers for him, saying he just had to go to work.
As the evening goes on, the tension starts to mount. You know that Danny is going to come back and do something bad, and because you’ve spent so much time getting to know Ben, Kate, and John, you really, really don’t want anything bad to happen to them. You especially don’t want Ben and Kate to get caught in the crossfire of all this intrigue, especially since they have no idea what has been going on in Lodi, and no idea that John is actually a murderer.
So then two things start to happen. Ben and Kate, who are still playing the “just friends” game, are sleeping in different rooms, but both of them come downstairs around the same time, ostensibly to see if the other one is up. So yeah, they end up sharing a sweet kiss, and we’re like YAY because honestly, these two are cute and we’ve been rooting for them.
But then, outside, Danny has indeed returned. He has a can of gasoline, and a gun in his waistband. What he doesn’t know, though, is that Uncle John has already assumed that Danny would be coming back, and is hiding in the barn with a rifle.
There then comes an absolutely stomach-churning sequence where Danny is looking at the house, fiddling with his gun, and we can clearly see Ben and Kate through the windows as they finally act on their attraction after all this time. And maybe it’s dumb, but I was like, oh man, please don’t let this end the way it looks like it’s gonna, I really liked those two, and they didn’t even do anything. It looks bad for them, and I admit I didn’t really want to keep watching.
But luckily — spoiler alert — John emerges from the barn and whacks Danny (quietly) upside the head with the rifle butt, then slowly and silently squeezes the life out of him, thereby saving his nephew and his nephew’s new love without them even knowing they were ever in danger. It’s actually a really touching scene, as it shows how the salt-of-the-earth small town old guy is willing to murder and go to jail to save his adopted son, even though by his facial expression, you can tell that John really didn’t want to have to do it.
Ben and Kate head back to Chicago the next morning, neither of them the wiser, and as they have a discussion in the car about Kate’s “crazy” relatives and Ben’s “normal” Uncle John, John himself is shown burning Danny’s body in a bonfire in the quarry. A cop car pulls up behind him, and you’re like, uh oh, jig’s up, but really the cop is just there to tell John that now Danny is missing and he might want to watch out for himself, since Danny was going around town thinking everyone murdered his brother Dutch and that he might be dangerous. Irony! So John skates, but for how long?
This sounds like a film that shouldn’t really work, but it does, beautifully. The two plots, while completely different on their surfaces, actually complement and comment on one another in myriad ways. Amid the film’s themes are how little you actually know about the “dark sides” of those you love, and how parents, biological or otherwise, will sacrifice everything to keep their children from harm, even if that means covering up a murder or two.
As I said, not really a horror movie, but a fantastic suspense thriller with some absolutely stellar performances and a third act that had me perched on the edge of my chair. Recommended to Coen Brothers fans as well as more general lovers of crime movies and odd mashups.
That’s all for this installment. Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.