Cannibalism shouldn’t be funny. Consuming human flesh in one of humanity’s biggest taboos, as the human body is rendered into nothing but a slab of meat to be consumed. No longer are we separated from animals as our flesh becomes indistinguishable from a cut of beef or pork. And yet, Devereux Milburn makes the dehumanizing act into deeply uncomfortable, pitch-black horror/comedy in his feature film debut, Honeydew. He somehow makes you unleash your best nervous laugh as you join his characters on a journey through a very specific brand of hell that I would secretly wish upon my worst enemies.
Milburn wastes no time establishing Honeydew’s deeply unsettling tone through close-ups of wheat and narration by an uncomfortably self-assured child talking about sacrificing the body for God. As she delivers her strange sermon, the camera switches between close-ups of her mouth and her meal as she devours a plate covered in steak, ketchup and egg yolks—a nauseating combination when viewed from above, as if it were a perverse episode of Chef’s Table. Importantly, every shot of and word from this young girl’s mouth lays out a set of clues that tease the horrifying events to come.
Meanwhile, couple Sam (Sawyer Spielberg, son of Steven, in his first real role) and Rylie (Malin Barr) are traveling to rural New England as part of Rylie’s PhD research on sordico, a fungal infection that affects wheat crops. It also affects both cows and humans, as they consume the infected wheat—plus, it can be transmitted through the cow’s meat. Side effects include gangrene and insanity. Now those establishing shots start to make sense.
After a bizarre conversation with an old man on a tractor and a suffering a broken-down car, they happen upon Karen’s (Barbara Kingsley) house and ask for some assistance. She graciously offers help and lets them in. As Karen forcibly cooks them dinner, a middle-aged man sits with a bandage wrapped around his head, drinking milk through a crazy straw, watching old Popeye cartoons and not uttering a single word. He is barely acknowledged and treated by Karen as if he’s wallpaper. Something is deeply wrong in this house, and Sam and Rylie are unfortunately about to find out what it is.
In fact, everything about Honeydew feels off, as if you’re always missing one piece of crucial information to completely understand what’s going on—and Milburn wants it that way. The purposefully disjointed script creates a tone of confusion and unease right off the bat, while also establishing Milburn’s twisted sense of humor: Rylie watches old science videos on her phone about wheat sexuality while Sam practices an audition monologue in a gas station bathroom. All of these seemingly disparate elements come together when they eventually share the same physical space in their car. But, they still exist in their own private spheres—emphasized by the use of split screen. Rylie’s video and Sam’s voice overlap as images of both their concentrated faces and the wheat fields passing their car appear on screen. The droning voice of the British voiceover clashing with Sam’s screaming recitations are so jarring it’s funny; it makes you stop and think, am I watching the right movie? This marks the beginning of a sensory cacophony, which starts quietly and continues to build to an outright shriek by the film’s end.
Milburn’s editing, paired with Dan Kennedy’s cinematography, creates beautiful and haunting visuals that set up an elaborate cinematic sphinx that asks increasingly nauseating questions until the film’s final minutes. These visuals are emphasized by a downright creepy score that incorporates the motif of a knife being sharpened on a piece of leather. That metallic “shing” punctuates moments of silence and makes simple transitions between scenes all the more terrifying. This aural repetition is accompanied by a score that flows from dream-like synths to deep chanting to twanging silverware. The sounds are just as fitful as the script and cinematography. And yet, they all come together to create an uncanny world that exists on the periphery of human experience.
Kingsley’s performance is the puzzle pièce de résistance: An overly friendly grandmother with a taste for human flesh. She’s downright charming with a sinister undertone, reminiscent of the witch from Hansel and Gretel. She is essentially force-feeding them, after all. Her physicality implies a frailness that comes with age, but her facial expressions display her devious nature and unsavory intentions. While Spielberg and Barr lean into this extraordinarily disorienting story, they provide support to let Kingsley shine as the perfect villain. Their constant bickering and sharp quips back and forth about the specifics of their diets and cholesterol make them the stereotypical image of millennials, while Kingsley merely smiles her terrifyingly winning smile, half-listening to their conversations as she loads their plates with food. Their frenetic energy, paired with Kingsley’s eerie calmness, contributes to the film’s darkly comedic tone and lets Kingsley cultivate an uneasy aura that spreads across the screen.
Yet, Karen’s villainy is much deeper than being a deranged, inbred redneck out eating people in the middle of nowhere—this is no Wrong Turn. Instead, Milburn creates a tale about those left behind by big industry and the lasting consequences on their livelihoods. The rotting fingertips and country cannibals spell out something catastrophic that’s happened to this place. Instead of opting for a long dump of exposition to clearly explain the situation, Milburn lets the audience put his visual clues together into a harrowing critique about the forgotten lower socioeconomic classes of rural America.
Honeydew is a cannibalistic descent in a vintage-inspired hell complete with antique lace doilies and ceramic kitchenware. It is a fascinating, hallucinatory puzzle that is short a few pieces, but is still reminiscent of a classic like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. While the focus on Honeydew’s visuals and heavy atmosphere can overpower its narrative, Milburn’s distinct vision and keen knowledge of horror tropes lead to quick deconstructions that make us confront our expectations of genre films. Honeydew joins the ranks of self-assured debut horror films from a new generation of filmmakers that combine the physically disgusting with the morally repugnant in order to recontextualize universal horrors for a bleak new decade.
Director: Devereux Milburn
Writer: Devereux Milburn
Starring: Sawyer Spielberg, Malin Barr, Barbara Kingsley
Release Date: March 12, 2021 (theaters); April 13, 2021 (VOD)
Mary Beth McAndrews is a freelance film journalist with a love of all things horror. She’s written across the Internet about found footage, extreme horror cinema, and more. You can follow her on Twitter to read more of her work, as well as her hot takes about her favorite cryptid, Mothman.