Honeydew. 2021. Directed & Written by Devereux Milburn.
Starring Barbara Kingsley, Stephen D’Ambrose, Jamie Bradley, Sawyer Spielberg, Malin Barr, & Joshua Patrick Dudley.
Little Sky Film / Rubber Road Productions
Not Rated / 106 minutes
★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
DISCLAIMER: The following essay contains SPOILERS!
Turn back lest ye be spoiled.
The hype around Honeydew wasn’t so much that it built the film up to an impossible height. I was intrigued by what little promotional material I’d seen. And it’s probably best to go in knowing little, which is why if you haven’t already turned around due to the spoiler warning at the top you should rethink that. This essay’s about to explore the film deeply, which can’t be done without spoiling things more than a little along the way. Devereux Milburn’s film is horrific and disturbing, and boasts strong ideas, but it never quite comes together as a whole, instead remaining a decent set of genre elements scattered throughout a complex, confused story. A film doesn’t have to beat its audience over the head with its themes and ideas, neither does it have to over explain every last little piece of the story in bold, bright letters, yet Honeydew holds such important themes that it’s a shame everything doesn’t work.
Rylie (Malin Barr)—a PhD candidate studying botany—and her boyfriend Sam (Sawyer Spielberg)—a struggling actor—are on a road trip together so she can do research into the local area’s agriculture, an area previously plagued economically by sordico, a “fungal wheat flower.” They wind up on private property, only to find themselves stranded after their vehicle won’t start. So they find refuge at a creepy old house overseen by Karen (Barbara Kingsley), an eerie but kindly matriarch who loves to make food, praise the Lord, and take care of her recently injured son Gunni (Jamie Bradley). It isn’t long after Karen feeds Sam and Riley that the couple’s road trip takes a turn for the sinister.
What’s really happening in that house?
This essay isn’t going to focus on what’s not good, it’s going to explore the compelling bits and pieces of Milburn’s film. While the horror and dark comedy never wholly gels as one, Honeydew digs into serious subject matter like the horrifying effects of religious patriarchy, as well as the existential and bodily terror of heteronormativity. The hideous secrets Karen’s hiding in that house, once revealed, make for the stuff of nightmares, especially if you’re a woman, as Rylie discovers; not to mention Karen’s hidden daughter, Delilah. Despite times where the film loses itself in a muddled atmosphere there are many scenes where the story’s terrifying religious and patriarchal values bubble past the surface to offer a bit more than merely a riff on Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
There’s an instant religious, as well as patriarchal, connection to the story when we get an early overview of sordico—a fictional version of ergot. This becomes clear on its own, but a visual clue comes in the form of a shot featuring part of the Isenheim Altarpiece by German Renaissance painter Matthias Grünewald, which depicts the Temptation of Saint Anthony—Saint Anthony Tormented by Demons—and a person suffering from ergotism, or the effects of long-term ergot poisoning. Ergot, like sordico in the film, has been linked to accusations of witchcraft, and that brings up historical connotations of religious patriarchy and misogyny. One name for ergotism was Saint Anthony’s fire, suggesting it was a punishment from God. This is similar to sordico in the film; its symptoms are known as “godly flames” and they’re perceived as “a tribulation of the sins of the people.” Later, Karen monologues about religious punishment: “We are living in a time of tribulation … We have perverted God‘s divine love to abuse of his gifts.” The religious aspects are clear from the start, however, the patriarchal values that exist within Karen’s big, old house only become clear after Rylie and Sam have spent the night.
By then, it’s too late to escape.
Sordico’s poison serves as an allegorical vessel for the toxicity of patriarchy, especially, as it’s illustrated in the film, religiously-driven patriarchy. The rot of sordico has gotten into all of Karen’s family. Nevertheless, she’s clearly running the show. Karen being the ringleader of madness, as matriarch of the family, is a metaphor for the internalised effects in women of living under patriarchy. She is a woman poisoned by patriarchal values, and, in turn, she continues to poison others, whether it be her own twisted family, or eventually Sam and Rylie. Part of Karen’s patriarchal poison has to do with an inability to let go of the past—that is, the values of the past. She almost seems to lament modernity in general, represented by the house itself being somewhat stuck in time, whether it’s the 1950s style of decor or the old school cartoons playing in a loop on TV. More importantly, Karen’s obsession with the past and its values is evident in her and Eulis’s attempts to keep Gunni’s spirit alive in new bodies, and their sick mission to use Delilah in order to replace a dead child/continue on the family’s patriarchal legacy. Honeydew is clearly inspired by Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre. There’s more to it than parallel or homage—Milburn’s film acts as an allegory of heteronormative values, in a similar way as Hooper’s film. Whereas TCM acts as a horrific parody of heteronormative values, Honeydew represents the horrifically heteronormative extremes of America’s religious right-wing. The religion is obvious, though all the Americana might not be immediately. The sordic/ergot connection to the Salem witch hunt starts off with decidedly American imagery, particularly linked to misogyny and religious patriarchy. At one point we see an inscription on a knife belonging to Sam that Rylie gave him reading: “To a future Davy Crockett.” Later, Rylie’s watching Public Access TV in the guest room and the show’s host is featured in front of an American flag. The TV is definitively American, from the Public Access USA image to old American cartoons being constantly broadcast in the kitchen, like Popeye and Betty Boop.
The biggest slice of American imagery is through the audible doorbell at Karen’s house, which plays the melody of “Amazing Grace.” While many love “Amazing Grace,” and it’s often seen as an uplifting anthem, the history of the song and its composer is insidiously American. “Amazing Grace” was written by John Newton. Despite Newton later becoming an abolitionist against slavery, he was previously the captain of slave ships, and a slave trader from 1750 to 1754; he continued to invest in slaving operations after a severe stroke in 1754 kept him from the ships. Similar to the Confederate Flag, “Amazing Grace” carries with it deeper, sinister connotations that have long hidden behind the cultural fabric of an ignorant White America.
In light of all this Americana horror, Karen’s family becomes a further embodiment of those religious right-wing values that typify the U.S. Republican ideology by the focus she places on God and the body. Milburn’s film begins with an opening sequence featuring a child—a young Delilah—repeating Bible verses, namely 1 Corinthians 6:19-20: “Do you not know your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit? You are not your own.” This verse, particularly because it’s spoken by a young Delilah, foreshadows a dark theme concerning bodily autonomy, again tying back into both Christian and patriarchal values alike. Just the name Delilah itself can be tied to religious misogyny, in that the character of Delilah from the Bible has served as a misogynistic scapegoat, representing women who are perceived to cause the fall of men/women who take power away from men.
The most important, devastating image in the film is Delilah’s coffin. It’s revealed that Delilah is basically an incubator for the legacy of Karen’s family, kept in a coffin until it’s time for her to a) eat, b) have sex, or c) potentially have a child. She represents the cycles of birth and death. At the same time, the imagery conjures an idea of coffin birth: the expulsion of a nonviable fetus through the vaginal opening of the decomposing body of a deceased pregnant woman as a result of the increasing pressure of intra-abdominal gases. Delilah is essentially, to her family, an empty body that’s only purpose is to serve to carry another potential child. So, in a twisted way because of what her family has done to her, Delilah herself is a coffin—an inanimate object meant to house another body. More than that, religious hymns offer recurring moments of horrific symbolism throughout Honeydew, again returning when we see that Delilah’s coffin is plastered with Bible verses and various Christian hymns. Specifically, we can see a hymn titled “Eternal Life in Me.” This hymn sums up the disgusting, disturbing oppression of bodily autonomy perpetuated by Karen and Eulis, wrapping up all the religion and patriarchy in one ugly package.
Though Honeydew doesn’t hit the mark it’s a dark, intriguing story that is anything but typical. The film’s biggest problem is it, at times, strays into dark comedy. The plot and story would be much better served if Milburn had stuck with a consistently unsettling tone rather than occasionally flopping back and forth between serious horror and something like a far more disturbing version of a Monty Python sketch. It’s a shame that the film doesn’t feel more even because Barbara Kinglsey and Malin Barr particularly give good performances that never fully get to shine; the cameo in Delilah’s role is a shocking moment in and of itself that many will find a surprising choice.
For all its faults the film is loaded with imagery and potential nuggets of symbolism at nearly every turn—even the title can be tied to pregnancy, given that honeydew melon is good for pregnant women to eat, and the fruit has magical properties; it’s also considered symbolic of the Goddess in Wicca. Yes, the whole story could use a bit more coherence, and there are several times when the film’s pace drags too much. But Milburn’s Honeydew, purposefully or not, manages to use the horror genre as a vehicle to explore religious and patriarchal oppression in a truly unique fashion. Everything may not work together as well as we’d hoped—like the taste of grilled human meat and lemonade—though it certainly has a unique taste—y’know, like the taste of grilled human meat and lemonade.