Honeydew‘s Backwoods Macabre Makes Food Life and Death

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Honeydew‘s Backwoods Macabre Makes Food Life and Death

The body is the bread. Any Christian, Catholic or otherwise, will tell you how pivotal that concept is to the foundation of their religion—but few will muse about the dark cannibalistic parallel present during each communion. Writer/director Devereux Milburn’s debut feature Honeydew invites us to sit at that last supper in real life, taking the concept away from metaphor and biblical myth and literalizing it directly into the sticks.

As the film’s establishing shots roll through, it becomes clear food will play a juxtaposing role to its typical function in human lives, a new role as the harbinger of something sinister. Wheat stalks, loaves of bread mid-bake, plates of sloppy dinner foods, bowls of flour and seeds—the opening imagery underscores a passionate sermon from an off-kilter, radicalized young girl who testifies that our bodies are “not [our] own.”

Fast forward some years and we meet Sam (Sawyer Spielberg) and Rylie (Malin Barr), a couple roadtripping the backwoods together in their janky old car. Sam is an aspiring actor, while Riley is studying to be a botanist—and during the chunk of time in which the film takes place, she is avidly studying a contaminant called sordico. The toxin infects wheat spores and causes gangrene, amputations and psychopathy in humans with prolonged ingestion. Oh, and it forms a “honeydew shape” when it hits the sexual spore stage of development. The film’s title becomes a clue in and of itself into how food will function during this story…you know, aside from also being the name of a melon.

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When the couple pulls off-road to make camp before nightfall, Rylie finds the fungus rampant in a nearby wheat field, which obviously doesn’t bode well. And while huddled up in their tent for the evening, it is revealed that, interestingly enough, food is a touchy subject between the couple. They bicker about whether a certain diet can be considered healthy and Rylie asks Sam if he took his statins, a drug designed to lower cholesterol. There’s palpable tension with the question.

Soon, the pair are “evicted” from their camping spot by a local man who claims the property is his. When their car won’t start, Sam and Rylie find themselves at the home of elderly Karen (Barbara Kingsley) waiting for a local mechanic to come give them a jump. In her house, food is eerie and the reminder of how unsettling it can be is around every corner. The old woman prepares a feast in a seedy, old-school kitchen and feeds the couple a hearty meal: Red meat, corn, greens, potatoes, bread and even homemade cupcakes. Her son Gunni (Jamie Bradley), a hulking man with facial bandages and an inability to speak, drinks watered-down milk, or something like it, through an impossibly long straw.

Despite how off-putting the dinner is made to look for the audience, Sam can’t resist sneaking upstairs for a second plate after lights out. He and his girlfriend end up spending the night at Karen’s after the mechanic goes MIA and as he inhales the leftovers, he reveals to an insomniac Gunni that he hasn’t eaten anything unhealthy in over three months. That would explain the tiff in the tent. The euphoric rush of carbs and sugar and fatty proteins seem to intoxicate Sam; the food throws him into a sleeping trance during which he has near-fever dreams full of rich sweet treats and familiar faces. After waking up, he realizes Rylie is missing and continues to hallucinate—and his state, seemingly induced by the very thing that exists to keep him alive, leads to his own capture.

Almost stereotypically, the film’s climax plays out over a twisted backyard dinner party. The movie happily harkens back to its predecessor, the iconic and beloved The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and it isn’t ashamed to play on the macabre meal trope with its own spin. There has yet to be a dinner scene in a horror movie, frankly, that nails the fucked-upness of the family gathering in Tobe Hooper’s legendary film, but many have tried to replicate the same brand of nauseating tension. The Hannibal dinner scene where the title character feeds Ray Liotta’s Paul Krendler his own brains while Clarice watches on in sheer terror. The anxiety-inducing force-feeding dinner in The Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child Even the silly yet uncomfortable dinner scene in which the characters we’ve come to know and love discover they are eating their mentor Dr. Scott in the horror-adjacent (at least it’s in the title!) Rocky Horror Picture Show—they’ve all tried it, but Honeydew approaches the challenge on TCSM’s own turf: In the middle of nowhere where, truly, anything goes.

Karen reveals to the captured couple, who are being slowly gassed, that her family—which includes husband Eulis (Stephen D’Ambrose), the man who forced Sam and Rylie out of their camp—has long since atoned for their mortal sin by consuming human flesh. She calls their attempt to seek penance through the perverse act an “opportunity for absolution, a second chance to sustain life.”

Taking it one step further, Karen reveals Gunni isn’t really their son. What he is is a walking meat farm, a random man she and Eulis captured and lobotomized in order to harvest the fresh muscle off his very bones. In fact, he’s been a good source of food for the family for some time at this point, with large parts of his behind already missing. It seems the warning given in the beginning of the film was no joke: We’re seeing firsthand just how mad a person can go with a high amount of sordico in their system. The side effects of ingestion include complete lunacy…and necessary amputations. It’s almost kismet, the way the chain of events plays out perfectly into Karen and Eulis’ hands. The continuous digestion of sordico wreaks havoc on the human body, but it is part of everything the “family” eats. It must be as prevalent as blood in their veins and if you pump a body full of a toxin long enough, you’ll have to take drastic measures to preserve what you can of the flesh you’ve infected. In some shots, you can even see Karen’s blackened fingertips, the mark of their removal. Her own small sacrifice. The figurative and the literal bleed together in the eyes of the Lord. After all, didn’t Jesus give up his body, too?

Yes, they’ve eaten Gunni’s ass. That’s not quite like Jesus. Now (remember those facial bandages?) they’ve started on Gunni’s face. But he’s far from the first. Karen and Eulis then unveil their daughter, Delilah—a shocking cameo from none other than Girls star Lena Dunham as the grown-up version of the girl giving the sermon from the film’s opening lines—who is missing all four limbs. In her mother’s eyes, she’s a “true model of self-sacrifice.” In ours, she’s been slowly eaten alive by her parents for what appears to be many, many years.

In the film’s production notes, Milburn explains that his fascination with the impulses surrounding moderation—coupled with the guilt it can bring when one allows those urges to control their decisions, especially as they relate to food—is the impetus behind this story. He describes the battle between “feeling ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in moments of utter indulgence either because I am over-filling with too much of an available thing or because I’m ruining something (my body) that could otherwise continue to serve (friends, family, others?) if only it weren’t rotten and/or bloated.” He couldn’t have picked two themes more malleable with which to pull his audience into this analogy: Religion and farming. Their foundations rest on the idea of sharing the self for the greater good—Jesus did it on the cross, while farming literally exists to feed en masse. Labor—blood, sweat and tears—is in every bite. Delilah is a Christ-farmer hybrid, ascending to a bizarre bastardization of sainthood in the act of giving herself fully and detaching from a body that is “not her own.” Her family, the devout followers they are, reap the holy benefits. At the same time, our protagonists act as Milburn himself: Struggling with the notion of tainting themselves, and whether or not it really matters to them.

To add insult to injury, the film packs in more shots of particularly unpalatable food—sizzling meat that doesn’t look quite right, mushy green slop that induces moderate to severe gagging but would make Popeye proud, baked goods that seem to morph into caricatures—turning the viewer off even further from whatever they were snacking on during their watch party. When Karen feeds Delilah a piece of Gunni’s “sweet rear-end,” she dips the meat in a Baja Blast-esque beverage (complete with a lemon slice) before serving the amputee. Vile, to say the least.

Simply put, Honeydew doesn’t let you forget that food, the sustainer of life, is the root cause of the events that have transpired. In the final moments, Karen prepares bread full of sordico and human meat that we soon realize has come from either Rylie’s face or one of Sam’s legs. Both are missing. Immersed in a mothering role, her own sadistic kind of savior, Karen feeds their bodies back to them on a silver platter, a cyclical hellscape of self-sustenance and, yes, self-sacrifice. If there was ever a case to do away with the “body as the bread” metaphor entirely—because hello, the memo has been received that the adage is too extreme to have any functional place in faith, that we may be forced to acknowledge someone’s sacrifice but choose to reject it for our own greater good—Devereux Milburn just nailed it to the church’s door.

Lex Briscuso is an entertainment, film and culture writer with bylines at Life & Style, In Touch Weekly, Shudder’s The Bite and EUPHORIA. She spends too much time thinking about One Direction and the leftover moments writing poetry, fiction and screenplays. Her horror radio show, YOUR NICHE IS DEAD, is live Mondays 5pm ET only on KPISSFM. She tweets @nikonamerica.

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