Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator) Talks Leigh Janiak’s Honeymoon

The fear of the unknown is the most primal terror of them all, and a young writer-director brilliantly exploits this in her feature debut.

“Never explain anything.” So says H.P. Lovecraft. Very good advice if you’re trying to scare the shit out of someone. Mr. Lovecraft continues, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” So as soon as you start explaining, and the unknown becomes known, it no longer scares us. “Oh, that’s all it is,” we say to ourselves, and whatever it is, no matter how unpleasant, we now can deal with it.

Development executives at the studios are always asking writers to explain the rules. I’ve always wanted to reply that the only rule is that there are no rules. One simply has to look at the difference between the Japanese and American versions of The Ring to see what Lovecraft is saying. The American version, which is 19 minutes longer than the original film, fills that time with constant explaining. We are given the elaborate backstory of the murdered child who created the cursed video. In the Japanese version, she simply exists. And because we know almost nothing about her, it makes her and the film much, much scarier.

Writer-director Leigh Janiak clearly understands this and Honeymoon, her first feature, never explains a damn thing. It just goes about its business to totally unnerve us. It’s a simple story: a newly married couple spend their honeymoon at the wife’s parents’ cabin in the Canadian woods. We’ve seen this setup a million times, so often that “a cabin in the woods” has become a clichéd horror movie trope; it was even the title of a tongue-in-cheek horror/comedy that played games with our jaded expectations. But Janiak isn’t playing games. She has a far simpler goal — to get us to piss our pants with fear.

She begins by making us care about the young couple, Bea and Paul. We learn about them as we watch video of their wedding during the opening credits and they seem like nice kids, so short of money that they couldn’t even afford a wedding cake and use a cinnamon roll instead. They are very much in love and can’t keep their hands off each other, and since both are extremely attractive we can’t blame them. In fact, we feel a bit voyeuristic spying on their sweet lovemaking, but it soon becomes apparent that someone, or something, is also watching them.

Paul awakens in the middle of the night and discovers that Bea is no longer sleeping next to him. He searches the house but she is nowhere to be found. He begins calling for her and finally finds her in the woods stark naked, her honeymoon nightgown torn to shreds. She seems disoriented and Paul asks if she were sleepwalking. But there are strange marks on the inside of her thighs which Bea insists are mosquito bites. “They don’t look like mosquito bites,” Paul tells her.

Bea and Paul are wonderfully played by two actors who, it turns out, are actually British: Rose Leslie from Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey, and Harry Treadaway, who played a young Victor Frankenstein in the new Showtime miniseries Penny Dreadful. They are both onscreen throughout the entire film and their characters move from loving newlyweds to confused strangers who soon become terrified of each other. Finally both are falling into an abyss of true horror.

The skillful actors never wink at the audience. They make us love their characters; we want them to escape unscathed. The script by Janiak and Phil Graziadei (which means “Thank God” in Italian) is spare and absolutely brilliant. Paul begins to suspect that there is another being in his wife’s body. She is no longer the girl he fell in love with, and her reply is simplicity itself. “This is me!” she pleads, in a moment that is both touching and terrifying.

The movie has elements of Rosemary’s Baby and Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (two of my favorite movies). And watching Honeymoon, I couldn’t help thinking that I was witnessing the emergence of a new classic in the tradition of those great films. I was also seeing the birth of two new stars. I’m sure that we’ll be seeing a rapid ascent for both Rose Leslie and Harry Treadaway and I look forward to what each does next. In fact, their work together is so strong that I hope they continue their collaboration.

But the most impressive work comes from director Leigh Janiak. She demonstrates a sure hand, a simple but elegant visual style, and clearly has a way of coaxing great performances from her talented actors. She is not going for easy jumps and gotcha moments but instead builds a sense of growing dread that slowly and inexorably puts the audience in the palm of her hand. And she never explains anything.

Mr. Lovecraft would definitely approve.

Stuart Gordon is a writer/director/producer of film, television and theater. He is best known for the cult classic Re-Animator and for murdering his wife Carolyn in his films whenever possible.