Black Mirror has virtually trademarked a particular brand of dystopian sci-fi / horror (as The Twilight Zone did before it) so it’s inevitable that any new work in a similar vein will be compared to Charlie Brooker’s long-running TV series.
The Honeymoon Phase invites these comparisons and although it has its moments never quite leaves Black Mirror’s shadow, despite – or perhaps because of – its central premise.
As the title suggests, it concerns a young couple whose fledgling relationship is severely tested, although somewhat masochistically that test is self-inflicted. Eve (Chloe Carroll) and Tom (Jim Schubin) sign up for a psychological experiment called ‘The Millennium Project’. For the promise of a $50,000 payday, they agree to reside in a secluded, beautiful house for 30 days while observed via CCTV cameras by a team of scientists. Lab rats ala The Truman Show. Financial incentives aside, they seek to prove the strength of their relationship before tying the knot for real.
Of course, given that this operation is run by a kindly-yet-sinister scientist only known as ‘The Director’ (François Chau), we immediately know that something more sinister is afoot although our couple remain unsuspecting; Eve is enthusiastic, Tom acquiesces albeit with mild reluctance.
They initially enjoy the beautiful hi-tech house and indulge in the sexual excitement of pseudo newly-weds. But that soon fades as Eve begins to feel unsettled and as the situation seems to subtly change Tom’s character. Bliss shatters dramatically, and it’s initially unclear who to be wary of. What started as ennui and mild irritation soon escalates to an eruption of sinister manipulation and discomfort.
There are themes here of gaslighting, sexual control and domestic abuse, and of conflict on whether to start a family. And at heart the film asks how well we can really know the people we love.
Unfortunately, it never feels entirely believable, due to a underdeveloped script, poor characterisation and so-so acting. A lot of the burden falls on Chloe Carroll – who turns out to be the director’s wife – but she just doesn’t have the gravity and sincerity to carry what could be a powerful role. Jim Schubin as Tom can get away with being a little more remote and blank given the film’s perspective, but his range switches from cloying sap to distant cipher. There’s just no depth to these characters and as a couple they are not believable. What’s worse, although there are some disturbing, abusive incidents the film doesn’t seem careful enough to depict them responsibly, preferring a cartoonish, superficial style.
Although the bland music and muddy sound mix don’t help, the visual style works well. The couple are costumed as silvery-uniformed Star Trek extras and the set design takes full advantage of the stunning modern building the couple inhabit. It’s a curiously clinical dwelling, a house pretending to be a home. Brightly daylit with floor-to-ceiling glazing, it’s a metaphorical goldfish bowl. The in-built technology is fun yet sinister, the holographic scientists whispering seditiously and the ever-present CCTV remind us that they’re always under surveillance (just as we fit our homes with our own Alexas and smart devices).
Donald Cammell’s superior Demon Seed is a clear inspiration here, as is The Shining – Tom is an unpublished author with a creative block and whose his hidden mental state revealed in his writings; but Tom and Eve are no match for Jack Nicolson and Sissy Spacek’s disintegrating couple.
In the final act, the film echoes early Cronenberg, not for its body horror but for the paranoid sci-fi conspiracies. However, although the film might have been more effective as a shorter TV-length feature, the finale feels rushed and slightly incoherent; the revelations are clichéd and underdeveloped. Together with a maddeningly illogical coda, The Honeymoon Phase really struggles to come to a satisfying conclusion.
Yet the overall effect is unsettling and it lingers after the credits role. Putting the ‘sinister scientist’ McGuffin aside, there’s an interesting premise here and the plot elements about Tom sexual control Eve’s body can be uncomfortable viewing. With a better script and acting and a more coherent conclusion, this could have been very effective.
And as the song goes: “If you want to know if he loves you so, it’s in his kiss”
The Honeymoon Phase got its UK premiere at Arrow FrightFest on 29th August 2020.