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Saturday, September 11, 2021

Royal Jelly (2021)

The synopsis for the horror movie Royal Jelly, from Facebook is, "When a shy high school bee enthusiast is taken under the wing of a mysterious mentor, she discovers she's being groomed as a hive's next queen." The thing is, the horror movie and grooming aspects aren't 100% accurate to what Royal Jelly is, at least to me. Still, stuff like that, and little interesting details here and there, make picking it apart fun. Royal Jelly stars, among others,  Elizabeth McCoy (Astar, the bee enthusiast), Sherry Lattanzi (Tresa, the mysterious mentor), and Fiona McQuinn and Jonas Chartock (Astar's parents). It is written, directed, and edited by Sean Riley, the music is by Joe Hodgin, and the cinematography is by Jonathan Hammond. 

So, Royal Jelly's horror elements really come out in the last half-hour or so. It slowly transitions from comedy-drama, to thriller, to bodily horror. This is an approach that makes a lot of sense to build tension up throughout the movie, but it doesn't completely work here. The problem is that the build-up is more like full changes from one mode to the next. It's not jarring, but it is something I felt. This is because a lot of time is spent establishing Astar, but that is done really well. 

Riley leans heavily on costume design and makeup to provide a crash-course on Astar. Band t-shirts, glasses, and dark lipstick work as a quick shorthand, against her less awkward classmates...the awkwardness is something to circle back to, though. This costuming isn't excessive, so it doesn't call attention to itself. It's visual storytelling that luckily is carried throughout the movie, and it's one of several little details and showcases of care and effort. 

Another piece of the movie that's worth noting, mostly early on, is how Hammond shoots it. The opening credits are over the start to finish of a jar of honey, and way McCoy holds it up to the light to get these sparkling glints stands out because it's one of those things that's usually overdone or done like a post-production lens flare. This jar just looks really beautiful, as crazy as that might sound. Unfortunately, the movie doesn't look like this when it becomes a full horror film. At that point everything is dimly lit, and it's hard to make everything out without outside interference, such as changing your screen's brightness and the lights in your room. It's a shame because the blood and creature stuff that's late in the game looks great. At least one moment, with some Nightmare on Elm Street 3 vibes, is done before the full genre shift. Speaking of which, we have to talk about Carrie a little.

Riley and crew's appreciation for Carrie is explicit, as one of Astar's bullies mentions it by name, and the start of Astar's story is similar in a few respects. What makes this a little tougher, at least on paper is that aspects of it are a bit more relatable. Instead of a religious zealot for a mother, Fiona McQuinn's character is just a crappy stepmother with some selfish tendencies. That comes across really well when she helps herself to an extra serving of dinner, before passing the scraps to her stepdaughter. McQuinn's daughter, played by Raylen Ladner (Drew), is downright cruel in some spots and definitely a fan of Stephen King's work. Royal Jelly is able to do a lot with a little, and that's what I held onto when the acting fell short or a writing convenience was taken. It also made that extra effort mentioned, whether it be the use of a song, a drone shot, or a choir in Hodgin's score, much more noticeable. So, onto the acting and writing shortfalls. 

The acting mostly is just really stiff. Everyone is doing their best, but that really doesn't come across. It's the clearest sign that this is a smaller, indie movie. McCoy is worth bringing up because she is giving a very consistent performance, and she, like many of the actors, is able to fallback on giving a non-verbal performance pretty well. Lattanzi is another story. Her character powers that shift into horror, and her performance is pretty over the top. What could've worked a lot better is if the grooming was stretched out over a significant portion of the movie. What happens is more like trying a few things, and then powering through with someone who's not completely on-board. Stretching it would actually solve a lot of little issues that pop up here and there. There's one I'd like to go into because it's surprising for a movie with a strong start.

Astar and Tresa get revenge on some bullies by egging their house. When they're getting away, the overhead light inside their car is on a lot longer than it should've been, relatively speaking, so they're spotted, and that's why Astar decides to lay low with Tresa for a while, and that's what really kicks things off. It makes sense, but it still feels like a shortcut taken to force the situation. A little script tightening goes a long way, especially in a movie like that. The other thing that helps though, especially in the cases of small movies, is developing movie posters like this that really stand out. 

Two great posters for the movie.

The movie is an interesting watch on its own, but the promise of these just felt like a great note to go out on. The Pan's Labyrinth and original Grimm influence is really felt through these designs, and through the body horror at the tail-end of Royal Jelly itself. That stuff, and the use of blood and makeup in general, is handled well.

A screener of this movie was provided to me by Sean Riley. I was not compensated for this review. 

Royal Jelly is available September 14th on various digital streaming platforms. 

Also, stick around for the post-credits scene. There's a PSA about bees, but it's nicely done in a non-preachy, tongue-in-cheek-ish way that, appropriately feels like it was added as an afterthought to help support bees. 


3/5
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