Bee careful what you wish for in this apiary tale that tells a story of high school misfit, Aster, an easy target for unsympathetic pubescent bullies, including the continuing at-home abuse from her half-sister, Drew, and pitiless stepmother. With neither school or home being a safe retreat, Aster finds comfort in an unorthodox and brash substitute female teacher who has taken a shine to Aster and provides her shelter when she’s distraught after discovering her collection of apiary beehives was maliciously destroyed in an act of malice. After living with her teacher and her son for some time, they exhibit strange behaviors, develop skin rashes, and Aster begins to notice that she doesn’t quite feel like herself either as her safe haven is unveiled as a façade for her grooming to become the next hive queen.
“Royal Jelly” isn’t exactly the killer bee movie you’d be expecting. Writer-director Sean Riley invites a new take of the Apiformes horror subgenre outside the beehive of being per se a creature feature with his new film, “Royal Jelly.” And, yes, even though tiny in size, bees are still tiny creatures with mighty (painful) stingers. Those not familiar with the term royal jelly, other than it being an unique title for Riley’s sophomore feature, royal jelly is the honey bee secretion from glands located in the hypopharynx and is the chief nourishment for colony’s larvae. See! Who says horror movies can’t be education? Somehow, someway the Baton Rouge, Louisiana-born director found malefic inspiration secreting from his metaphorical hypopharynx domiciled glands and packages with it a paralleling an all too familiar fairy tale crowdfunded by Indiegogo backers, second feature funded this way behind his breakout directorial of the comedy “Fighting Belle,” and Riley’s Integral Motion Pictures.
Now, who is this leading lady willing to be misled into a turned-out humanoid life sized queen bee? The University of Southern Mississippi Fine Arts graduate Elizabeth McCoy, of course. The Greater New Orleans actress slips into an quasi-goth cladded outcast Aster sporting fishnet stockings and a black graphic t-shirt promoting the band Queen, a bit of fitting foreshadowing if I’ve ever come across one. Before being bequeathed the hive throne, McCoy has to render Aster a meek existence made small by the death of her beekeeper mother backstory and surrounded by loneliness stemmed by an abusive sister and stepmother and a coward of a father. The only joy made clear in Aster’s life is her bees. When her apiaries are decimated, that is when high school sub Tresa (Sherry Lattanzi) flies in and shelters Aster under her wing that makes for an odd couple combination that’s one part predatory teacher fraternizing with a vulnerable student and one part comical motherhood to see McCoy tower over a short Lattanzi who is in this insect sovereign role. Doesn’t Darwin always say the strongest always survive? I guess there’s nothing in Darwinism about the tallest. Lattanzi expresses Tresa about as audaciously enigmatic as they come with little-to-no story arc to move in accord with as Tresa just shows up, out of the blue, and after a scene where Aster’s teacher has had his throat slit and I’m still trying to fathom the plot hole of how the hell Tresa entered the frame so quickly, as a substitute teacher, without ever laying eyes on Aster until stepping into her classroom. Sparse is the name of the game as Tresa, as well as Aster, are poorly written without much density and neither actress can pull off miracles adding layers to already rotten onion. The rest of the cast includes Raylan Ladner, Lucas T. Matchett, Fiona McQuinn, Jonas Chartock, and Jake McCoy.
Pulling inspiration from Roger Corman’s “The Wasp Woman,” Riley’s “Royal Jelly” ditches the experimental cosmetics for timeless folk lore while still vaunting a Corman class cinema gooey with bee secretion center. Instead of an enchanting tale of rags to riches, this loose Cinderella adaptation comes with all the classic hallmarks like an evil stepmother, a wicked stepsister, and a fairy godmother manifesting Aster’s dreams on the spot, but instead of a magical wand and a pointy hat, this fairy godmother comes in the form of a personified bee queen wearing a façade of a presumptuous substitute teacher. Riley’s openly emblematic killer bee story could go one or two ways. 1 – Aster is actually being groomed by a bee queen to take over her hive as a homolog event to Aster’s earlier class presentation on the eusocial bee social organization or 2 – Aster has snapped due to bullying and she’s daydreaming, hallucination, or dead and the bee-havorial chaos she’s experiencing is either in her head or is sardonic Hell. I like the second theory better over the first as I don’t find Aster’s sprouting of inorganic and rigid Halloween costume bee wings and a makeshift stinger, that appears more phallic than necessary, to be enticing me with a freakish reality. I still can’t get over the possibility of a predator allegory as a big truck cruising Tresa targets Aster to mate with her “sons” “Henry” or “David” to produce a heir of sorts. Either way you slice into Sean Riley’s “Royal Jelly,” little feels right story-wise with the delimited, bareboned farmhouse and apiary analogy and with the flighty characters leaving all their aces on the table which Riley scarcely goes back to address, such as with Aster’s family who just disappear from the story altogether though scenes of her snide stepsister showing slithers of guilt and sympathy go unfounded.
The bee invasion has landed with Uncork’d Entertainment’s release of Sean Riley’s “Royal Jelly” this September on all digital platforms From the unhinged “Homewrecker” to the love you to death “Cupid,” Uncork’d Entertainment distributes a wide berth of independent horror, stretching to all home entertainment platforms, and acquires the bee-horror “Royal Jelly” that fits into the company’s catalogue. Since released digital, the audio and visual aspects won’t be given the once over. Jonathan Hammond (“Attack of the Southern Friend Zombie”) serves as cinematographer who’s overexposed day scenes are starkly contrasted by the night scenes’ hard lighting slathered with an unforgiven blue tint. The inconsistent visual styles and slips, such as unfocused, blurry scenes at the dinner table near the beginning of the story, clash in the 94 minute runtime. Joe Hodges lays down a common brooding industrial score that’s not half-bad as the melodies change with the extent of the solid sound design. Stay tuned post credits scene for a millennial targeted public service announcement to protect and support the bee way of life by scanning a QR code to receive information on how to exactly do that. Pleasantly informative and certainly unusual, “Royal Jelly” evinces more the echelons of bee society and lot less the terror of horror and that takes a lot of the sting of Riley’s film, making this bee killer movie a total buzz kill.