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DVD SAVANT

The Honeymoon Killers


The Honeymoon Killers
Criterion 200
1970 / b&w / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 107 115 min. / Street Date July 22, 2003 / 29.95
Starring Shirley Stoler, Tony Lo Bianco, Mary Jane Higby, Doris Roberts, Kip McArdle, Marilyn Chris, Dortha Duckworth, Barbara Cason, Ann Harris
Cinematography Oliver Wood
Film Editor Richard Brophy, Stanley Warnow
Music Gustav Mahler
Produced by Warren Steibel
Written and Directed by Leonard Kastle

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Criterion's 200th spine number is a corker, a powerhouse 1970 horror film about ordinary lowlifes, pulling off ordinary, but very chilling, murders. This independent one-hit wonder from Opera author Leonard Kastle is the exception to the rule - sold as a lurid exploitation movie, it has a superlative script and excellent acting. In these days of self-conscious filmmaking, its gritty black & white cinematography only improves with age.

Criterion has packaged the show creatively, with extras that detail the true crime on which it was based, and a diverting package and menu design based on the the low-rent magazine ads that brought murderers Ray and Martha together in the first place.

Synopsis:

Bitter, unpleasant head nurse Martha Beck (Shirley Stoler) falls head-over-heels in love with Ray Fernandez (Tony Lo Bianco), a professional swindler of little old ladies. When she turns out to be indifferent to his criminal lifestyle, it's love at first sight. But Ray finds that pulling off his con-games for the life savings of widows and spinsters is difficult while dragging Martha around pretending to be his sister. Emotionally unstable, Martha's jealousy throws Ray's style off-center, and they end up killing one hopelessly deluded old lady, Janet Fay (Mary Jane Higby). Ray promises that he's not actually sleeping with any of his victims, but Martha's insecurity gets the best of both of them.

In 1970, newspaper ads for The Honeymoon Killers looked incredibly sleazy. They featured a big grainy photo of Ray embracing the very-overweight Martha in her underwear. But it was different enough to impress as a real movie, and not another AIP exploitation film.

The movie knocked us out at film school - Leonard Kastle put into it everything we appreciated at the politically-charged UCLA campus. It was serious, defiantly uncommercial, and looked like the kind of John Cassavetes - American Independent film just beginning to be appreciated.

Of course what impressed us was the naturalness of the script and the acting. Kastle's actors were people we didn't see in movies, and they all looked real. Tony Lo Bianco (The French Connection, The Seven Ups) is no cartoon, but a clever sociopath capable of maintaining whatever chameleon personality is required by his con-game. Shirley Stoler has to be the first unattractive overweight actress in twenty years given a serious film role to play - she seems all the more real because her presence goes against Hollywood pandering to our desire to see only attractive people on screen. Both Martha Beck and Ray Fernandez are thoroughly loathsome characters, but they certainly don't see themselves that way; and in Martha's case we get a good look at a romantically frustrated woman who's perfectly capable of committing terrible crimes against innocent people, so long as she gets what she wants.

In horror-thrillers, the victims of crazed killers are almost exclusively young, attractive women. Ray and Martha's chosen victims are very real American females. Hitchcock showed none of Joseph Cotten's victims in Shadow of a Doubt, but Thorton Wilder's verbal descriptions of repulsive little old ladies chilled our blood. No Way to Treat a Lady gave us a gallery of 'theatrically-enhanced' victims with cute mannerisms. And the film most similar to Kastle's, The Boston Strangler, showed us defenseless and suspicious little women hiding behind locked doors. Leonard Kastle claims that his film was meant to be a response to the glamorized criminality of Bonnie & Clyde, but The Honeymoon Killers really belongs to this other Merry Widow/Bluebeard bloodline.  1

The scariest part of The Honeymoon Killers are the victims themselves, who range from fairly intelligent (the schoolteacher) to foolish (the pregnant Southern Belle) to the almost idiotically trusting Janet Fay. We recognize these women and their pitiful vulnerability; they don't see beyond Ray's charm and their own romantic dreams, and allow themselves and their life savings to disappear into his custody. We're invited to chuckle at their gullibility, even as we know each is fated for, at the very least, a terrible disillusion. Janet Fay is the most absurd, a 65-ish biddy who makes terrible arts'n crafts hats, and whose idea of an elopement dinner is a whirl around the neighborhood cafeteria. She's as blind as a bat to anything beyond her own little, "Isn't that cu-ute!" world.

Ray clearly made a big mistake by bringing Martha along, or for that matter, getting involved with her. He's a professional Bluebeard, but falls for Martha's cheap trick to attach herself to him - Kastle's script neatly depicts their 'legitimate' romance as a con game as well. Ray is a misogynistic psycho revulsed by women, but perversely responds to Martha's aggressive hunger - and perhaps her utility as a very strong woman with access to drugs. They're one of the strangest couples in the amour fou universe, a repulsive pair truly made for each other.

(spoilers)

Martha's effectiveness as Ray's partner in crime, vanishes as soon as she sees Ray being affectionate with one of their victims. She pouts, complains and throws herself against the whole point of their charade, effectively screwing up one scam after another. One ends in failure, and two in murder. When it comes time to kill, Ray is incapable of the deed, but Martha shows herself ready for anything. And when she finally has had enough, it's got nothing to do with guilt over murder, but her depression over Ray. Audiences hold their breath in the scene where Martha is told that Ray's been sleeping regularly with their latest victim ... It isn't going to be pretty when this woman scorned goes on the warpath. Martha's killings of a woman and her child are chilling - chores done by an emotionally drained robot: "I'll take care of everything".


Criterion's DVD of The Honeymoon Killers is terrific. I bought an early Image laserdisc that was washed out and badly cropped; this enhanced disc handles the b&w grain well, and presents the soundtrack clearly. Only a few lines here and there are distorted now,instead of the whole show - the sound recording on the set wasn't the best.

The interface is wonderful. Droll animation pans across sleazy ads to land on menu choices. A lengthy interview with director Kastle shows him to be a serious artist who became a writer and director almost by chance. He takes credit for most everything in the show except the acting, but his assessment is probably accurate, even when he explains why fledgling director Martin Scorsese was let go after just a few day's work (how dare he photograph a beer can as 'atmosphere'!).

The amazing story of how The Honeymoon Killers came to be is topped by Scott Christiansen's essay - doc Condemned: Inside the Sing Sing Death House, an account of the real Lonely Hearts Killers illustrated with dozens of photos, documents, and letters between the lovers in the death house. It's a fascinating document that gives us an important perspective on newsworthy crime in 1951. You'd think the pair would be kept separate, but publicity-hungry prosecutors and lawmen keep dragging them out for photo opportunities, obviously to help their careers. It's pretty chilling.

Gary Gidden's liner notes accurately peg The Honeymoon Killers' odd position in film history, and Bruce Eder provides concise bios. Viewers who have seen Seven Beauties will surely remember Stoler's grotesque prison matron. Crime thriller aficionados will also smile to recall that Shirley was the no-nonsense pawnshop owner who committed finger-cide on luckless Alec Baldwin at the conclusion of George Armitage's quirky Miami Blues. She hadn't lost her touch with a meat cleaver.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Honeymoon Killers rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Good
Supplements: Interview with writer/director Leonard Kastle, Illustrated essay by Scott Christianson on the true crime story of "Lonely Hearts Killers" Ray Fernandez and Martha Beck, New essay by critic Gary Giddens, Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 11, 2003


Footnote:

1. It's a fairly flexible sub-genre. Edgar Ulmer's Bluebeard was a misunderstood artist/maniac. Charlie Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux was a socio-political realist, merely making a living.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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