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.
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
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
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
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
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:
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
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.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson