Film Review: The Honeymoon Killers (1969)

SYNOPSIS:

Bad tempered, overweight nurse, Martha (Shirley Stoler) lives at home with her overbearing mother. Ray (Tony Lo Bianco), is a Spanish immigrant and a slimey fanny rat who rips off lonely, middle-aged women of their life savings. The pair meet when Martha decides to join a lonely hearts club at the prompting of her friend Bunny (Doris Roberts, who later showed up in the American sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond). Raymond (another one whom everybody seems to love) answers her letters and worms his way into her life. After spending the night with her he steals her cash and bails. However, when Martha discovers how Ray makes his living, she contacts him and arrives at his apartment with mother in tow. She doesn’t care how he f*cks people over for a living, she is in love and desperately needs him.

At the suggestion of Ray, Martha agrees to put her mother into a nursing home, and the pair hit the road together, swindling more women with Martha posing as his sister. Ray promises to never sleep with any of their victims, and this seems to reassure Martha at first, but her jealousy simmers under the surface. Her jealous rage soon enough boils over, and she crosses the line into murder. And before long, Ray joins in the killing spree, strangling the victims and looting their homes for anything of value.

REVIEW:

Directed by: Leonard Kastle
Starring: Shirley Stoler, Tony Lo Bianco

Sticking fairly close to the real life case in the 1940s on which it is based (in real life, Martha actually dumped her kids to be with Ray, not her mother), this sole directorial outing for opera composer Leonard Kastle is right up there with Charles Laughton’s The Night of The Hunter and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man in the ‘one-off wonder’ horror classics. The blunt monochrome imagery, music cues by Gustav Mahler, and powerful performances from the two leads, combine to produce a filmic experience which remains just as raw and visceral today as it must have been to audiences back in the late 60s when it was first released. Actress Stoler, in her debut performance, embodies the role of the vicious Martha with ease, and went on to appear in bit-parts as lesbian prison guards, and also landed herself roles in “The Deerhunter” and Seven Beauties. Lo Bianco as Ray matches her all the way, and he went on to bigger projects like The French Connection, God Told Me To, and Nixon. The rest of the cast members aren’t so good. In fact, if they were any more wooden they’d give you splinters.

Director Kastle admirably refuses to romanticise the brutally cold-blooded criminals at the heart of this film. The result could be read as an anti-Bonnie And Clyde as it deglamorizes the murders after years of movies that portrayed outlaws as ‘cool’ and sympathetic. Kastle also adds subtle visual tricks without overdoing things. He allows the incredible story to tell itself with very little in the way of fanfare or sensationalism. The scene where Ray and Martha murder an old woman is presented in a cold, detached manner, with the camera poised on the crime like a fly on the wall. “I need a drink” Ray deadpans after strangling her. Indeed, it’s this kind of blunt, no-nonsense imagery and down-at-earth realism which has influenced many other filmmakers over the years, such as John Waters and John McNaughton, whose Henry – Portrait of a Serial Killer is especially indebted to Kastle’s minor classic.

The Honeymoon Killers was originally set to be directed by Martin Scorsese, but he walked off the set due to ‘artistic differences’ after shooting only a small amount of footage. Kastle was then enlisted to the helm, and he re-wrote the script and stuck to the docu-drama style that Scorsese had initially established. Most of Scorsese’s scenes made it into the final cut.

Perhaps people were more trusting of strangers in the 1940s, but even so, the scams Ray and Martha pull off on these women defies belief. If the film wasn’t based on a true story, you’d call bullshit when one of the marks hands over $10,000 in cash to a stranger like Ray, who looks like a greased-back p*rno gigolo, and not a very trustworthy one at that (Ray also fought on Franco’s side in the Spanish Civil War, and this adds immensely to his overall crumminess as a human being). Lonely or not, it’s difficult to feel sympathy for many of these women when they are so blindly gullible.

The couple manage to pass themselves off as brother and sister, and this is also hard to swallow – she’s an overweight, explosively jealous Grotbags, and he’s a slimy Casanova wannabe with a thick Spanish accent. As blood siblings, they’re slightly less convincing than Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito in Twins. And as a couple, they’re about as compatible as shit and strawberry shortcake.

Both Martha and Ray were executed by electric chair at the cheerfully named Sing Sing Prison in 1951. Ray had to be carried to ‘Old Sparky’ he was so scared, whereas Martha stubbornly denied doing any wrong, insisting their’s was a love story, and stomped her way to the hot seat without a care. She was too big for the seat, and a team of guards had to wedge her in. Her brains cooked up nicely though.

The Honeymoon Killers (1969)

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