The Honeymoon Killers Review

The Honeymoon Killers is a bona-fide cult movie that has a huge number of admirers both within the film industry and among the genral public. Made for a pitifully low budget, it makes up for its manifest inadequacies by being genuinely disturbing in a way which eludes more polished films. The rough and ready style of the film makes it both curiously displaced in time and eerily immediate, as if a 1940s B Movie has been mixed up with a piece of cinema verite by Emilio De Antonio. It's certainly not a film which will please everybody but it definitely deserves to be seen.

The film is based on a true story, which happened during the forties and early fifties. Shirley Stoler, an actress who was misused time and again in films, plays Martha Beck, an overweight nurse whose sister puts an advert in a dating magazine for her. She is contacted by Ray (LoBianco), a 34 year old Spanish-American gigolo who specialises in hustling ageing spinsters and widows out of their wealth. When the two meet, it's like a combining of, as an earlier scene indicates, chlorine and ammonia, and something clicks out of control. Ray continues his trade with Martha posing as his sister, but Martha becomes increasingly dissatisfied with her role in the affair. Jealousy rears its head with a (tragic ?) inevitability and soon Martha becomes involved in murdering Ray's rich women - women she now sees as her rivals for Ray's affections.

This is a very unpleasant film to watch - I mean that as a compliment. Few films have got so close to the sheer banality of evil as this one does; in fact the best recent I can think of, and a film which seems somewhat influenced by this one, is John MacNaughton's extraordinary Henry. The refusal to judge Ray and Martha is disturbing in itself and admirable in its uncompromising avoidance of a conventional moral scheme. The women Ray marries are fairly pitiful but we don't despise them, they are simply lonely - just as lonely as Martha in their own way. There are no heroes or villains in this film, just varying degrees of inadequacy and loneliness. Despite the hysterical trailer, which typically blames Martha for corrupting Ray, it is Ray (the only male character in the film) who seems to crueller of the two. His sleazy Latin lover act is all the more fake when we see him trying it on Martha and the incompetence of his manipulations makes them no less despicable. But on the other hand, he is as weak and pitiful as the rest of the cast and it's hard to paint him as some kind of master criminal when he and Martha live such sordid, joyless existences.

Shirley Stoler and Tony LoBianco are remarkable as the murderous couple - LoBianco has the ideal manner for Ray, all superficial charm and fake jollity and he has a great moment when he wears a wig which seems to sum up all that is ridiculous about his life. Stoler begins badly - this is not entirely her fault as she is demeaned by the part when all she has to do is whine and bitch like a John Waters lead - but develops impressively after the first half hour into a woman who is trapped in her own purposeless evil and Kastle often frames her through constricting doorways to emphasise this. At the end she is genuinely moving and the final image is unforgettably poignant in its summation of the wasted spirit that Martha represents. The killings have become self-perpetuating and the financial rewards are not enough to compensate for the spiritual cost that wrecks Martha. Her genuine love for Ray makes this all the more affecting, and the tenderness and love she holds for him is probably the biggest redemption for the character.

The only thing I had remembered about this film is that Martin Scorsese was to have made it but was fired due to artistic disagreements. This is a bit unfair since Leonard Kastle does a pretty good job. His use of verite techniques - probing camera, primitive sound recording, grainy photography - is excellent and he has an eye for images which suggests he could have become a very good director. In the event he only made this one film which is a shame. Some of the movie is a bit scattershot and the pace is often slower than it should be, but when he gets it right, he really does produce something special. The set-piece in which the elderly Catholic widow Janet Fay is killed is brilliantly executed, beginning with her vague grumbles at something troubling her and ending with her head being smashed with a hammer. The suspense generated in this scene is considerable and it lifts the whole film after the slightly indifferent first half. Kastle also pulls off the difficult ending, which is poignant and yet strangely romantic. His scriptwriting is not so sure-footed since the dialogue is usually pretty idiotic and sounds like a self-parody. He also makes a mess of some of the basic storytelling, confusing the period of time which elapses and using some characters without making it sufficiently clear who they are and why they are in the film.

Ultimately however, this is an important and influential film which needs to be watched. It's just as shocking as Bonnie And Clyde even if it lacks the artistry of Penn's film. It is an obvious influence on several directors, most notably John Waters, and it takes some of the Warhol Factory techniques (and some from Cassavettes) and makes them serve a slightly different purpose. I was also reminded of several films by Abel Ferrara, notably Driller Killer which has a moral ambivalence even more profound than is displayed here. It's easy to laugh now at some of the more amateurish edges of The Honeymoon Killers but that would be small-minded and unfair. It's an unsentimental and totally un-Hollywood examination of sadness and squalor (the overwhelming impression that Henry left me with oddly enough) and in being so "unprofessional" it does manage to capture an element of truth about human beings that makes up for some of the silly writing, the absurdly grandiose use of Mahler on the soundtrack and the occasionally excessive shock effects. As I suggested, it is not likely to please everyone but it is certainly not unworthy of its considerable cult reputation.

The Disc

Such a cult favourite should have been a sure-fire contender for a feature packed special edition. Unfortunately, Metrodome's region 2 disc is something of a missed opportunity.

The picture quality is very good considering the limitations of the source material. The black and white images have good contrast and little trouble with artifacting, and the slight graininess visible throughout, whether intentional or not (I suspect the former), is forgivable here since it suits the film so well. The picture is anamorphic and framed at 1.85:1. Personally I thought it looked better watched letterboxed and at the 14:9 TV setting. The level of detail is particularly good and I suspect this is the best that the film has ever looked on home video. It certainly looks much better than the murky TV copy I have taped from BBC 2.

The only soundtrack is the original mono track. It's fine considering the fact that the original sound recording is so variable. Some of the dialogue is almost inaudible which makes the lack of subtitles very irritating. However, apart from this, the soundtrack is about as good as I would have expected for this material.

There are a few minor extras. The theatrical trailer is included and is interesting for trying to sell the film as the exploitation picture that it looks like on first sight. There is a photo gallery which contains the excellent poster art and some behind the scenes shots. The filmographies for Shirley Stoler, Tony LoBianco and Leonard Kastle seem to be fairly complete (although LoBianco's omits Bullitt) and the trivia section contains three facts which are fairly common knowledge.

There are animated menus backed by very loud Mahler and 22 chapter stops.

A fascinating film then, and well worth a look, presented on a disc which is technically proficient while being devoid of any really interesting extra material.

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