Thursday, 19 February 2015

Love is Strange: Reflections on ... The Honeymoon Killers (1969)

Tony Lo Bianco and Shirley Stoler as Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck in The Honeymoon Killers (1969) /

I was buggin’ out with excitement to re-visit The Honeymoon Killers (on Thursday 12 February 2015 to be precise) when The Barbican screened it as part of their My Twisted Valentine mini-season. It’s been well over twenty years since I've watched this vicious 1969 black comedy cult movie. I know because I last saw it at London’s much-missed grindhouse repertory cinema The Scala in then-derelict Kings Cross which was defunct by 1993. It absolutely blew me away then. Happily, I can report The Honeymoon Killers is un-mellowed by time. It still packs a nasty jolt!

A true tale of amour fou, The Honeymoon Killers is based on the lurid true story of serial killer couple Martha Beck and Ray Fernandez. Dubbed “the Lonely Hearts killers” by the tabloids (they lured their female victims to their deaths using personal ads), their homicidal rampage between 1947 and 1949 and subsequent trial gripped the public’s imagination. Both were ultimately executed in the electric chair at Sing Sing prison in 1951, still declaring their devotion to each other.

Director Leonard Kastle’s film (the only one he ever made) recreates their story in grainy, atmospheric black and white. The Honeymoon Killers looks and feels harsh, stark and immediate - like a gritty documentary or a Diane Arbus photograph come to life. The murder scenes, captured by tense and jittery handheld camera in long real-time takes, suggest a gruesome and nightmarish home movie. They force you to contemplate how long it takes and how unpleasant it is to actually kill someone. Forty-five years later, these sequences still disturb.

The Honeymoon Killers explores the banality of everyday suburban evil:  this is a realm of stifled and compromised lives, disappointments, Catholic kitsch, comfort-eating and lace doilies.  Perhaps because of budgetary constraints (the film was made on $150,000), The Honeymoon Killers makes no attempt to recreate the 1940s in costumes or decor – it’s firmly set in the late sixties (thus presumably unintentionally, it evokes the spectre of the Charles Manson murders). Like the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde, it is inspired by the story of the real-life murder spree couple rather than slavishly faithful to the facts. The details are pared-down, simplified to just the austere essentials. For example, the actual killers reportedly murdered twenty women; in the film, they are only shown killing a handful. It also omits the fact that Martha had children by a previous relationship, which she abandoned to be with Ray.

Sold to contemporary audiences as a straight exploitation horror movie (see the misleading trailer), The Honeymoon Killers is stranger and more original than that.  The tone is unsettling: it frequently feels like broad black comedy with deliberately overripe acting, predicting the cinema of John Waters. There are arty avant garde moments (the climactic underwater bit where Martha tries to drown herself in a jealous rage; soaring classical music on the soundtrack). The film bristles with paranoia and thwarted lust.

The casting of the murderous lovers is inspired. Tony Lo Bianco’s gigolo Ray is a swarthy and manipulative charmer with a thick Spanish accent, a toupee and Latin rhythm in his hips. (As an added bonus, the fleeting glimpse of Lo Bianco’s pert naked cafe con leche butt certainly makes an impression).With her freckles, mane of teased hair, 1960s eyeliner and steely demeanour Shirley Stoler is riveting as the imperious and petulant Martha. Stoler (1929-1999) went on to have a distinguished career as a character actress, specializing in sinister villainesses in both film (Klute, Desperately Seeking Susan) and TV (soap operas The Edge of Night and One Life to Live, Charlie’s Angels, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse). Her towering performance here anticipates Divine. Is there any higher compliment?

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