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Saturday, Dec 16, 2006


Looking to seek their fortune in the Colorado territory, a group of miners follow fellow gold rusher Alferd Packer deep into the Rocky Mountains. Along the way, they run into a band of scurvy trappers who steal Packer’s prized pony Liane. No longer concerned about wealth or riches, angry Al marches the mystified men farther off the well-beaten path and closer to death’s doorway. A stop-off at a local Ute Indian Reservation provides a last chance at avoiding tragedy, but Packer will not be persuaded. He eventually places his party into one Donner of a dilemma. And soon, it’s shinbones and short ribs for everyone as fallen members of the ore obsessives become bar-b-qued and fricasseed. Strangely, only Packer escapes. When pressed, he tells a wild tale of murder, mayhem, and massive helpings of man meat. It’s enough to put you off your pemmican as a Broadway-style back story leads to a tuneful trial and an even more melodious mob scene with everyone trying to determine if Al is a real life butt muncher, or just the subject of an insane song saga called Cannibal!: The Musical.


Outrageous, amateurish, guaranteed to make your toes tap, your fingers snap, and your gag reflex respond all in one sitting, Cannibal!: The Musical is the small, silly sapling from which a mighty comedy oak eventually grew. The titanic tree of unbridled, brave humor is today known as South Park and the creators of that crazy comic chaos are Matt Stone and his partner in perversity, Trey Parker. Trey is the tricky mastermind behind this musical version of the (supposed) crimes of Colorado’s most infamous flesh-eater, Alferd Packer. Anyone who has ever doubted Parker’s flourishing genius with paper cut-out cartoon characters need look no further than this ambitious, anarchic pseudo-student film to realize that he (along with Stone) were bound for bigger, longer, and uncut things. Cannibal! is filled with juvenile humor, unprofessional performances, lapses in taste and tone, and—above all—a severe drop-off in inventiveness toward the end. But it also contains classic tainted Tin Pan Alley tunes, a genuine love of gore horror films, and enough sharp, hilarious wit to outshine a few hundred Hollywood dark gross-out comedies. Cannibal!: The Musical is an idea that shouldn’t work (and occasionally heaves and lurches like a block and tackle about to fail), but thanks to Parker’s vision and his merry band of borderline student psychotics (the film was made while Trey and pals were at the University of Colorado film school), he manages to corral Cannibal‘s potential calamities and make the mess work. It is far from perfect, but it’s also entertaining, endearing, and filled with infectious, fantastic musical numbers.


This may be the very definition of a cult film. It is a movie made for a specific mindset. You are either “in tune” to its troubled, terrific manic mantra or not. No amount of big screen talkback or audience participation prop pandering will make it click. You will either “get” Cannibal!: The Musical or it will seem static, insipid, and scattered. Just like his efforts on that Comedy Central kiddie show (or the unjustly dumped sitcom spoof That’s My Bush), Parker operates from a big picture, avoiding a non-stop salvo of junky jokes to hopefully create a certain amount of depth and irony to his work. His goal always seems to be the complete deconstruction of typical cinematic and humor norms, only to rebuild them with his own twists. Many critics clamor that Parker and Stone are irrevocably stuck in an infantile world of farts, feces, and offensiveness (stereotyped Japanese men as Ute Indians?). And Cannibal! could very well be used as an example of such salacious obsessions. But in reality, it is a smart take-off on the musical format mixed with historical drama and laced with a noticeably lowbrow sense of stupid humor—and it succeeds more times than it derails. There are some forgivable lapses in character and plot development (the trappers should have had more involvement in the story) and the good-natured goofiness of the songs leave you wanting more of them (there are a couple of lost tracks—a barroom rap/funk spectacular called “I’m Shatterproof” and the cautionary choral entitled “Don’t Be Stupid Motherf******s”). Still, Parker is out to simultaneously celebrate Packer and bury him. And he does so with a little song, a little dance, and a lot of fake blood down the pants.


Surprisingly, Cannibal!: The Musical understands the strange dynamic of having characters break out into song and plays on that unreal magic magnificently. Where else would you find victims of frostbite, so hungry they are unable to move or even sit up straight, singing a joyful—if immobile—roundelay of special sentimental wishes called “That’s All I’m Asking For”? Or how about a lynch mob gaily swing choiring their way through a jubilant reading of the local riot act called “Hang the Bastard!”? The juxtaposition of traditionally non-musical moments with outrageous parodies of Great White Way standards is what marks Cannibal! (and South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut for that matter) a step above other attempted mismatching. Parker is a gifted writer, and along with original score arrangements by Rich Sanders, the songs are rich, resonant, and instantly memorable. Indeed, this flesh-eating effort may be the first fright flick you’ll ever find yourself humming afterward.


Some of the efforts in the sonic domain would have been better spent in the script department. Admittedly written over a couple of nights, there is a heavy reliance on Cartman and Kyle style curse word putdowns and silly non-sequiturs. But every once in a while, the cast’s comic timing kicks in and the humor is randy, robust, and rib tickling. With exceptional production values (the crew used several actual locations from Packer’s past and a perfectly recreated ghost town to provide untold realistic set design delights) and that great score, Cannibal!: The Musical is a recommended pre-success visit to a podunk mountain town filled with fledgling funny men in training. If the idea of a mock-historical western that is part Brigadoon and mostly Sweeney Todd sends your satire senses into a shiver, then Cannibal!: The Musical is the movie for you. While it may have some substandard elements, it’s still as funny and fresh as a baked potato. It’s a spadoinkle film!


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Friday, Dec 15, 2006


Is there a more misunderstood, misused actor than poor Crispin “Hellion” Glover? From the moment he took the screen in Back to the Future, playing the ultimate social outcast George McFly, this lanky human walking stick with a stilted voice and unhinged persona became an ironic icon, a star wrapped in an insane, introverted skin. He then cemented his sensationalism with The River’s Edge, playing the “dude”-spewing valley psycho Layne. By all accounts, it appeared Master Crispin was poised to become his generations’ James Dean, a twisted mastermind so lost in his own world of performance that he couldn’t help but be compelling onscreen. Instead, he just left the planet Earth altogether and vanished into his own Milky Way of the peculiar.


So it’s strange that he has recently found a small amount of acceptance as a character bad guy, playing everything from a sword-wielding assassin in the Charlie’s Angels movies to an orphanage director in Like Mike. In the meanwhile, he recorded bleak and brazenly bizarre music (his album “The Big Problem =/= The Solution; the Solution = Let It Be” is a must own exploration of one man’s misguided musical brain) and worked on literature as performance art (he has been known to take old Victorian tomes on such strange subjects as rat catching and retrofit them with new art, added text and various other artistic accents). But his true calling has and will always be as an actor, and now, thankfully, he has been given a chance to shine again. 2001 saw him star in Bartleby as the famously inert file clerk (from the short story by Herman Melville, Bartleby the Scrivener). But it seems our cracked actor can never forget his true nature, which makes his appearance in the 2003 remake of Willard so karmic.


Willard is a darkly comic tour de force for its strange star. A cool, complex combination of classic horror film and deliriously campy craziness, it eschews standard monster movie moves for a more robust and black-hearted take on loneliness and friendship. This is not a film about killer rats as much as it is a tale of male empowerment via vermin. Indeed, the story is called Willard for good reason: the pests are secondary here. The real world surrounding our title character is far more chilling and evil. The original 1971 Willard, starring Bruce Davidson and Ernest Borgnine (and taken from Stephen Gilbert’s novel The Ratman’s Notebook) was a similar saga of a lonely young man against an antagonistic set of circumstances. But while Davidson’s troubled soul seemed the direct result of the social stigmas and battles he faced, Glover as Willard is a revelation of repression, a man whose mind has turned inside out from isolation and loss.


Glover makes the movie a constant source of cinematic joy, lending his expressive face and awkward angular frame and grin to grimace line-readings that explode across the screen in delirious, gothic goofiness. The fact that this film is also about a rogue rat with a sinister mind of his own and a few mouse-enhanced murders is merely ancillary icing on Glover’s acting cake. If you want a movie that will scare the droppings out of you, stick with the ‘70s version. If you want to see what makes a mental case tick like a tripwire, check out Glover’s groove.


Both movies are reflections of when they were made. The original Willard tapped into a generation gap protest ideal of revolution against the all powerful establishment patriarchy. Borgnine, the boorish businessman out to destroy Willard and his family one member at a time, is given his comeuppance as a metaphor for questioning and toppling corrupt authority. This new version taps into current philosophies, specifically the advent of the modern male, a socially mandated sensitive sod. Willard here is an emasculated weenie afraid of his own shadow and inner lack of outstanding virility. Challenged for living at home and still being single but also asked to perform the duties of “man about the house” (financially and emotionally), he is torn between the image society craves and the role liberation has chosen for him. Both movies are more character studies than horror films, with a strong premise of disaffection and retribution running through them.


But while Davidson’s Willard seemed determined to rid his immediate life of the obstacles and awfulness surrounding it, Glover is out to destroy the entire world, one asshole at a time. Davidson’s ratboy is reactionary, anger channeled through his pet horde of pests. Glover, on the other hand, is so passive aggressive that the moments when he explodes are shockingly volcanic, you feel the years of pain and anguish rushing out in burst of hot air and Munch’s “Scream” shrillness. Davidson may have essayed a perfect horror hybrid, a killer as misguided manchild, but Glover now owns the role of Willard. His ability to expose and exploit ennui as a means of menace and mercy is uncanny. Besides, we understand Glover’s love of his rats. There is a kinship between them, a give and take (which is manhandled and ultimately bungled by the original) that centers and streamlines the 2003 version. These mice aren’t just his unholy army; they are his true friends.


If one is looking for still deeper meaning to Willard, then it can be argued that our title hero is the ultimate victim, a desperate human null set put upon by every aspect of society. On the outside, Willard is a model of attention and dedication; he keeps his dead father’s memory preserved and present; he cares for his moldering corpse of a mother, a person so old and diseased that she seems made up mostly of tumors and infection; he’s committed to his home and its upkeep, even if its decaying façade has become more than he really can handle. He tries his best to be a model employee, a vital part in the dying machine his late father created for him. But buried beneath his bland façade is a seething core of rage so dark and black that demons avoid his glare. It’s a fury fueled with untold failures and faults. But it is also a passion born out of pain, a serial killer cravenness locked in without an outlet.


In the end, Willard is all about the raving insane ingenuity of its star. Glover is a savant of strangeness, an absolutely out of control living piece of performance art channeled inside a modernized meshing of Ichabod Crane and Charles Manson. The magical sprites that speak strange mysteries into his mid-brain are given vocal victory with every stammer and stutter in his innocent idiot performance inventory. He turns Willard into a part silent movie, part over-the-top pantomime ballet of body movements and position. If for no other reason, he is the reason to watch this movie. Glen Morgan, who along with partner/producer Wong worked on The X-Files and created Millennium and the Final Destination series, decide to amp up the arch qualities, turning Willard’s domain in to a doomed dimension of exaggeration and empathy. Thanks to their efforts, and the brilliant work of Glover, Willard becomes a rare example of cult classic as actual work of artistic integrity.


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Thursday, Dec 14, 2006


Can you feel it? For those of you waiting to exhale after this exhaustive holiday season, the time for such a substantial sigh is just around the corner. Just a few more days and you can sit back and relax, letting the weeks of workaholic stress and materialistic fretting fall away like flakes of fresh, new fallen snow. At that very moment, when the commercialized competition to celebrate the season disappears, and the terror of facing a new year fiscally strapped has yet to arrive, you can entertain yourself with one of the motion picture offerings on your favorite pay cable channel – that is, if there is anything worth watching. Sadly, there is only one qualified title this week, and it’s a hard thinking drama with a staunch ideological agenda and scenes of George Clooney being tortured. Sounds like the perfect slice of Saturnalia heaven, right? Otherwise, the other movie channels are dragging out the dregs before 2007 arrives, and a whole new batch of bunkum can be foisted on a weary, worn out public. Maybe you’d be better off keeping that breath in for a little while longer. You’ll want all the energy you can muster to manage your way through the films being presented for the weekend of 16 December:


HBORebound

Apparently, Martin Lawrence has caught a bad case of Eddie Murphy-itis. He’s done the buddy pics, the stand up comedy concert films loaded with offensive content and ever-present expletives. He’s had the public meltdowns (similar to Eddie’s freakish fascination with Elvis), his poorly accepted attempts at action heroism, and his clueless comedic comebacks (Big Momma’s House 2???). Now, he’s going the family film route, following Dr. Daddy Doolittle Day Care all the way to the PG-13 or lower savings and loan. Here, we are supposed to believe that Lawrence is a famed basketball coach, demoted to helming a junior high school team after a public temper tantrum. Naturally, there are all kinds of lame life lessons and juvenile jokes about self-esteem and bodily functions to be found in this underwhelming effort. Lawrence better be smart with his next few projects or he will end up an afterthought in Hollywood’s bankability book – if he hasn’t already. (Premieres Saturday 2 December, 10pm EST).


PopMatters Review


CinemaxSyriana*

Talk about your major man crushes – George Clooney has done the near impossible in the world of entertainment. He has gone from low budget lameness (Return to Horror High, Return of the Killer Tomatoes) and silly sitcom stardom (Roseanne, The Facts of Life) to become the preeminent example of new Hollywood glamour – and he’s done so on his own unique terms. Mixing mainstream hits like Oceans Eleven with more artistic endeavors like this well-received political drama, Clooney has managed to build on his formidable fanbase, attracting both women and men to his occasionally arcane efforts. Even better, he’s fomulating a behind the camera oeuvre that’s even more impressive, including Good Night and Good Luck and the undervalued Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Thanks to his turn here, he finally found the industry respect he craved, taking home an Oscar for playing the part of a CIA fall guy. It’s a searing, sensational performance, on par with his typical exemplary work. (Premieres Saturday 2 December, 10pm EST).


PopMatters Review


StarzFreedomland

This is a tough one. Frankly, how can you knock a movie starring Samuel L. Jackson and Julianne Moore, based on a terrific urban thriller by none other than Richard Clockers Price. Easy, put producer turned no-talent director Joe Roth behind the camera and watch the mediocrity fly! With a resume that screams substandard (Christmas with the Kranks, Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise) and a Price penned script that saw some substantial pre-production doctoring, it’s obvious that the cinematic stars were not aligned on this one. While the actors apparently managed to make their case and leave more or less unscathed, Roth is finally being regarded as the filmmaking faker he’s been all along. While his production credits continue unabated (and awful – he oversaw the Wayans’ worthless Little Man), there’s nary a sign of another stint behind the lens for this cinematic washout. Hurrah! (Premieres Saturday 9 December, 9pm EST).


PopMatters Review


Showtime BeyondThe Machinist*

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Christian Bale, besides the fact that he was once a cherubic child actor glorifying Stephen Spielberg’s criminally ignored World War II fable Empire of the Sun, is the significant career choices he’s made since maturing. Not only is he the new – and some say, picture perfect – Dark Knight, but he’s parlayed cult and commercial success into a string of significant offbeat pictures. While 2006 was a banner year for the 32 year old (he starred in The Prestige, Harsh Times and Rescue Dawn) this 2004 surrealist mystery saw Bale take a giant step into major Method acting territory. He dropped an alarming 60 pounds - from 180 to a staggering 120 – to play the role of a troubled factory worker dying of insomnia. Once the madness sets in, things go from dire to disturbed in this enigmatic psychological thriller. It may be hard to follow at times, but for Bale’s performance alone, this unique film demands any cinephile’s attention. (Saturday 9 December, 9:00pm EST)


PopMatters Review


 


ZOMBIES!

For those of you who still don’t know it, Turner Classic Movies has started a new Friday night/Saturday morning feature entitled “The TCM Underground”, a collection of cult and bad b-movies hosted by none other than rad rocker turned atrocity auteur Rob Zombie. From time to time, when SE&L feels Mr. Devil’s Rejects is offering up something nice and sleazy, we will make sure to put you on notice. For 15/16 December, the late, great Man of a Thousand Faces, Lon Chaney, is featured in:


The Unholy 3
This remarkable silent effort from Dracula‘s Tod Browning features the first real genre star of cinema, Lon Chaney, as a ventriloquist who teams up with a dwarf and a strong man to start a crime spree. (3:15am EST)


 


The 12 Films of Christmas

Like that lame little ditty we all find ourselves humming around this time of year, SE&L will select three films each week from now until the end of the holiday as our Secret Santa treat for film fans. Granted, the pickings are incredibly slim (how many GOOD X-mas movies are there, really?) and you may find a lump of coal in your cinematic stocking once in a while, but at least it beats endless repeats of Rudolph’s Shiny New Year, right? The three festive treats on tap for the week of 16 December are:


It’s a Wonderful Life
(NBC, 16 December, 8:00PM EST)
Frank Capra’s subversive holiday allegory (labeled as such by the FBI) is now a Yuletide tradition – decades after it’s initial box office failure.


National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
(USA Network, 17 December, 9:00PM EST)
A perfect example of one too many trips to the tired comedy well, this seasonal satire secured Chevy Chase’s descent into certified has-been status. 


How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)
(ABC Family Channel, 17 December 8:00PM EST)
Ron Howard rapes the legacy of Dr. Seuss by placing Jim Carrey in a live action remake of the classic Chuck Jone’s cartoon from 1966.


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Wednesday, Dec 13, 2006


Van Smith never won an Oscar. He was never idolized or celebrated by a vehement genre audience like Dick Smith or Tom Savini. If his chief collaborator, cinematic genius John Waters, was the ‘Pope of Puke’, Smith was his primary prophet, a pure fashion forecaster who violated the mandates of style while creating his own kitsch couture along the way. Noted for finding the ugly underneath the beautiful, and more importantly, the glamour inside the gross, the mad make-up artist/costumer designer is more famous for taking the simple drag queen elements of one Harris Glen Milstead – a.k.a. Divine – and twisting them into pop culture iconography. Through a combination of scars, blackheads, pimples and other occlusions, Smith stood fearless in the face of misunderstanding mockery. Years later, when his approach was stolen outright for the catwalks of Paris and Milan, he and his friends in Waters’ Dreamland Studios had that long awaited, hard last laugh.


When you think about it, Smith did indeed start the whole vogue/vile concept behind well done exaggerated drag. Prior to his poisoning of the standards of beauty, males masquerading as women usually strove for the slight hyperrealism of the typical suburban spouse. Waters has even been quoted as saying that before Divine came along, most gay men “wanted to look like Bess Myerson”. Smith and his symbol changed all that. Using the limited budgets that a Dreamland production would provide, a Baltimore loaded with thrift and welfare shops, a penchant for bargain basement cosmetics, untold amounts of sequins, and an aesthetic that shouted “More! More! More!” this Matisse of Maybelline redefined the notion of what was trash and what was tasteful. Basically blurring the lines between the two, and throwing in some of his own Smith secrets, he created a signature sensibility that few, if any, have been able to mimic or match to this day.


Born Walter Avant Smith Jr. in Mirianna, Florida on 17 August, 1945, the renamed Van first ran into Waters after he graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 1968. Living in an apartment complex inhabited by many of the future director’s antisocial company, he started hanging around the sets of Water’s early works. It wasn’t long before Smith was tapped to create Divine’s character of Babs Johnson for the seminal Midnight movie masterpiece Pink Flamingos. Designing a deranged fishtail gown, and shaving the actor’s hairline back toward the middle of his head (to make room for more make-up, Smith explained), he gave birth to a laugh out loud legendary look that has carried over for more than 35 years. It was a difficult accomplishment when you consider that Waters had little money, Divine was over 300 pounds and hard to fit, and Smith had to hand create everything, from dresses to hairpieces, fake breasts and the necessary female cheater (read: false vagina) for any nude scenes.


Yet he never let the lack of cash destroy his imagination. For his next pairing with Waters, the amazingly anarchic Female Trouble, Smith got to take Divine from teenager to tramp, lumpy housewife to scandalous supermodel. The transformations were terrific (including the use of some latex to mottle the star’s face with fake acid burns) and Smith even created outrageous outfits for co-stars Edith Massey (in particular, a laced leather item that still seems pornographic today) and Mink Stole (whose tumbled down school girl Taffy predates anything ever considered by Courtney Love or the rock band Babes in Toyland). The highpoint had to be the main character, Dawn Davenport’s, death row ensemble. Sure, her crazed cat suit with an off the shoulder strapless look and a single gloved arm leading to a connected set of razor sharp nails is amazing, but when limited to a potato sack like prison outfit, and a head completely bereft of hair, Divine’s dour, dumpy persona perfectly encapsulated the Waters/Smith ideal. The director has always stated that his make-up maven had a sense of “inner rot” and nothing shows this better than an obese drag queen being prepared for a little capital punishment.


Smith’s crowning achievement, however, is still Desperate Living. With Divine unavailable for filming (he/she was in San Francisco starring in her successful stage show) and former striptease sensation Liz Renay on tap to play a loco lipstick lesbian, Smith outdid himself. Sticking to the main theme of the movie, he took cast members like Mink Stole, Jean Hill, and Susan Lowe and magically transformed them into the hopeless citizenry of Mortville, a seedy sanctuary where criminals, vagabonds and other social misfits could come and live out there wrong footed wretched existence. The only problem was, they had to conform to the contemptible demands of the demented Queen Carlotta. While almost any talented designer can conceive of a shower curtain dress or a fluorescent green tutu for a 500 pound black woman, Smith made it all seem like part of the plot. In fact, the main element that people often forget about this amazing artist is that he never once tried to overshadow Waters’ worlds. Instead, he hoped to complement their corruptness by flawlessly visualizing their inner deceit. And he usually did.


When Waters went ‘legit’, first with Polyester, and later with Hairspray and Cry Baby, Smith was right along side, toning down his approach but never once abandoning his ethic. His work in the two trips back into Baltimore nostalgia – Hairspray centering on a ‘60s teen TV dance show, Cry Baby a cheesy chunk of ‘50s juvenile delinquency – proved that Smith could handle historically accurate and shockingly ridiculous at the same time. Continuing on with costumes only for the rest of Waters oeuvre (up to and including the man’s most recent effort, 2004’s A Dirty Shame) Smith was one of the last original Dreamlanders, a group that saw death (Divine, David Lochery) and the passage of time take away many of the merry band. When his aging mother grew ill, Smith moved back to Mirianna to take care of her. It is there where, on 5 December 2006, he had a fatal heart attack. Among fans of film, the loss was immediate and irreplaceable. Not only was Van Smith that rare individualist in a realm loaded with no name journeymen, but his vision lives on in that stronger than ever subculture of gay life.


It is clear that, from a purely symbolic standpoint, the mythos of Divine would be substantially mitigated if Van Smith had not been on hand to create her crackpot composite. It’s a look that’s so unsettlingly unique that only that rare combination of performer and packager can pull it off successfully. Smith once stated that his generic approach to Divine’s basic look was a meshing of Jayne Mansfield and Clarabelle the Clown. No doubt, the actor frequently looked sexy and sick, sinister and silly, a harlequin, a horror and a honey all rolled into one great big ball of brazenness. Many critics have pointed out that Waters seemed to lose his edge once Divine passed away in 1988. It will be interesting to see where the filmmaker goes now that his guru of gruesomeness, his trident of tastelessness, his imaginer of ick is gone as well. Waters did manage to make movies without his longtime friend and celebrated star. This, however, may be an aesthetic blow to great to completely compensate for.


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Tuesday, Dec 12, 2006


Everybody lies. It’s a well-established part of life. Existence in the real world is just not possible without an occasional fib or an expertly timed falsehood. In most instances they are trivial little scams, excuses to get out of an obligation or to avoid a social/personal faux pas. Rarely do they escalate into animate alter egos, entities living and breathing unto themselves. Mostly, the tall tale is told, achieves its goal, and is quickly forgotten. But lies can be like weeds, creeping across an individual’s integrity like kudzu along a wooded Georgia backwoods. As our world has grown more cynical and demanding, the tendency to pass out the truth like candy to a hyperactive child becomes the standard, and pretense takes the place of real, honest interaction. Eventually, people who leave too many of these little white wounds open to fester and rot are branded liars and cheats, members of a truly delinquent order, and yet there but for the grace of truth go almost all of us. Honestly, how would you react if friends and family, co-workers and clients, discovered some of the sordid sagas you’ve glossed over in favor of a grifter’s smile and a conversational con job? You’d be mortified. Or maybe, you’d be proud of your dishonesty.


Raymond Fernandez was one such happy heal. During the ‘40s and ‘50s, he answered requests from lonely hearts club members (read: early versions of classified personal ads), promising them love, devotion, and romance. But in the end, he bilked them out of their nest eggs and self-esteem. That is, until the unhappy Martha came along. She made him pay for his duplicity. She pushed him over the edge, from simple gigolo to vile murderer. Passions and possessiveness may have held them together, but death sealed their fates forever. They were lovers. They were liars. And they became The Honeymoon Killers, the subject of a sensational movie by writer/director Leonard Kastle.


In the story, Martha is a sad, overweight head nurse at a local hospital. She channels her misery through a veil of contempt for all around her. That includes her mentally unbalanced mother and her nosy next-door neighbor/best friend Bunny. Hoping it will help her hefty heartsick pal, Bunny thinks it would be a “hoot” to have Martha join a lonely hearts club and receive letters from other forlorn folks. She signs her up, and after some initial resistance, the stern caregiver dives in full force. One day, a letter from a man named Raymond catches her eye. He is sincere and gentile. He expresses his emotions with eloquence and grace. After a series of correspondence, the two exchange photos and eventually Raymond travels to meet Martha. He is a suave Latin lover type. He instantly woos his plump paramour. But he then leaves abruptly, asking for a small loan to get him back home. Time passes and Bunny makes a frantic phone call to the initially nonplused Ray. Martha is threatening to kill herself and demands to see her lover again or take her own life. Relenting, a trip to New York finds Martha and Ray reunited.


And it’s here where Martha learns Ray’s not-so secret. He is a love ‘em and leave ‘em flimflam man who promises widows and spinsters marriage and devotion on the premise of a substantial upfront cash payment. His dozens of conquests—almost all gleaned from the lonely hearts club ads in the back of seedy pulp magazines—keep him constantly hustling for his next dollar. At first, Martha finds the whole idea disgusting. She wants Ray all for herself. But when Ray needs a means of distracting a potential mark, he introduces Martha as his “sister,” and soon the couple is traveling the country fleecing sad single women out of their life savings. But Ray’s eye tends to wander, and Martha feels betrayed every time he pays more attention to the victims than her. Things turn deadly as Martha and Ray find it more and more difficult to keep up the sham and collect the cash. Finally, in a house in upstate New York, Martha learns the true depths of Ray’s cheating and the tragic results forever brand the couple as horrible criminals, capable of the most heinous crimes against humanity, all in the name of money, love, and lies.


In the unfortunately titled The Honeymoon Killers, the psychological fallout of longing and lack of love manifests itself in acts of human depravity so shocking in their luridness, and yet so understandable in their motivation, that the film, a uniquely disturbing thriller, actually upsets us. It’s a tale of lies and deception, of how desperate individuals in need of something, be it tenderness or legal tender, will do just about anything to get one or both. And add to that the idea of interpersonal double crosses, of never knowing who is playing whom for a sucker or visa versa, and you’ve got a dark, moody motion picture that starts off brash and then slow burns its way through an ever more disquieting series of ever more disturbing events. Seen within the media frenzy glare of our new century, with its 24 hour a day “info-tainment” coverage of the most mundane of murder cases, the calm, deliberate tone of The Honeymoon Killers could be mistaken for bland, or God forbid, boring. But like a well constructed mystery where the final reveal will provide the killer’s identity and motive, this brilliantly minimal muse on the meaning and method of murder rewards those who look behind the direct exterior to dig into the deviant dirt underneath. The Honeymoon Killers is a film that relishes layered complexity, and in its characters, its direction, and its final formation, it has more to say than some pipe smoking super sleuth.


The Honeymoon Killers has the unique distinction of being one of the few cinematic examples of reverse film noir, a thriller that savors the light, not the shadows and fog of darkness. As a matter of fact, perhaps a better description for this film’s mysterious mise-en-scène would be cinema blanc. The sun and the incandescent rays it showers upon the serial killing couple illuminate all aspects of their sleazy personality, offering those about to be taken and/or killed the chance to see their evil mindset in all its warped perversion. Ray is not really shrouded in ambiguity or veiled from full view. He is upfront and obvious: a true man waiting to be kept. On the outside he appears noble and good intentioned, and in writing he is all poetry and promises. But there is a profound phoniness to this Latin lover that’s as noticeable as the dime store toupee he sports. The lothario game is just a job for Ray, one that keeps him constantly on the move and burrowing through bank accounts of unhappy unmarrieds. His promises are as empty as his heart. And yet he seems to fall for Martha, a woman whose passion is as massive as her waistline. Or maybe he just needs her. After years of wining and dining and deserting, maybe Martha with her possessive compulsiveness is the grounding foundation he needs. Or a necessary new accomplice, a new angle on his age old swindle.


For Martha, it seems a lonely life of solitude and desperation has turned her devious, warping her once devoted life of easing pain into a single minded fixation to wrap Ray around her fat fingers like biscuit dough over Vienna sausages. Her faked suicide succeeds in getting the seemingly un-catchable con man to stop and actually take a moment to care about someone for once. We hear a true voice of concern—or a well-rehearsed slick pitch—whenever Ray expresses his affection to the fat, friendless female. And apparently, genuine or not, it’s all she needs to continue believing in herself and their relationship. But as the climate of crime and the possibility of betrayal—either legal or romantic—starts to consume Martha, she resorts to slaughter as a kind of misplaced matrimonial sacrament, a way of linking Ray to her forever. The film’s centerpiece hammer murder, with its ritualistic moves and man/woman—husband/wife—bludgeoner/strangler exchange of blows, becomes a kind of weird wedding ceremony, a final reciting of the inescapable vows of complicity. There is even a sick, twisted consummation of these nauseating nuptials. As the still twitching body of the victim lies on the living room floor, Ray strips completely and walks into the bedroom. Martha asks if everything is okay. Ray says yes. He wants to make love. And thus the final bond is achieved, an irrevocable connection that can never be broken. Except by the electric chair.


It’s easy to say that Martha is the truly evil being here. Ray provides moments of pleasure and is paid for it, sometimes very well, but the atrocities Martha commits are far more primal in their intent. She commits murder as a means of obligating Ray to her, a kind of permanent taboo tattoo that no action or reaction can erase. Nothing else in our society is so automatic in its condemnation, so instantaneous in its polarization as cold-blooded killing. This authority to play God, to determine who lives and who dies frightens, and strangely tantalizes us. The concept of an ever-shifting balance of power is key to The Honeymoon Killers. It establishes an outer relationship between the lovers to complement and compete with their deep interpersonal one and it helps heighten the uneasy mood of the film. We understand implicitly that at any given point, either of these two strong egos can take over and dictate the demands of the relationship. It is more than just a battle of wills or clash of manias. It’s a war for personal acknowledgment. Ray and Martha are probably one of the few couples in screen history whose connection is based almost solely on a mutual anti-socialness. Sure, there is the glamour gun fun of Bonnie and Clyde, or the murder/suicide self abuse of Sid and Nancy, but in Martha and Ray we see such total contempt for the world and all its phony trappings that their desire to control it, to have power over its population, is not surprising. The fact that they would try and tame each other is.


Since it’s so subtle, so gradual in its genesis, a movie like The Honeymoon Killers needs a strong cast to sell its measured descent into the deranged. Tony LoBianco, a famous face for many years on screen and television, makes a convincing, sexy lover boy. With an accent so thick it’s almost racist and a manner that’s half passionate, half prestidigitation, he is a wizard of wanting and a sorcerer of the single lady. He initially doesn’t have violence inside himself so much as ill will for the rubes he fleeces. He hates their desperation. He condemns their hypocrisy. They may have started out wanting a companion, but in the end, they are willing to mortgage their financial security and everything they worked for just to be with him, a man they hardly know. Martha is the only one who sees through him, who understands the mothering and smothering the Hispanic he-man needs to stay in control. As embodied by the stocky yet sensual Shirley Stoler, a wholly under-appreciated and forgotten actress, Martha become parent and lover, confessor and condemner to Ray. Manipulative in her plump, pouty poses and constantly cocking an eyebrow to second guess the criminal cyclone encasing her, Stoler turns Martha into a role of reactions, of silently listening and plotting based on what she hears and sees. Sure, she has her loud and rash moments, but when she’s lying in bed with Ray or watching a mark make a fool of herself, you can sense that she’s several steps ahead of the game. Sadly, all she really wants is companionship. The fact that she’s willing to sacrifice her life completely for it means Martha is both pathetic and unpredictable. This kind of time bomb temperament adds another level of foreboding to The Honeymoon Killers already ominous tone.


It’s just too bad that Stoler didn’t have a bigger career in front of the camera. Aside from an occasional bizarre turn, like playing Mrs. Steve, a certain Mr. Herman’s nosy neighbor on Pee Wee’s Playhouse, Shirley died without ever having achieved the kind of stardom actresses of similar stature (like Kathy Bates) get regularly. She is great in The Honeymoon Killers, giving the kind of perfect performance that today would be sought after, no matter her size.


But a much greater mystery is why writer/director Leonard Kastle has failed to work behind the lens again. As great as LoBianco and Stoler are, it’s the atmospheric ambiance and mannered storytelling structure that Kastle imposes on The Honeymoon Killers that makes the movie such a successful, psychotic thriller. Kastle, a composer by profession, understands understatement better than most directors in this genre. He has complete faith in his actors and their characters, knowing that they can be far creepier and disturbing than obtuse camera angles and heavily artistic directing flourishes. Many times, Kastle creates a simple compositional two shot and lets the players simply perform. When it comes to the brutality of the couple, Kastle also uses the “less is more” approach. Crimes are committed off screen, or out of frame, relying again on the power of performance to sell the imagined terror. And it works. When he holds the camera up close, framing only the eyes of an about-to-be victim, he understands instinctively the disturbing qualities of not knowing what is going on out of shot. For a first time feature maker, Kastle shows an incredible skill and stylized visual flair. Why he never made another film is just plain difficult to comprehend.


As a true crime testament, The Honeymoon Killers more than holds its own with far more famous brethren like In Cold Blood and Badlands. Over the years, the seedy tale of Martha and Ray’s murderous crime spree has mistakenly been mis-categorized as an exploitation film, probably because of the tawdry title (it was originally written as “Dear Martha…”) and an ad campaign that featured Stoler and LoBianco in their underwear sharing a sensual embrace on top of a steamer trunk, which just so happens to have an arm sticking out of it. True, in its independent, single-minded desire to showcase a famous couple of homicidal maniacs, The Honeymoon Killers does share its heritage with several other examples of motion picture extremism, but this is also a film that moves carefully and quietly through its torrid, tangled web of lies and deceit, something that most genre exercises shied away from. By presenting death as the ultimate and final act of love’s desperation and by utilizing a gradual buildup of dread and suspense, The Honeymoon Killers becomes the very definition of a psychological thriller, one that couches its thrills in the truly disturbed actions of the human mind. It offers us a chance to look inside the warped world of its demented lovers and tries to illustrate the destructive power of their mutual and individual lies. If the truth shall set you free, The Honeymoon Killers shows, very clearly, that lies will condemn and enslave you.


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