“You promised!” cries a distraught Martha Beck (Shirley Stoler), while standing in a lake. She’s enraged at her boyfriend Ray (Tony Lo Bianco), whom she’s spotted in a tender moment with another woman on shore. His broken promise (fidelity to Martha) and her distress are not a little ironic, given the work they have undertaken—bilking single women he seeks out through Lonely Hearts clubs.
Indeed, most of The Honeymoon Killers is darkly ironic. Based on the true story of Ray Fernandez and Martha Beck, who met through a newspaper advertisement, it follows their yearlong career of defrauding and murdering single women. Their crimes landed them on tabloid covers across America and in electric chairs at Sing Sing in 1951. The details were sordid, in part because they seemed such an unlikely couple. Martha was a nurse, thus a figure of public trust, living alone with her mother and unhappily overweight; Ray was a preening Latin gigolo, without any aboveboard occupation.
Perhaps most shockingly, they were, by all appearances, actually in love. And, judging by the press they generated, tabloid readers were a little bit in love with them. Newspapers not only reported their offenses, but also the particulars of their troubled relationship, which continued into prison and onto death row.
Writer-director Leonard Kastle’s first and only film, The Honeymoon Killers doesn’t tell the whole story, though a handsomely made video essay included on Criterion’s DVD provides more background information. In the film, we meet Martha just before she writes her own first letter to Ray and leave them in prison, as he reads yet another passionate missive. Between these scenes lies a remarkable independent feature, reflecting the social turmoil of 1969—the struggles between established cultures of church and home and the so-called “youth” culture, in which “anything goes.”
With the demise of the Hays Office (which policed content in films prior to the MPA’s institution of a more lenient ratings system), social turmoil found a new home in independent features of the type called “exploitation.” Breaking screen taboos with gusto, films like She-Devils on Wheels (1968) promised racy content, with only nominal “messages” about the dangers of counter-culture excess.
The Honeymoon Killers is, foremost, an exploitation piece, and its interest in Martha and Ray is prurient. It opens with a cautionary message: “The unbelievable events depicted are based on news accounts and court records. This is a true story.” As if to underline this “truth,” the film features several discomforting, if riveting, scenes: a petulant Martha wolfs down chocolates; on their first date, Ray tangos seductively, solo (“Would you think I was terrible if I gave Mama a sleeping pill?” Martha asks coyly); and repeatedly, their victims’ eyes roll back as their tongues loll out of their mouths. As the title insinuates, The Honeymoon Killers is about the collision of sex and violence.
Not so very long before, two years to be exact, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde had opened the door. In an interview included on the disc, Kastle claims he disliked that film for its “fake” qualities. In The Honeymoon Killers, by contrast, the assaults look brutal, the entire film shot in stark black and white and accompanied by a strikingly canned soundtrack. Ray and Martha are overtly monstrous; they scheme and laugh, they show no remorse, Martha even kills a child.
For all its darkness, however, the film is also oddly campy. (The resemblance between Stoler and Pink Flamingos’ Divine, in physical appearance and mannerisms, is impossible to overlook.) Made on an extremely low budget, The Honeymoon Killers’ bad sound and bleak lighting draw you immediately into a B-movie cosmos.
Still, as Kastle says in the interview, “The acting’s the important thing.” Here, the film teeters between horror and self-parody. Martha is shrill and plagued by jealousy, given to outbursts that threaten the couple’s best-laid plans. It’s a brave performance: Stoler reveals Martha’s frightening infantilism, yet also manages to show her peculiar practicality and vulnerability. As Ray, Lo Bianco is pitch-perfect, seductive in his open-necked dress shirts, yet repellent; when he argues with Martha, his voice rises to a whine, as if he might actually start pleading with her. The actors show us that small betrayals and role-playing are integral to the couple’s passion, their means of communication and connection.
Stoler and Lo Bianco (and, in a wonderful supporting performance as the pair’s final victim, veteran actress Mary Jane Higby) triumph over the occasional distraction of the low production values. Not all of the performers fare so well; in particular, the victims, for instance, tend to overact so they seem amateurish. Within the film’s framework, their deaths almost appear punishment for being so annoying. Is it funny? Of course it is. But it’s ghastly, too. The uneasy mix of the funny and the grotesque pulls you both ways.
In this, The Honeymoon Killers is a function of its moment: around this time, many American films reflected the counter-culture, not the real counter-culture, but a Hollywood interpretation of it. With the success of Easy Rider (1969), Petulia (1968), and Midnight Cowboy (1969), moral ambiguity was something of a norm. The Honeymoon Killers manifests this ambiguity as hostility towards the murderers’ victims. We identify with Ray and Martha; they amuse us. But the women they fleece or kill are unattractively conservative and fussy; one treasures her Jesus paintings above everything but her money, another teaches her daughter about Abraham Lincoln, a little too wholesomely.
When Martha and Ray attack them, the simultaneous ugliness and bizarre comedy imply revenge against the establishment, exacted by two outsiders. Still, The Honeymoon Killers breathes with unexpected “life,” in its resistance to Kastle’s pedestrian, pseudo-documentary vision. This energy made it a hit in 1969 and makes it a blast today. It’s a conflicted film, a serious look at a series of horrible crimes, but strangely campy too. Kastle notes that he made an “excellent film” in The Honeymoon Killers. He’s right.