The Honeymoon Killers
Shirley Stoler and Tony Lo Bianco
US theatrical: 29 Sep 2015
The Honeymoon Killers is a freak of cinema that offers its lucky viewers an experience as bizarre as the real-life story that it is based on and the making-of-story that put it on the big screen.
Released in 1969, the film recreates the twisted tale of Martha Beck and Ray Fernandez, lovers posing as siblings, who placed lonely-heart advertisements in newspapers during the late ‘40s and then seduced, conned, and eventually murdered those desperate women who responded. It was produced by Warren Steibel, a first-time producer, directed and written by Leonard Kastle, a first-time wrier/director, and it stars Shirley Stoler and Tony Lo Bianco, neither of whom had ever acted in front of a camera before.
Like I said, The Honeymoon Killers is a freak film, and its existence is a movie miracle that defies both the capitalist system and common sense. But Americans have always loved their freaks, especially the unique ones that embody this country’s individualist sensibilities, so it’s no surprise that the film has, in the 46 years since its release, become the epitome of a cult classic.
This most recent edition from the Criterion Collection makes its status as a timeless work of beautiful but ugly art that much clearer. Besides its 4k restoration with a remastered monaural soundtrack that removes the clicks, thumps, hisses, hums, and crackles of the original, this edition, with its vintage lonely-heart newsprint ads on the cover, includes an interview with Kastle from 2003, along with an installment of Robert Fischer’s interview program, Love Letters, that features actors Bianco and Marilyn Chris (who plays one of the more memorable victims). There are also two essays of criticism included: a video essay by Scott Christianson and a printed essay by Gary Giddins.
Giddins writes, “It’s a movie that taunts you for having a good time”, and I can’t think of a better way to describe how I felt watching The Honeymoon Killers. Kastle puts you in a front row seat on a mad rollercoaster ride alongside the deranged characters of Martha and Ray that is at once thrilling and terrifying. Every gleeful high is followed by a sickening low, and as disturbing as the duo’s decisions and actions are, there’s a certain logic and charm to them that makes you grateful for the opportunity to take a ride with such seductive sociopaths.
Kastle’s carefully crafted screenplay, which unfolds right along with the moral and mental statuses of Martha and Ray, who you will simultaneously root for and against, is responsible for the complexity of what at first comes off as a simple story told in a simple way. By drawing on the eccentricities of Martha and Ray—such as Martha’s weight issues and Ray’s unchecked narcissism—Kastle manages to insert a humorous playfulness into this murderous tale which makes some of the more brutal scenes bearable.
Stoler’s Martha eats with orgasmic gusto throughout the entire film. Her eating seems to provide an escape from, at first, her lonely life as a nurse living with her mother, then from the jealously she, as the fiancee to a womanizing conman, must deal with and, finally, from the realization that she, by brutally killing women (and eventually a child), is living a doomed life. When you see her taking so much pleasure in something as natural as food between scenes of her performing the most unnatural of violent acts, I bet you will laugh, even if it’s a nervous laugh, because this juxtaposition highlights the hilariously unbalanced mental and emotional state of Martha—the Martha who, in real-life, was more concerned with the fact that the newspapers described her as weighing 200 instead of 185 pounds, than the possibility of her getting the electric chair (which happened in 1951).
Bianco’s Ray is just as delusional as Martha, and his delusional behavior is just as darkly funny. He thinks of himself as a Don Juan, a slick playboy who can woo any woman in the world, but in reality he and his receding hairline just barely manage to win over the lonely hearts of only the most desperate women. While his perpetual smirk and flirtatious tone suggest that he knows he’s funny—and the giggles of his victims confirms it for him—he’s really only funny because of his pathetic behavior. Whether it’s the overemphasis he places on his Spanish accent or his attempts at carrying himself with the grace of a Salsa dancer, Ray’s cringe-worthy attempts at being charismatic will make you laugh. It might be in disgust, but laugh, you will.
Make no mistake about it, however, this humorous lightness, which Kastle writes into his script and Stoler and Bianco successfully bring to their characters, doesn’t make The Honeymoon Killers a comedy. It’s anything but. Actually, it’s one of the darkest, most disturbing films I’ve ever seen. This disturbing darkness is due to, besides the unexpected moments of violence, its low-budget, its naturalistic black and white (given Kastle’s lack of experience behind the camera, I give full credit here to the cinematographer Oliver Wood), its documentary styled intimate shots, its minimalist set designs, its echoey audio recording, and its no-name actors.
In fact, most of the cast was apparently plucked from the communities in which the film was shot. For example, the town of Pittsfield, Massachusettes, which happens to be my birthplace, was the location of what I’d argue is the most important, memorable, and best shot sequence in the film: the one in which Martha spots Ray fondling one of their lonely-heart targets and screams, “You promised!” before attempting to drown herself in Onota Lake. This shot happened to be directed by a young Martin Scorsese before Steibel the producer fired him for filming too slowly and eating up the small budget, and it also happened to be filmed just a short walk from my grandparent’s house.
I, therefore, happen to know that many of the smaller roles in The Honeymoon Killers were filled by locals with no qualifications other than having a day off work. My dad, who was a teenager at the time of the filming, worked at a hardware store with the guy who plays the bus driver. It’s the bus driver who discovers the first murdered woman in the film, the one drugged by Martha and left for dead by Ray on a bus headed out-of-state.
This hardware store employee playing a bus driver gets the job done. It only shows his profile and all he says is, “Oh my God, she’s dead!” But, like all the extras in the film, you can tell he’s not an actor. He’s just a guy. It’s this realness that pulsates through every element of The Honeymoon Killers that, in the end, makes it so damn frightening, captivating, and unforgettable. It’s this realness that makes it a fabulous freak of cinema.