Monday, October 28, 2013
The Honeymoon Killers an arty wannabe that played the grindhouses
By Doug Gibson
“The Honeymoon Killers,” director Leonard Kastle’s 1970 black-and-white look at the exploits of real-life “lonely hearts” killers Ray Fernandez and Martha Beck, is a sleazy film, but it’s arty too. For a brief while, it captured the fancy of critics and earned back its cheap $200,000 budget. The film’s acclaim, however, did not extend to suburbia, and “The Honeymoon Killers” eventually found a home in the grindhouse cinemas of 42nd Street in NYC.
This is a really good film, a must for film fans who want to see how effectively a film’s mission can be accomplished so cheaply. The plot: Lonely nurse, Martha Beck (Shirley Stoler) works at a southern hospital and takes care of her whiny, ill mother. Through a lonely hearts club, she hooks up with Ray Fernandez, (Tony LoBianco) an attractive lothario. Critic Danny Peary, in the book “Cult Movies,” nails the sleazy charm of Ray as “slimy Charles Boyer” and describes his teasing talk as “Spanish penny-ante confidence man.” Both leads are fantastic in this film. Stoler should have received an Oscar nomination for her stoic determination to have love at the expense of destroyed lives. Despite that callousness, her character can elicit our sympathy. After Ray gets to close to a woman he’s scamming, Martha attempts suicide. Ray saves her and swears his love and fidelity to her.
To get back to the plot, Beck abandons her job and her mother to follow Ray, even accepting his confession that he’s a confidence man that swoops in on loveless women, takes their money, and leaves. Beck agrees to go with him and play his “sister” in these confidence charades. There is an interesting scene where the idea that Ray can live with Martha — who will stay at the hospital — is broached. Ray, in an ironic definition of machismo, declares that he will not live off a woman. Of course, that’s exactly what he does for a living.
The inclusion of Martha in Ray’s confidence schemes is the trigger that leads to murders. She is incapable of sticking to that role. Watching the women make intimate gestures to Ray, as well as Ray’s own weakness with the more attractive women, drives Martha to be the instigator of murder. Ray, a far weaker individual than Martha, becomes an accomplice in the killings. Perhaps the most terrifying — and one I imagine that pleased grindhouse audiences — is the killing of elderly Janet Fay (Mary Jane Higbee). Ray is supposed to marry her and then do the usual fade. The grouchy Janet, offended by Martha’s bulk and hostility, gets suspicious and wants to contact her children. Her murder is drawn out, as Martha placidly tells Ray she has to die in front of a terrified, pleading, Janet. Ray finally joins Martha in the murder. Martha hits her with a hammer and Ray strangles her. The cramped room, the three persons, with Martha being so big, and the black and white simplicity, really provides a punch to the audience.
I won’t give away any more of this excellent film. As Peary has noted in “Cult Movies,” “A sense of claustrophobia is meant to dominate the film.” Sets are small, the women usually complaining and everywhere is the very large, hostile, unattractive Martha, doing her best to stifle any intimacy between Ray and the women he is fleecing.
Director and script writer Kastle — who never made another film — created a crude but effective, clinical, documentary-feel film of a couple who fed off each others’ warped definition of love. That they can elicit the audience’s sympathy even while being so amoral is helped by the fact that the majority of their victims, even Martha’s mother, are generally poor specimens of humanity. In the film, Ray always signed his letters to his confederate, “Dear Martha.” Near the end of the film, Martha, in prison, awaiting execution, receives a letter from Ray, also in prison, awaiting execution. It’s a fitting finale that after all the carnage, the pair’s warped love is still strong. The films IMDB web page is at http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0064437/.