Sunday, July 25, 2021
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/.
Saturday, July 17, 2021
I am holding in my hands a gem of a gem of a book entitled "The Passion of the Mummy," by Frank Dello Stritto, published this year from Cult Movies Press. Frank has written cult/classic horror genre books. This is his third work that examines an iconic figure from vintage film and creates a decades-long history of the personality. He previously did it with Lawrence Talbot, the Wolf Man, and Carl Denham, the man who brought King Kong to New York City.
To write these books (I am honored to have helped proof them) is an amazing work of research and talent. He must watch scores of genre-related films, command a knowledge of literature and lore in the subjects, accurately describe global and national history of the times he writes about, and craft a tale that hooks a reader early and satisfaction that grows through the reading process.
A short review: I likely will pen a longer one in the future:
The "Passion of the Mummy" (Amazon link) describes a narrator who very early in his life feels a deep connection while viewing the remains of the mummy, Kharis, in a Manhattan museum. As he grows older, well into adulthood, the connection deepens, and grasps the attentions of supernaturally inclined groups and individuals around the world; some willing to help our narrator, others seeking his destruction.
I have yet to meet a film scholar with both the ability to absorb so much legion of information from scores of films, and then take the knowledge accumulated, with the settings, events and characters, and weave a vastly entertaining, suspenseful narrative that flows as smoothly as whatever your favorite novelist writes. Genre fans must read this book (and the others). It's a crime to miss out on them.
--- Doug Gibson
HERE IS OUR PLAN9CRUNCH INTERVIEW WITH FRANK:
1) Tell me about the research that goes into creating this tale of Kharis. You explain a lot in the Postscript but I'd like to know how many movies and books, and historical lore, is researched and either included or cast aside. I guess I am asking, what kind of plot characters and ideas do you consider and then decide not to use?
I don’t know which comes first: the monsters or the theme. The theme of my first novel, A WEREWOLF REMEMBERS, is an individual’s struggle with a difficult family history. In CARL DENHAM’S GIANT MONSTERS, an elderly man knows his time is limited, but still hopes for one last adventure and for redemption. Behind the tale of Kharis is the quest for immortality. Would you choose to live forever—in this world—if you could? The characters in THE PASSION OF THE MUMMY ask that. Kharis never asked for it, and his immortality is a living hell.
Mummy movies have immortal beings and mortals seeking immortality. Those movies—the five from Universal (The Mummy, The Mummy’s Hand, The Mummy’s Tomb, The Mummy’s Ghost and The Mummy’s Curse) and the five from Hammer (The Mummy, Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb, The Mummy’s Shroud, and Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, plus She, which is not a mummy movie)—form the core of the story. I brought in other movies, like Pharaoh’s Curse, as they help the narrative.
Except for time frame—I try to stay in the classical period of horror movies—I don’t decide what can’t get into my story. Around the core movies, I tend to cram in all that I can. Readers seem to love it when characters from movies and television shows that have nothing to do with the main plot pop up.
2) I love the use of characters outside The Mummy genre. Explain why Tarneverro of The Black Camel is a great choice for the early mentor of sorts to our narrator. What about Theodora of The Haunting makes her a strong choice to enter the narrative. I love that you even used a character from The Hunger, a more contemporary, mostly forgotten film, and used material from a Twilight Zone episode. That to me spells tremendous research.
My “historical novels” seek to marry two universes: the real world in which we live and the world inside the plots of the movies and television. Imagine that what we watch on the screen is only a window to an alternate world. What we don’t see in that window is the characters’ lives before and after the plots of the movies. Outside of our view, characters from different movies meet and interact. Now, for me, that does not require a great deal of research. As a child I always thought of the world inside my TV shows and movies that way. So, I guess, that leg of the research has been going on my head for my whole life. So, did Kharis and Im-ho-tep know each other—why not? Ananka and Ankh-es-en-amon were sisters—the movies tell us that both were daughters of Pharaoh Amenophis—so they knew each other. And so on.
As I develop my plots, whenever I need characters, I don’t invent them. I pluck them from somewhere in the movies, and they bring their personalities and personal histories with them.
For THE PASSION OF THE MUMMY, I needed someone who could read minds. Well, Theodora from The Haunting fit that just right. She is a strong, modern woman who could stand up to any man and that’s what I needed
I needed a character to guide the narrator into the strange world of the supernatural. I needed a sage, someone fascinated by the modern world but not really part of it. Bela Lugosi’s screen persona fit that well, and Tarneverro—a mystic, a rather obscure Lugosi portrayal—was what I needed.
The research in the alternate world is studying the movies. There’s a lot of detail in them—place names, dates, incidental data—that is easily overlooked. I note that all and get it into my plots.
For THE PASSION OF THE MUMMY, the hard research was learning about Egypt and Egyptology. All during the two years or so that I wrote the book, I was reading books on those subjects. I think layering that knowledge into the plot gives the book a lot more depth.
3) Women are far stronger and more viciously evil characters in The Passion of the Mummy saga. Did their contrast with men who were weak, or stoic sufferers, provide interest to you?
I did not realize how little I knew about horror movies based on ancient Egypt—mummy movies and others—until I started developing the plot for my book. When I collected all the plots together, I saw that the immortal men—living mummies—are tragic and to be pitied. The immortal women are much more dangerous. Pamela Mason in The Twilight Zone episode “Queen of the Nile,” Marian Blaylock in The Hunger, Queen Tera in Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, Simira in Pharaoh’s Curse, Ayesha in She—you don’t want to tangle with them. They are not mummies. They’re living among us and in some cases feeding on us.
Add to the male mummies, the priests of the cults that tend to them. In the Universal movies, these men are dreaming of immortality. In three of the movies, they betray their vows to unsuccessfully attempt it. They all come to bad ends.
So, the priests are grasping at immortality, the mummies—all male—suffer under it, while what I call in the book “the demon women” are laughing at them through the centuries.
And then there are the princesses of the Universal movies, Ankh-es-en-amon and her sister Ananka. We can’t judge from the movies whether they are evil or not, but their spirits are trying to get back into this world. That become an element of the plot.
4) Did you ever consider making Im-ho-tep the central character? Or was the much larger material on Kharis through so many films make him a deeper, more interesting subject?
Kharis appears in four movies, and Im-ho-tep in only one. So, I certainly had a lot more to work with for Kharis. The problem with using Im-ho-tep is that at the end of his sole movie, The Mummy, he is reduced to rubble by the goddess Isis. Most of my story is set in the modern day. So unless I wanted to bring Im-ho-tep back from the hereafter, I could not use him except in flashbacks.
Kharis—when last seen at the end of The Mummy’s Curse—has fallen into a dormant state and is carted off to the Scripps Museum of Manhattan. My book begins with a grammar school class trip to the Scripps, where something odd kicks off the plot.
5) What are some the films you really enjoyed mixing into the plot of this book? I sense your affection for Abbott & Costello and I personally enjoyed the club scene.
There’s always room for Abbott & Costello in my books. So far, they have appeared in all my novels. They make it easy since they made so many movies with monsters. ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET THE MUMMY provided the setting for the finale of my book.
Theodora—Claire Bloom’s character in The Haunting (1963)—proved a particularly good fit. Her character almost wrote itself when I introduced her. Her back-and-forth with Tarneverro was fun to write. They really match each other.
I get a kick out of bringing in characters from The Twilight Zone. There are so many of them that finding ones that fit my needs is easy. Pamela Mason—the undead succubus from the “Queen of the Nile” episode—was exactly the character I needed for my story.
To fill in the narrative and give some dimension to the story, I looked for non-mummy movies set in Egypt. I was glad to get Five Graves to Cairo into the story since it is a favorite film of mine. Think of what we see on movie screens as a window into an alternate world—then Indiana Jones adventure in Egypt to find the lost Ark, and the excavations mentioned in Five Graves to Cairo are happening at the same time.
Actor Eduardo Ciannelli played the aged high priest in The Mummy’s Hand, and I wanted to bring him into the book. Not an easy task since the plot takes place in America in the modern day. But I finagled that a bit by using a Ciannelli character from another movie. Perhaps not the best fit, but I think I pulled it off. No complaints, so far.
6) Who are some of the characters through these any films you go through that you particularly admire. Were you able to show that admiration in your writing? What did you think of the Bannings, their expedition, Babe? I often thought Babe was the only courageous one in the second Kharis film.
Here’s the problem: to write a decent novel based on mummy movies, I had to learn a lot about Egyptology. Then, it becomes hard to watch most movie Egyptologists without laughing or crying. Steve Banning and Babe are fortune hunters. They use dynamite and pick axes to open the tomb. Then they blithely ship their loot off to New York without a peep from Egyptian authorities. None of that would happen in real life.
I like Steve and Babe better in the second film, when they are far away from Egypt and their blasphemies.
The only movie Egyptologists that I really admire are the ones in 1932’s The Mummy. There are the only ones that come close to what really goes on at actual digs.
I must say that I did develop an odd admiration for Alexander King, Fred Clark’s character in 1964’s Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb. Yes, he’s a showman and out for what he can get. But he does so with charm and honesty and is quite a contrast to the stuffy characters that are often seen in mummy movies.
7) Please offer any insights you want readers to know about. And what may be your next subject? Any ideas? Finally, that may be the best cover I have seen on a genre book. Three cheers to the artist.
Some readers have told me that THE PASSION OF THE MUMMY is the most romantic of my novels to date. I certainly didn’t plan it that way. Since Kharis’ curse is linked to his love for Ananka, I guess a romantic element had to bubble through the narrative. I’m glad that I didn’t think too much about it, and just let any romance simply follow from Kharis’ story.
The artist is George Chastain, who has done a lot of excellent work. He had done the dust jackets book cover and end page art for my three “historical novels” based on 1930s and 1940s horror movies. I owe him a lot. Something in George’s dust jacket cover art that I should point out. Two actors played Kharis in the Universal movies, Tom Tyler and Lon Chaney. The cover illustration of Kharis combines their features of their two faces. That was George’s concept and he pulled it off brilliantly.
I have started what may become my fourth novel. It is about zombie movies and will be titled Patron Saints of the Living Dead. This will be a challenge because there are no recurring characters in zombie movies, no multi-film sagas as used in my previous novels. Only a handful of individual films. Most horror movie fans can rattle off the zombie movies of the 1930s through the 1950s. When you bring in “voodoo movies”—that is, movies with voodoo but no zombies, the number almost doubles. And—to my surprise—it turns out that a lot of television series had zombie or voodoo-oriented episodes and I want to bring them in.
The challenge may be bringing in Abbott & Costello, who never met a zombie.
Thanks Frank. We appreciate your insights. Here is a link to Frank Dello Stritto on Plan9Crunch blog.