Monday 6 December 2021

Article: Love and Isolation - A blind watch of The Honeymoon Killers

You know what's great? Finding a Blu-ray in your collection you forgot you picked up a while back. You know what is better than that? When you purchased said Blu-Ray because you knew little about the film in the first place. I had picked up the Arrow Blu-Ray of The Honeymoon Killers on the cheap, with little knowledge about the film other than the intriguing title and cult status. My first viewing of this 1970 feature was a blind one. Such a watch feels oddly quaint in the information age era. Blind purchases and viewings are something I definitely urge younger film fans do too. You never know. You may unearth a gem.

The Honeymoon Killers is something I would not call a treasure. It’s far too seedy to feel beloved. It is however a startingly potent slice of viewing. In terms of tone, the best comparison would be Henry: A Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986). In skimming reviews, few noted the films macabre humour, which I do concede the film does have. Yet like Henry, The Honeymoon Killers is shoe leather tough material. A scuffed and bruised tale lifted from true crime which relishes making you feel bad that you enjoy its scandalous nature. Followers of true crime will feel at home here. Particularly in the universal ease at how the main conceit can be still be transferred into modern life. 

A dash of story. Inspired by a true story and set in 50’s America, Martha Beck is an obese and embittered Nurse. Her conduct is so blunt that one can only wonder what her bedside manner could be like. Martha is also desperately lonely. Living with her mother, the fraying relationships can easily be seen. It’s not the company she wishes to keep. She craves male attention. A friend signs her up (against her wishes) to a lonely-hearts correspondent’s club. Her letter is picked up by Ray; a “Latin from Manhattan” who at first sees Martha as just another notch in his long line of female marks whom he seduces, robs money from and leaves soon after, leaving them too embarrassed to make a retrieval. Martha however thinks differently a coerces Ray into being a partner. Both romantically and in crime. The couple continues on with Ray’s lonely heart scam, albeit with Martha posing as his somewhat repressed sister. There’s now a change in the plan. The amendment is now murder.

 Famed director and marvel fandom agitator Martin Scorsese was famously fired from the production of The Honeymoon Killers due to the most infamous of reasons: "creative differences". Allegedly Scorsese wished to shoot everything in master shots. This made stitching the film difficult. An amusing aside when considering the filmmakers slight at comic book movies which appear to truly adore the idea of coverage. It was also noted that Scorsese was taking too much time and eating into the tight budget. The final straw was the Goodfellas Helmer supposedly performing arty close-ups of a beer can. The firing obviously didn't hamper the acclaimed director's career prospects. However, the completed film was credited to Opera composer Leonard Kastle. The Honeymoon Killers was his only feature production. 

 Kastle took over from Scorsese's replacement Donald Volkman, who only lasted a fortnight on the production. While much more is said about Scorsese's involvement due to the director's statue, The Honeymoon Killers feels more owed to the likes of Volkman and Kastle. The gritty and unrefined look leans more towards the types of industrial films that Volkman was known for. While the film's overall unkemptness certainly has the feeling of a debut filmmaker, though this is by no way a knock on the product itself. Kastle’s lack of inbuilt habits allows the film to go rogue in terms of conventional cinematic traits. A moment from the film’s opening starts with the kind of roaming camera shot one would expect from Scorsese. However, once the camera positions itself, perhaps due to limited space, the actors stand awkwardly within the edge of the frame. Letting dead space dominate the frame. Cinematographer Oliver Wood’s lensing often matches the grim and disconcerting subject matter. The flatly lit, grainy images visually contribute to the film’s disturbing look at the banality of evil.

All over the Honeymoon Killers lies an ugliness of the narrow social lens that existed in the period. It is easy to see why this couple chooses to prey upon these women. These victims have already been displaced by society. In the Blu-ray extras filmmaker Todd Robinson notes that after the Second World War, there was a high volume of vulnerable women isolated due to the fallout of the conflict. It’s an aspect that heightens the ease of connectivity that technology brings us today. It also highlights how easily the women in this picture were quickly spurned by the dominant way of living. That their situation was held in contempt. It’s little surprise that the advent of internet dating (despite all its many flaws) has softened the view of the so-called personal ad and the people who use them Although ask the right people, and there’s still quite a way to go. 

Throughout the movie, women are viewed as spinsters or looked down upon due to wider age gaps or pregnancy out of wedlock. The conversations held between the victims in their cramped living rooms bring their desperation to light. Martha also isn’t immune to this. Her abrasive and controlling manner feel unsurprising when she loses her job early in the film. The hospital is more than happy to simply just rifle through her personal belongings just because. Scenes make a strong point of her weight and enjoyment of sweet treats. Despite trying to hide his receding hairline via toupees and hairpieces, Ray’s apparent attractiveness and ability to woo are more welcoming to an overweight woman of her demeanour who lives with her mother. When Ray first tries to con Martha, she counters by claiming she attempted suicide when he left. This type of manipulation follows throughout the film. As Martha’s jealously of the younger, more objectively prettier women is barely hidden. While the audience doesn't witness the actions, yet it's made obvious that Ray is sleeping with these women to bolster his own ego. Also, with Ray’s income stemming from conning lonely women through seduction, The Honeymoon Killers makes not that desperation is not only found in the women.   

Kastle’s use of form distorts our view of time and space as if we were in a casino of hopelessness. We’re never quite sure how much time has elapsed unless a character offhandedly mentions it. So many scenes are set in cramped living spaces. If those spaces are left, it’s only to move the action to cars or buses. New York is mentioned, yet perhaps due to budget limitations, never really visited. With the film uninterested in truly pinpointing its geography. Save for a couple of moments. Amusingly while occupying a suburban household, Ray brusquely labels suburbia itself as an identikit prison of sorts, hinting at characters morose point of view. It’s also a line that reinforces the compact feel of the film itself. One key moment is set outside in which Ray does what he can to woo a young lady but ends with a jealous Martha doing her best to drown herself in a river. The camera drops down with her. Water submerges Martha and any breathable air. From aquatic disasters such as this to the brutal methods Ray and Martha use to kill victims, the film in so many aspects feels suffocating.

The film uses its twisted sense of humour to sit unsettlingly side by side with the film's overwhelming grimness. One can't shake the feeling that John Waters absorbed this before he when on to create the deviously satirical Serial Mom (1994). Courting sympathy with its monsters while selling its victims often as irritants. Despite their bratty arguments, at the film’s heart, the conniving couple does seem to have a connection with each other. More so than the hapless victims. Although do these other women get a chance? Perhaps a better question is how likely would anyone get on with a partner who screeches ‘America, the Brave’ offkey at the top of their lungs? Maybe it’s Martha’s eye-rolling at yet another unexpecting single woman believing this is her chance of happiness, or perhaps Ray’s snake-hipped dancing while Martha’s drugged mother struggles to stay awake. The film is dusted with jewels of silliness that encourages a viewer to giggle ashamedly.

However, the film’s disarming sharp turns always ensures that the laughs are short-lived. One of the films final sequences involves the murder of the politically conservative, romantically na├»ve Delphine Downing and her small child. It is a scene that is chilling in its execution. It’s a sequence that is less explicit than moments that have come before it yet sticks out for the horrified and disgusted reactions that come from it. 

It is unfortunate that Kastle only made one film in his lifetime. The composer finds himself falling in a similar category as William Peter Blatty (The Exorcist 3, The Ninth Configuration) or Charles Laughton (The Night of the Hunter). Filmmakers with limited filmographies, but with texts which all held distinctive visions. With his work so often considered to be celebratory of sociopaths, one wonders if Scorsese would have brought forth the same unsentimental approach to the material that Kastle achieved. The Honeymoon Killers is a killer couple feature that is nestled between Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Badlands (1973). It may not have the same influence, yet by holding none of the romanticism, The Honeymoon Kills comes across as more honest. The impassive balance between the casual and the caustic, along with the deep isolation and despair felt by the characters makes The Honeymoon Killers stand out from its new Hollywood counterparts. A blind watch of a film shrouded in darkness. This cult classic was certainly worth partaking in. 

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