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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Thursday 2 December 2021

Article: Southern Fried Chaos - Rambling Re-watch of Killer Joe

Killer Joe may now be a decade old, yet it’s lost none of the anarchy which made it so memorable on release. In fact, with current cinematic expressions (both thoughts and films) trapped in a moral binary state, Joe feels even edgier. There are times that this first collaboration between director William Friedkin and playwright Tracey Letts feels like a scrub down with wire wool and sand. Yet its abrasiveness still delivers a morbid delight. Once the film hits fever pitch, it is still difficult to turn away.

This tale of deep-fried double indemnity begins when Chris (Emile Hirsch) gets thrown out of his mother’s house. The young drug dealer soon hatches a ludicrous scheme to off his mother with the help of his oblivious father; Ansel (Thomas Hayden Church). Word has it that if Chris’ mother dies, her insurance pay-out will land in the lap of Chris’ innocent sister Dottie (Juno Temple). Sounds too good to be true. It certainly comes across that way to Detective Joe Cooper, the full-time cop, part-time contract killer hired to do the deed. With Chris unable to stump up the cash for Joe, the cop requests a retainer: Dottie. With Killer Joe beginning in the middle of a thunderstorm, you know these people won’t find peace.

Half a neo-noir, half grotesque morality tale, Killer Joe doesn’t hold the same gritty faux-documentary style imagery as Friedkin 70’s works. There’s a slickness in Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography which firmly highlights a stark contrast from the muted tones seen in the likes of The French Connection (1971) or The Exorcist (1973). Yet the scuzzy sensibilities that have been found in many of Friedkin’s characters remain very much intact. In an opening scene, Chris opens a door to a character introducing us to their private parts before we see their face. Each member of this low-rent family only seems to communicate in arguments. Their blind ignorance is only matched by greed. Their obnoxiousness wouldn’t feel out of place in a Rob Zombie movie. Yet even the Firefly family has more kinship than these unfortunates.

This brings us to the titular Joe, who Roger Ebert remarks in his review of the film as not stupid but makes the severe mistake in not realising how stupid this family is. Dottie sees the danger that resides within him. “His eyes hurt,” she remarks more than once. Her comments are often dismissed because the stupidity of the family members is more than a touch louder. Dressed mostly in black, a shot early in the film frames Joe in a front door window peering in at the innocent “retainer”. An economically effective image of the game being preyed upon.

Matthew McConaughey’s performance as Joe was hailed as a career-best. It’s not difficult to see why. Within the decade before Joe Cooper, McConaughey’s most visible roles were a raft of middling features in which his good looks and laid-back southern drawl were the defining aspects of some bland displays. For a long time, the actor who held roles in films such as A Time to Kill (1996) and Amistad (1997) seemed almost doomed to banal rom coms in which he could be found leaning against his female co-star on the marketing posters. Lesser seen films like Frailty (2001) helped punctuate reminders that McConaughey was fully capable of complicated or subversive roles. That said, such performances probably don’t bring home as much bacon as How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003). Fair dues.

Between 2011-2014, McConaughey netted a glut of roles that had media outlets hailing a 'McConaissance'.  A resounding career comeback in which nearly every display by the actor was worth watching. Killer Joe was near the start of this second act. McConaughey resurrected his righteous cop act from John Sayles’ Lone Star (1996) and inverting it with a large injection of corruption. That easy-going image of the early 00s is left waving in the distance. With these new choice roles, McConaughey brings forth something more profoundly sinister. With this newfound intensity, Joe Cooper rules supreme. The lazy, baritone drawl is now something more deliberate and mannered. The knowing, slightly smug smile is missing. The haunted look on McConaughey’s face during Joe’s first anxiety-ridden meeting with Dottie becomes a primer to another of the actor’s Top tier performances: True Detective’s Rustin Cohle. Both Joe Cooper and Cohle have McConaughey throwing the kind of middle-distance stare that suggests that years of investigation have plunged each of them deep into their own heart of darkness. At least Cohle’s nihilism has a glimmer of a man looking to repentance. The moment Joe Cooper’s eyes settle on the innocent Dottie, the man has designs to remove that purity.

Friedkin revels in the dysfunction with a wicked sense of humour. Joe, Chris, and Ansel converse with each other in a morbid Three Stooges mentality. At the mid-way point, Chris has a run-in with his debtors. A scene executed with sly cordial hospitality. Later Ansel has a suited sight gag for the ages. A joke so perfect I had to scold myself as I forgot it happened. It is pitch-perfect. The finale is a different matter. The comedy soon dissipates before throwing the audience headfirst into the infamous "K Fried C" scene. With Friedkin reminding viewers that even in the twilight of his career, he knows how to put together a sequence that can make a person gag.

The graphic climax came under a cloud of controversy, with Friedkin steadfastly refusing to bow down to censor the film. “To get an R rating, I would have had to destroy it in order to save it and I wasn't interested in doing that,” Friedkin remarked in an interview with Rope of Silicon. The MPAA released  Killer Joe with the NC-17 rating, often a death nail in terms of commercial viability. Looking at the film a decade later, in an era where online conversations around even the slightest moral grey area require a whiff of smelling salts, one feels an element of luck that such a film came out unscathed. These are morally repugnant crooks, whose deeds are more than a little grim.  Just like the 70s Friedkin understands the assignment and the film never sympathises with its ugly people. But just like those days, he does more enough in Killer Joe for us to laugh and fear them. Praise be.