*. The true story of a pair of serial killers, a classic folie à deux. But is it terrifying, funny, or sad?
*. That’s always the sense of unease that attends black comedy. Are we just making fun of these people (and their victims)? Are we horrified at their behaviour? Or do we find them sympathetic?
*. I think it’s to The Honeymoon Killers‘ credit that it balances all three responses. It has moments of shock and horror, some very funny scenes, and finally permits us some feelings of sadness, especially for Martha, the lonely heart till the end.
*. Well, everyone loves a lover. And whatever else you may think of them, Ray and Martha have the real thing. Their love, in Leonard Kastle’s words, was “their one redeeming feature,” and it counts for something.
*. They are also that familiar comic duo of the mismatched odd couple: the thin and sexy Latin playboy Ray (Tony Lo Bianco) wedded to the solid and threatening Venus of Willendorf (Shirley Stoler). They’re made for each other.
*. Of course they’re caricatures. We have to laugh at Ray shaking his ass in our face, or Martha lying in bed eating chocolate bon-bons. She will, in fact, always be stuffing her face: with pretzels, slices of toast dripping with jam, cookies. They seem to have been found waiting together for a casting call to a John Waters movie.
*. But while caricatures, are we meant to see these two, and Martha in particular, as evil or disgusting? As noted, she’s always eating. The camera doesn’t shy away from revealing her fleshiness. She’s not shot in a flattering way, usually presented in harsh lighting with little make-up. And yet look at what she has to endure. Being taken advantage of by Ray. Having to play the sexless third wheel to his string of worthless new lovers. Aren’t we rooting for her, at least a bit? As Stoler said of her character, she was “a hungry, lonely woman, who only wanted a very ordinary life with a man she loved.” Ray’s financial conquests were, to her, only obstacles to be overcome.
*. It’s a movie that’s sometimes compared to John McNaughton’s Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer. I don’t see much of a connection beyond the obvious. Henry is a film unrelieved by any sense of humour and doesn’t make us feel anything for its pair of unredeemable killers.
*. I’ve also heard it described as being shot in a documentary style, but I think that’s misleading as well. Aside from the use of caricature and satire, it’s actually filmed in a very stylish way. I love the delayed pan around the room to reveal Ray and Martha listening to the Lincoln story being told, the repeated use of a three-shot, and the incredible close-up on the eyes of the final victim as Ray and Martha discuss her murder (was this something Tobe Hooper was taking notes on?).
*. So instead of “documentary” we might say “realism” (a contemporary review even called it “super-realist”) but even here I think the label is a stretch. Yes, there is a kitchen sink and it’s clear these people don’t live elegant lives, but the story itself is a dramatic heightening of the everyday.
*. Here’s another label: American. Francois Truffaut famously declared it his favourite American film, and I wonder how much emphasis he wanted to put on the adjective. Ray and Martha are romantic entrepreneurs, struggling upwards (or outwards, to a cozy suburb). Theirs is an American dream, a pursuit of happiness that either makes them (and everyone around them) miserable, or kills them.
*. But America also comes in for a good deal of satiric needling: from the lady in the bath singing “America” while Ray and Martha rob her, to the Lincoln bedtime story. The ideal America is being undercut, but in 1970 there was a lot of that.
*. “You’re the hottest bitch I’ve ever seen.” That was still an insult in 1970. Probably not for much longer though.
*. I think Gary Giddins makes an interesting point about the latent misogyny on display: “Filmmakers almost always treat these predators with humor, as though rich elderly women who search for love deserve a sorry fate.” He points to Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt and Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux as early examples of the same type. What makes The Honeymoon Killers different is that Martha is both predator and prey. She was Ray’s victim before she took on the role of co-predator, and at the end she is back living in a True Romance dream world. So I don’t think it’s really misogyny so much as it’s an attack on romance itself as something phony. Phony and dangerous.
*. I don’t think it’s a sleeper, in the sense of an accidentally good film. And I say that despite the fact that Kastle was a newbie (a composer by trade) who never went on to make another movie (at least that I’m aware of), or that Tony Lo Bianco or Shirley Stoler, who were both stage actors, ever did anything else as good (though Lo Bianco did land some other memorable roles). The thing is, despite it’s low budget this is a very well made movie. Lo Bianco thought most of the credit went to cinematographer Oliver Wood and editor Stan Warnow, and there’s no question they did a great job. But as with any successful movie, everyone seems to have pitched in.
*. Though initially marketed as an exploitation flick, it’s far better than that. I wouldn’t call it my favourite American movie, but I do believe it’s a great one, and a landmark in its own right.