The Honeymoon Killers

      Comments Off on The Honeymoon Killers

Leonard Kastle’s only foray into filmmaking, The Honeymoon Killers (1970), is often labeled a cult classic though through its influence, tenacity, and cultural significance it deserves to be heralded as a bonafide classic in the tradition of Casablanca (1942) and Citizen Kane (1941). This true-crime love story marks the intersection between highbrow low budget independent films like The Intruder (1962) and the subversive underground fantasias of Trash (1970) and Multiple Maniacs (1970). The Honeymoon Killers tells one of the most unconventional yet heartbreaking love stories in the American cinema while also functioning as a biting satire of middle American values and morals.

Kastle’s film tells Martha Beck’s (Shirley Stoler) story. Again and again The Honeymoon Killers orients the spectator to experience the plot from her perrspective; she is the audience surrogate. Beck is totally “punk” in her attitude and leaps off the screen with a rarely equaled charisma courtesy of Stoler who turned the unlikely criminal into a cultural icon of sorts. Beck is tough as nails but tragically romantic in a way that few heroines are in the cinema. She kills for Ray (Tony Lo Bianco), she cheats, she carries out cons, she does everything she can for the man she loves because he has accepted her. Ray’s betrayal marks their downfall as a heartbroken Martha throws everything they are away.

The Honeymoon Killers moves and feels like the slice-of-life exploitation films of Doris Wishman capturing a visual record of middle class white America in the middle of the twentieth century. Ray and Martha may prey on single women of this background, but it is they who have been politically excluded from that demographic on account of appearances and ethnicity. Their crimes, even the most heinous ones, take on a political dimension far more complex than the Robin Hood fantasy of Bonnie & Clyde (1967). The complex relationship that Ray and Martha have with their victims and their world is conveyed through one-off asides and close-up reaction shots by Kastle so as not to undermine or obscure the melodrama of the protagonists’ romance.

The violence in The Honeymoon Killers is particularly gritty for its day, predicting the prolonged anguish of Angst (1983) by more than ten years. The killing is ugly, real and totally un-romanticized. The only thing Kastle allows to be romantic, to be ideal are those intimate moments when Ray and Martha are alone together. Everything else from the murders to the seductions of little old ladies is executed with an awkwardly unsparring eye that only works to reiterate the remove between Martha and Ray and the world they have conned themselves into.

Comparisons with John Waters are almost inevitable in the discourse surrounding The Honeymoon Killers. Waters’ own Polyester (1981) bares a certain tonal similarity with Kastle’s film that is difficult to overlook. But where Waters shows his audience terrible people doing terrible things, Kastle invites the viewer to relate to a person (Martha) caught up doing terrible things. There is a humanism and compassion to Kastle’s film that exists only rarely in Waters’ prolific oeuvre. Even then, such humanism is but a subtext for Waters, not an entire modus operandi.

In all honesty is difficult to talk about a film like The Honeymoon Killers whose importance is such that it is almost incomprehensible. Add to that the fact that so much has been said or written about The Honeymoon Killers. Suffice it to say that The Honeymoon Killers is one of those films that everyone with at least a passing interest in movies should see as early in their lives as possible. The cinema is full of outlaw couples of all kinds, but Martha and Ray are my favorites.