The Honeymoon Killers (Leonard Kastle, 1969) The Honeymoon Killers is one of the great, one-off cinematic oddities. The movie was written by Leonard Kastle (whose previous background was exclusively in opera) and eventually also directed by Kastle after Martin Scorsese was fired a few days into production (allegedly for taking too long to shoot and using whip pans, which confused the fledgling producers). It was Leonard’s only film behind the camera, but not as a result of him doing anything wrong. In fact, it’s a pretty extraordinary debut that showcases impressive raw talent that was sadly never developed. Thankfully, the film has gone on to become a perennial cult classic and a Criterion mainstay that finally gets the HD treatment in a beautiful Blu-ray of a deliberately ugly little tale.
Kastle conceived his movie as a response to the ground-breaking cultural touchstone Bonnie And Clyde. The debuting director was appalled by the technical color beauty and rousing antihero worship of Arthur Penn’s masterpiece and wanted to create a film about a true life couple’s killing spree that was anything but romantic. He took inspiration from murderous lovers Martha Beck and Ray Fernandez and stayed as close to the court transcripts as possible. Beck (future Pee-Wee’s Playhouse cast member Shirley Stoler) was a lonely middle aged nurse so desperate for love that she joined a mailing group hoping to find her Romeo. True love arrived in Fernandez (Tony Lo Bianco) who wrote florid letters and promised the moon before inevitably failing to deliver.
Eventually, Beck tracked down Fernandez and learned that he did in fact love her. However, he also admitted to using the love-struck dating service as a con game, regularly seducing women purely to rob them blind. Beck agrees to stay with him and pose as his sister while he seduced other women, though her jealously soon lent the scam a body count. What makes The Honeymoon Killers so intriguing and enduring is the way that Kastle makes the audience identify with the protagonists before sliding them down the rabbit hole. Stoler’s performance in particular is heartbreaking and you feel her desperation and fleeting happiness before gradually growing disturbed by her decent into insanity.
The filmmaker plays out the story in bleak humor with the couple’s victims all coming across as satirically irritating in their conservatively American ways. To an extent, viewers anxiously await the first few murders and almost cheer on the killers. Yet, Kastle ceases his comedic ways anytime violence enters the picture. The actual onscreen content is restrained, but the crimes themselves play out starkly and unsettlingly, making for a tonal rollercoaster as viewers come to hate the protagonists they initially love and pity the victims they initially hate. Kastle shot it all in grainy black and white and has his lead actors perform with no moviestar glitz. It’s almost like a Cassavetes movie with a bodycount and even the crudity of the zero budget production adds to the charm, feeling like hallway between a documentary and the amateur movie of a madman. It’s a deeply impressive little movie guaranteed to worm itself way under the skin and into the heart of any cynical soul who discovers it.
Unsurprisingly, Criterion brought The Honeymoon Killers to Blu-ray with love. The transfer is impressive, revealing new grimy details without betraying the underground production values. It looks as good as possible and the tin-y audio track is clear without betraying the troubled source. It’s not exactly a showcase disc and yet it’s hard to imagine The Honeymoon Killers ever looked or sounded this good during it’s initial theatrical run. Special features kick off with an interview with Kastle ported over from the old Criterion DVD that covers virtually every aspect of production (as well as why he never made another movie) in a trim thirty minutes. New to the disc is a doc featuring actors Tony Lo Bianco, Marilyn Chris and editor Star Warnow that dives into even further into the nitty gritty details of the troubled production (no one thought they were working on anything special and everyone claims to have been shocked when Scorsese stopped showing up to work) as well as an intriguing 23-minute video essay about the tragic true story that inspired the movie. Overall, it’s a fantastic presentation of a brilliant and underrated movie that bridges the gap between the underground arthouse (Cassavetes), camp (Waters), and horror (Romero) flicks of the late 60s.