NOVEMBER 17 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : THE HONEYMOON KILLERS (1969)
A stark, bleak and utterly fascinating film that introduces viewers to one of cinema's most intriguing romantic couples - a conniving, thieving murdering con man, Ray Fernandez and his girlfriend, the dowdy, podgy siren of a nurse-cum-psycho, Martha Beck.
The two cross paths through a seedy lonely-hearts service and begin an intense relationship once they finally meet after months of letter writing. Ray is a slimy, charismatic, Latino charmer who uses his skills to prey upon vulnerable if willing widow's and spinsters - charming them with his casanova style and good looks and then leaving them floundering as he cleans them up and moves on to the next victim. Martha dumps her own batty mother into a home for the elderly and, marries Ray and the two of them embark on a murderous spree, ravaging the lives of several helpless women along the way.
Martha pretends to be Ray's sister as he prowls the Lonely-hearts columns for fresh victims. Their scam works fairly well to begin with but gradually Martha's all consuming jealousy starts creating difficulties. Though she quite enjoys playing the role of sis while her husband swindles the widows, the flames of jealousy begin to gnaw at her and she finds herself being unable to tolerate Ray being with another woman, even though its all part of the game.
The film has been produced on a miniscule budget and is shot in grainy but effective black and white. The director has brilliantly been able to evoke a bleak and seedy atmosphere that pervades the movie, as well as one of simmering evil. The movie also manages to shock with its unflinchingly shot murder scenes and the brutality of the killers. All the more shocking as events are fact based. The film is slightly reminiscent of another cult classic from the 60's which was also shot in a similarly grainy, black and white style and also had a most unsettling effect; Herk Harvey's masterful Carnival of Souls.
The Honeymoon Killers is a potent, excellently acted gem of a thriller, with the darkest of tales to tell, but amidst the horror and the decay, there is an undercurrent of twisted perverse humour as the ghastly events unravel to the strains of some delightful Mahler and boxes and boxes of chocolates. Martin Scorsese who shot the opening scenes of the movie and a few others was originally director but he didn't complete the feature and was replaced by Leonard Kastle due to a personality clash with the producer. Real credit for the way the film shaped up should probably go to Oliver Wood who was the cinematographer and utterly devoted to creating the "look" of the film. The two main stars turn in exceptional performances. Tony Lo Bianco exudes sleazy charm while Shirley Stoler is riveting as she is slowly consumed by her own jealousy. Stoler's grotesque Psycho-Lolita is a truly memorable portrayal.
This film is unavailable on either video, Laser Disc or DVD and is a very rare commodity indeed. (**DVD version now available on Region 2 from the UK in an excellent looking anamorphic transfer - buy it NOW) Yet it is a film that is potent, stylish, and funny and equally shocking - brilliantly directed and performed, it deserves to be rediscovered and enjoyed by audiences who probably don't even know of its existence. A film that has developed a dedicated cult following and deserves a much broader audience and some seriously overdue recognition.
NOVEMBER 17 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : THE HONEYMOON KILLERS (1969)
The chilly, camp and kitsch story of 1940s killers Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez, who came together via a lonely hearts club and then went on a spree of thieving and murdering
Hannibal Lecter? Pah! The grisly Martha Beck (Stoler), a decidedly uncaring, malevolent and chubby nurse, trumps that erudite cannibal for murderous grand guignol any day. In real life she hooked up with sepulchral Lothario Raymond Fernandez (Lo Bianco), fleeced a series of gullible spinsters of their savings and ended up dispatching a couple of them with a hammer - which Raymond found quite a turn-on.
Sex, death and larceny spawned an entire genre: film noir, and make for entertaining cinema. But not here. The film is slow, undramatic and poorly paced. We witness only the meandering convolutions of the crooks' modus operandi as they work their way through a succession of vulnerable women. There's no suspense or tension, no one hot on the trail of these nasty people. And unlike, say, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, whose film incarnations were complex, sympathetic anti-heroes, Beck and Fernandez come across as banally evil; repressed and childlike.
It's hard to see whether director Kastle has attempted a semi-documentary or a schlock-horror number. The film has elements of both and often slides into kitsch. Nevertheless, when the first murder comes, the movie jolts into life. It's shocking, grisly and horrible, done with a hammer and finished off at close quarters with Martha delivering the coup de grace. It's a bravura, unhinged slaying, garnished with a dollop of sex.
NOVEMBER 17 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : THE HONEYMOON KILLERS (1969)
Desperate, irritable and sick of her lonely life, plus-sized nurse Martha Beck (Shirley Stoler) grudgingly joins Aunt Carrie's Friendship Club at the insistence of her pushy neighbor, Bunny (Doris Roberts), in hopes of making a love connection. The letter that catches Martha's eye is from Raymond Fernandez (Tony Lo Bianco), a balding lothario whose swivel hips and cooing charms hypnotize older women while he drains their bank accounts. Instantly smitten with the visiting "Latin from Manhattan," Martha, ample bosom heaving, pledges her undying love - even after Ray reveals his seedy scam of writing the lovelorn and milking them for cash.
So begins the sordid relationship of the doomed lovers in The Honeymoon Killers, a unique and fascinating glimpse into the dark side of romantic obsession. Closely based on the real Beck and Fernandez, the notorious "lonely hearts" killers of the 1940s, this stark, grim and sometimes amusing portrait of a criminal affair charts the course of frustrated emotions and jealousy that turn petty larceny into homicidal rage. Terse direction by Leonard Kastle, fine performances by Stoler and Lo Bianco, and memorable, documentary-style cinematography by Oliver Wood helped the film achieve cult status; it played on the midnight-movie and repertory circuits through the mid-1980s, and remains a staple in the "true crime" sub-genre of suspense films.
Long unavailable on home video, The Honeymoon Killers has been resurrected by the Criterion Collection in this excellent DVD. The 1.85:1 letterboxed picture transfer is very good, with a firm grasp of the complicated contrasts and gray scale of Wood's deft and sinister lighting scheme. Wood, whom Kastle hails as a brilliant artist in his audio commentary, made excellent choices for the low-/no-budget docudrama, and his extensive use of available light gave the film a hyper-realistic and suitably uncomfortable texture that has become one of its hallmarks.
The audio track, the result of a new 24-bit transfer, comes across as a bit muffled at times, but this seems more the fault of the source material and the original dialogue recordings. (A direct comparison to the analog track on an early Image laserdisc pressing reveals similar problems.) Viewers with 5.1 surround systems may want to try the audio track in different modes for best clarity.
Criterion offers a generous portion of supplements in a cleverly designed, tabloid-style "want ad" menu that mirrors the disc's slick packaging. In an engaging, funny and informative interview, Kastle addresses several aspects of the production's history, including the picture's first director, a little-known filmmaker named Martin Scorsese, who wasn't working fast enough to accommodate the miniscule budget.
In addition to the original theatrical trailer, cast and crew biographies and an interesting essay by film critic Gary Giddins, the DVD includes a definitive "illustrated essay" by Scott Christianson that meticulously recounts the details of the real killers' "lonely hearts" murders. This exceptional record features numerous photographs, copies of original correspondence, courthouse briefs, fingerprints, and even Certificates of Execution from 1951, when Martha and Ray both met their fates in the electric chair at Sing Sing.
Kastle reports that The Honeymoon Killers was the direct result of the dislike he and producer Warren Steibel had for the glamorous and sexy adventures depicted in Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde. The pair set out to make a gritty, uneasy portrait of crime and obsession; set to the strains of Gustav Mahler, the lurid and often unsettling images of Lo Bianco's amorous con man and Stoler's miserably obsessed nurse rank among the best screen representations of criminals. Over the years, The Honeymoon Killers has been praised not only by critics, but also by filmmakers as diverse as Francois Truffaut, Michelangelo Antonioni and Marguerite Duras; the latter told Kastle the picture was the greatest love story she had ever seen on film. Thanks to Criterion, The Honeymoon Killers lives on to startle and amuse viewers as it lays bare the banality of romantic angst and violent rage.
NOVEMBER 17 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : THE HONEYMOON KILLERS (1969)
“You promised!” cries a distraught Martha Beck (Shirley Stoler), while standing in a lake. She’s enraged at her boyfriend Ray (Tony Lo Bianco), whom she’s spotted in a tender moment with another woman on shore. His broken promise (fidelity to Martha) and her distress are not a little ironic, given the work they have undertaken—bilking single women he seeks out through Lonely Hearts clubs.
Indeed, most of The Honeymoon Killers is darkly ironic. Based on the true story of Ray Fernandez and Martha Beck, who met through a newspaper advertisement, it follows their yearlong career of defrauding and murdering single women. Their crimes landed them on tabloid covers across America and in electric chairs at Sing Sing in 1951. The details were sordid, in part because they seemed such an unlikely couple. Martha was a nurse, thus a figure of public trust, living alone with her mother and unhappily overweight; Ray was a preening Latin gigolo, without any aboveboard occupation.
Perhaps most shockingly, they were, by all appearances, actually in love. And, judging by the press they generated, tabloid readers were a little bit in love with them. Newspapers not only reported their offenses, but also the particulars of their troubled relationship, which continued into prison and onto death row.
Writer-director Leonard Kastle’s first and only film, The Honeymoon Killers doesn’t tell the whole story, though a handsomely made video essay included on Criterion’s DVD provides more background information. In the film, we meet Martha just before she writes her own first letter to Ray and leave them in prison, as he reads yet another passionate missive. Between these scenes lies a remarkable independent feature, reflecting the social turmoil of 1969—the struggles between established cultures of church and home and the so-called “youth” culture, in which “anything goes.”
With the demise of the Hays Office (which policed content in films prior to the MPA’s institution of a more lenient ratings system), social turmoil found a new home in independent features of the type called “exploitation.” Breaking screen taboos with gusto, films like She-Devils on Wheels (1968) promised racy content, with only nominal “messages” about the dangers of counter-culture excess.
The Honeymoon Killers is, foremost, an exploitation piece, and its interest in Martha and Ray is prurient. It opens with a cautionary message: “The unbelievable events depicted are based on news accounts and court records. This is a true story.” As if to underline this “truth,” the film features several discomforting, if riveting, scenes: a petulant Martha wolfs down chocolates; on their first date, Ray tangos seductively, solo (“Would you think I was terrible if I gave Mama a sleeping pill?” Martha asks coyly); and repeatedly, their victims’ eyes roll back as their tongues loll out of their mouths. As the title insinuates, The Honeymoon Killers is about the collision of sex and violence.
Not so very long before, two years to be exact, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde had opened the door. In an interview included on the disc, Kastle claims he disliked that film for its “fake” qualities. In The Honeymoon Killers, by contrast, the assaults look brutal, the entire film shot in stark black and white and accompanied by a strikingly canned soundtrack. Ray and Martha are overtly monstrous; they scheme and laugh, they show no remorse, Martha even kills a child.
For all its darkness, however, the film is also oddly campy. (The resemblance between Stoler and Pink Flamingos’ Divine, in physical appearance and mannerisms, is impossible to overlook.) Made on an extremely low budget, The Honeymoon Killers’ bad sound and bleak lighting draw you immediately into a B-movie cosmos.
Still, as Kastle says in the interview, “The acting’s the important thing.” Here, the film teeters between horror and self-parody. Martha is shrill and plagued by jealousy, given to outbursts that threaten the couple’s best-laid plans. It’s a brave performance: Stoler reveals Martha’s frightening infantilism, yet also manages to show her peculiar practicality and vulnerability. As Ray, Lo Bianco is pitch-perfect, seductive in his open-necked dress shirts, yet repellent; when he argues with Martha, his voice rises to a whine, as if he might actually start pleading with her. The actors show us that small betrayals and role-playing are integral to the couple’s passion, their means of communication and connection.
Stoler and Lo Bianco (and, in a wonderful supporting performance as the pair’s final victim, veteran actress Mary Jane Higby) triumph over the occasional distraction of the low production values. Not all of the performers fare so well; in particular, the victims, for instance, tend to overact so they seem amateurish. Within the film’s framework, their deaths almost appear punishment for being so annoying. Is it funny? Of course it is. But it’s ghastly, too. The uneasy mix of the funny and the grotesque pulls you both ways.
In this, The Honeymoon Killers is a function of its moment: around this time, many American films reflected the counter-culture, not the real counter-culture, but a Hollywood interpretation of it. With the success of Easy Rider (1969), Petulia (1968), and Midnight Cowboy (1969), moral ambiguity was something of a norm. The Honeymoon Killers manifests this ambiguity as hostility towards the murderers’ victims. We identify with Ray and Martha; they amuse us. But the women they fleece or kill are unattractively conservative and fussy; one treasures her Jesus paintings above everything but her money, another teaches her daughter about Abraham Lincoln, a little too wholesomely.
When Martha and Ray attack them, the simultaneous ugliness and bizarre comedy imply revenge against the establishment, exacted by two outsiders. Still, The Honeymoon Killers breathes with unexpected “life,” in its resistance to Kastle’s pedestrian, pseudo-documentary vision. This energy made it a hit in 1969 and makes it a blast today. It’s a conflicted film, a serious look at a series of horrible crimes, but strangely campy too. Kastle notes that he made an “excellent film” in The Honeymoon Killers. He’s right.
NOVEMBER 17 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : THE HONEYMOON KILLERS (1969)
Attempting to describe the 55-year-old, 225-lb. Anita Ekberg in Intervista, Fellini simply called her "epic." I felt the same way upon meeting Shirley Stoler, who may not have possessed Ekberg's looks, but cut an equally imposing figure.
Best known for playing a serial killer in The Honeymoon Killers (1970) and a horny Nazi in Seven Beauties (1976), Stoler began her career in the theatre, where she continued to work until her death at the age of 70, in 1999. Because of her unique appearance, film work was limited to small parts as prison guards (Desperately Seeking Susan), nasty homeroom teachers (Three O'Clock High), and bartenders (Frankenhooker). But she also flexed her comedic skills on the surreal tv show, Pee-Wee's Playhouse, and camped it up for one season on the daytime drama, As the World Turns.
We met for one evening in 1986, an interview session which, in hindsight, Shirley may have been hoping for years to happen. Her killer and Nazi images from the screen evaporated in a rush of exciting, colorful life stories.
When she read the first-draft transcript of our conversation, Shirley was displeased with the way it read. I'd attempted a rewrite, but eventually lost interest. It's been sitting in my file cabinet ever since. The following, therefore, is an unauthorized presentation of Shirley's words on her biggest film role, in The Honeymoon Killers:
One night I received a call from these people who wanted to know if I'd like to read for the part of Martha Beck. Apparently Marilyn Chris, who I had worked with years ago at the Living Theatre, had tried for the role of Beck but she wasn't the right type. She did something very few actresses would do: she told them, "If I'm not the right type, I know someone who is!"
I remembered the Martha Beck case very well because I was an adult when it happened. The court case lasted for months, the newspapers were full of it. Martha was a very verbose witness. I was fascinated by her as a personality, and I guess I had done a kind of subconscious preparation in my sleep overnight. When I went in to read for the part, they said I was her. They said if I didn't know how to act, they would teach me. I read for it, got it, and did the film.
Very few people know it, but Martin Scorsese was the first director on The Honeymoon Killers. He was just out of school. He did the first scene where Martha comes in on a nurse and an intern fooling around on a bed, with was shot in a real hospital. Even though Martin wasn't really experienced, he had a strong sense of direction. He also shot the scenes of me in the lake. My screams were real in that scene — I was terrified.
Scorsese was taken out because of a personality clash. The producer, Warren Steibel, and the writer, Leonard Kastle, were very argumentative people. Kastle really wanted to direct it, but didn't have the courage to put himself in the position. After Scorsese left, they had a sort-of ex-editor in who was totally incompetent. After a couple of weeks Kastle took over, although he really had no knowledge of directing. Somehow the picture managed to direct itself, not really needing a director. Scorsese did have a certain amount of creativity, but nobody else did. Either way, the picture still worked.
If any one person were to take responsibility for the quality of The Honeymoon Killers, it would have to be the cinematographer, Oliver Wood. He loved very long takes and, with lighting, likes that diffused look. He didn't do anything to cover the lamps or dim the light, preferring whatever was naturally there. There's one scene where the two women are in bed, Martha slapping the other woman, and suddenly the screen went black. Everyone thought the film broke. But then a lamp turns on, as Toni LoBianco sits in a dark room. That was just one of Oliver's ideas. I thought he was brilliant — he created that film, especially the look of it, which tried for that pulp-ish True Detective quality.
Also, the chemistry of casting was very good. The actors seemed to be reacting to the situations in the film as they would react to the same situations in real life. Tony LoBianco, playing Martha Beck's lover, Ray Fernandez, was especially good. I would say that the filmmakers used Tony's ego, although he didn't know it, to arrive at the character. You can tell by the way he walks through scenes. Mary Jane Higbee, who played Janet Fay, was fabulous. She used to be in soap operas in radio. She knew exactly what she was doing, an absolute master.
I was glad to interject even the slightest bit of humor into some scenes, as there was so little in the whole film. The cafeteria scene was a chance for that, and worked rather well. I also like the ending of the picture very much, a scene certainly attributable to Leonard Kastle.
The critical reaction was interesting. Some people loved it, others were quite hostile. Pauline Kael, in The New Yorker, blasted it for several pages, yet ended her review with "but you can't altogether dismiss it." That was a strange thing to say — like the operation wasn't a success but the patient's still alive. Most, if not all, the New York papers gave it good reviews.
I was sent on a publicity tour for two months and 25,000 miles, as far north as Toronto, as far south as Atlanta. We also went to England. I adored the tours with the many interviews, going to fine hotels with three-room suites, limousines. My favorite words were "Miss Stoler requires..."
When I was in England, they gave me $280 in pocket money, so I decided to go to Paris for a week. When I arrived there, the picture wasn't due to open for a while, but I contacted Cinerama, the distributor, there. They were very courteous and said, "If there's anything we can possibly do for you..." So I said, "Take me to Maxim's!" So three of us — the head of the office, his assistant and myself — went to Maxim's. It was a delicious experience. The best champagne I ever tasted was the house brand. The three of us drank five bottles. I swore I wasn't drunk, but by the time I got back to my hotel room and tried to take off my clothes, the room was literally spinning! I also had one of the best dinners at Maxim's: smoked eel, beef stroganoff, a Grand Marnier souffle, and strawberries which were huge and sweet.
Later I went back to New York City and lived on 17th Street. For a while I did nothing. I received a call to meet Alan J. Pakula, and ended up doing a five-minute scene in Klute, as a result of The Honeymoon Killers. I play one of the madams in the film, Jane White was the other. I had roughly a paragraph of dialogue. I worked with Donald Sutherland, who remembered me when we did Lolita on stage many years later.
In 1972 and '73, I did a few plays, and I was receiving many, many scripts for films about "the fat girl and the faggot" patterned after The Honeymoon Killers. I even got a script from Cass Elliot from a story by a friend of hers about The Mamas & The Papas. Cass wanted me to play her part, and she wanted to direct. I refused the role.
By 1974 I was really in a decline. I got a job in an answering service, putting calls through to these people I should have been talking to myself, on a professional level. It was demoralizing and I became very sad and despondent.
I kept talking about getting back to Europe to prove I could be mobile again. A few friends voluntarily sent me money, and I ended up with $1000 beside my fare. I toured for six weeks, four in France, two in England. I really didn't have a good time, the weather was bad, I felt sick, and I took too much baggage. I must've packed for a year.
When I returned to New York I almost lost a job by being back a few days later than I thought I would be. It was a wrestling film called To Smithereens, based on Rosalyn Drexler's autobiography. I remember one time we nearly froze to death. It was winter and ice cubes were put in our mouths so the steam wouldn't issue forth. We were shooting under bleachers at Randle's Island, wearing bathing suits. They had to have wood stoves, brandy and blankets — it was about ten degrees.
The director, Robert Fowler, re-shot half the film five years later, after the star, Regina Baff, had a nose-job and looked totally different. Eventually it was released as Below the Belt. I really didn't have much of a part. I hung around, and talked out of the side of my mouth.
NOVEMBER 17 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : THE HONEYMOON KILLERS (1969)
Growing up in the orbit of Baltimore and being the species of movie fan that I am, it is only natural that I be fairly well versed in the works of John Waters. I’ve never seen any of the really primeval stuff he made with Maelcum Soul, of course (if you weren’t around to catch Roman Candles and Eat Your Makeup during their initial screenings, you’re pretty much shit out of luck), but I’m fully caught up on the definitive Divine period, and I’ve endured enough of the films from the current Indie Darling era to know that I needn’t bother with the rest of them. I’ve also consumed as much of Waters’s writing as I could get my hands on, meaning that I’m acquainted with the director’s commendable habit of giving public props to the 60’s junk auteurs who inspired him in his youth. I’ve read his panegyrics to Herschell Gordon Lewis and William Castle (in fact, it was Waters who introduced me to Castle— for which he has my undying gratitude), his ardent expostulations on the likes of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, and thus it is that I’m somewhat taken aback to realize that I can’t remember him ever saying anything about The Honeymoon Killers. There is no way in hell that Waters did not see The Honeymoon Killers in his formative years, and precious little way in hell that he didn’t study it. Indeed, I can easily envision the young John Waters dragging the young Glen Milstead along with him to watch it repeatedly, offering it up as a short course in becoming truly Divine. This is exactly the sort of movie that Waters himself would have made as the late 60’s matured into the early 70’s, except that when Leonard Kastle spins this true-crime-inspired yarn about a put-upon fat girl temporarily making good by doing bad, he does it with a completely straight face.
Martha Beck (Shirley Stoler, whose career was otherwise mostly confined to small parts like those she played in A Real Young Girl and Frankenhooker) is the last person in the world who should work as a nurse. Sullen, short-tempered, and mean to the point of misanthropy, you have to wonder how she faces the thought of helping people for a living, day in and day out. She lives in a modest house with her nearly senile mother (Dortha Duckworth) and an only slightly less daffy older roommate by the name of Bunny (Blood Bath’s Doris Roberts), but it hardly seems a happy existence for any of the three women. Mom resents Bunny’s efforts to exert some manner of control over her escalating eccentricities, Bunny resents the constant attention that Mom requires in order to keep her out of trouble, and Martha seems never to have met a single thing that she didn’t resent. Both of the older ladies have noticed Martha’s eternally sour disposition, too, and one day, Bunny decides to try doing something about it. Without asking Martha’s permission, Bunny signs her up for a mail-order matchmaking service. Martha is horrified when her membership confirmation arrives (she thinks Bunny is being snide about her non-existent social life), but she starts to mellow out when she gets her first letter from a New York-based Spanish immigrant called Raymond Fernandez (Tony Lo Bianco, from God Told Me To and Sex Perils of Paulette). She writes back promptly, and before she knows it, she’s in the midst of a full-blown romance by mail. Eventually, she has Raymond over to visit for a few days, and they get along just as well in person as they do via the post office. In fact, Martha enjoys having Raymond around so much that she doesn’t want to let him go home. Raymond says he’d stay on longer if he could, but he’s expecting an important delivery, and it’s absolutely necessary that he be present to accept it. He’s an art dealer by trade, you see, and he’s expecting this particular piece of merchandise to make or break him for the next few months. Indeed, were it not for the rather large loan that Martha had generously extended him a few days ago, he would have had to leave yesterday. Wait— did he say Martha made him a loan? Doesn’t that sound kind of fishy to you, especially coming from a man who’s on his way to the train station to take his leave of the woman who fronted him the money in question?
Yes, good catch there. Raymond’s a gigolo, alright, and no sooner has he made his way back to New York than he composes a long and detailed letter to Martha, breaking off their relationship. But Raymond’s also a Spaniard, remember, and despite her lack of outwardly apparent experience with men, Martha knows just how to handle these wildly romantic Latin types. Martha has Bunny call Raymond on the phone, to pass along word that she’s in the midst of a nervous breakdown over him, and is threatening suicide. Naturally, Fernandez cannot resist the appeal of this grand, mad passion he has supposedly inspired, and he agrees to take Martha back. It’ll be a couple of years in coming, but this inglorious surrender to Latinate romantic machismo marks Raymond’s first step toward his own undoing.
I should point out that while all that was going on, Martha’s boss at the hospital got wind of her affair, and gave her the sack. We won’t be finding this out until the end (heaven knows there’s no indication of a period setting in the film itself), but this is 1947 we’re talking about, and apparently it was okay to fire nurses for pursuing insufficiently chaste private lives in those days. That means a dire and sudden need for money, and nowhere for Martha to turn except to Raymond. The only two points on which Fernandez will ever successfully assert himself over his new girlfriend now come in rapid succession, as he first refuses to take her in so long as she has her mother in tow, and then makes it clear that he has no intention of seeking anything that would normally pass muster as gainful employment. If Martha wants to move in with him, she’s going to have to put Mom in a nursing home, and accept that sponging off of insecure single gals with sizable nest-eggs is going to be the primary form of economic activity within their household. Martha grudgingly does as Raymond commands, after which Raymond Fernandez ceases to exist officially. Henceforth, Raymond will be “Charles Martin,” an American by birth who was raised by relatives in Spain from early childhood, and who now lives inseparably with his little sister, Martha. “Charles” continues to prowl the matchmaking services in search of exploitable women, and then he and Martha move in with them just long enough to separate them from their life savings. At Martha’s insistence, Raymond attempts to do this without actually marrying the women, let alone consummating the relationships, but sometimes the altar is the only crowbar strong enough to pry a lady away from her money. Even then, Martha is a cock-blocker par excellence, and as her performance on the telephone that day probably suggests, she possesses a vast arsenal of head-game techniques with which to keep Raymond in line should she ever suspect him of growing attached to one of his victims.
She’s also a lot more ruthless than even she probably realizes. Case in point: Raymond one day takes up with a Southern woman (The People Next Door’s Marilyn Chris) in need of some Quaker Instant Husbandtm to explain away an inconvenient pregnancy. Myrtle (as this brassy belle is called) claims to be through with men now, so in theory, Martha has nothing to worry about. But when Martha and “Charles” arrive at Myrtle’s house, the latter woman begins visibly thinking better of any intentions she may have had to start playing for the other team. It takes all of Martha’s talents to keep Myrtle away from her “brother,” even to the extent of insisting that she and Myrtle share a bed until the marriage is official. Myrtle, however, turns out to be quite the recreational pill-popper, opening up the opportunity for a more permanent solution to the problem. Martha gives her some drugs which she presumably stole from the hospital dispensary on her way out the door, and when the time comes to hit the road for the church (all concerned having decided that an out-of-town ceremony is strategically wise), Myrtle is painfully ill. Raymond puts her on the bus, anyway, saying that he and Martha will follow along in his car, but she’s dead in her seat by the time it pulls into the terminal at their supposed destination.
The poisoning of Myrtle Young establishes what will henceforth become the couple’s pattern. In addition to worming his way into lonely women’s hearts and absconding with all their cash, Raymond now starts leaving a trail of bodies behind him— although in each case, it’s the much more physically imposing Martha who does the actual killing. Next up is Janet Fay (Mary Jane Higby), 66 years old and nearly as soft in the head as Martha’s mother. She’s the biggest prize yet, worth fully $10,000, and it is Martha’s hope that Raymond’s winnings this time will enable him to retire from the gigolo business and make an honest woman of her. It sounds plausible enough, and Janet is certainly cooperative about converting everything she owns into portable (and stealable) form, but the old lady starts getting the feeling that something isn’t quite kosher once she’s finished signing all the checks and deposit slips. Awakening at about 2:00 am, she belatedly rejects “Charles’s” plan to spring the marriage on her relatives as an after-the-fact surprise, and starts demanding to use the telephone. Martha tries to talk her down, but it quickly escalates into a shouting match. The shouting match escalates in turn into a claw-hammer beat-down immediately thereafter. The need to split the scene fast cuts deeply into the size of the haul that the conspirators had hoped to obtain.
That brings us to Delphine Downing (Kip McArdle) of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Delphine is Martha’s least favorite target yet, for unlike the preceding women, she is young and pretty in addition to being well-off. She also has a daughter (Mary Breen), and Martha is, if anything, even less fond of children than she is of humans in general. Even so, it seems at first that Martha will be successful in enforcing her usual separation regime, but she’s kidding herself there. Delphine not only sleeps with “Charles,” but gets knocked up by him! She confesses this to Martha, hoping to apply a little sisterly leverage in expediting the planned marriage. That’s obviously the last thing Martha wants now, though, and the news inspires her to her cleverest and dirtiest trick yet. She channels her fury at being cheated on into a story about her brother refusing to consort with such loose women as Delphine has shown herself to be. There will be no marriage now, and there certainly won’t be any sticking around to care for the bastard baby. In desperation, Delphine agrees to take an abortifacient dose of an allergy medication that Martha carries with her. This, of course, is really the same poison that disposed of Myrtle Young, but Martha is just a little too slow in administering it. Ray comes home from an errand with Delphine’s daughter before the job is done, and all hell breaks loose. Raymond manages to get the little girl confined in the cellar long enough for Martha to finish with Delphine, and then it’s downstairs to drown the kid in the utility sink. An odd thing happens, though, while Martha is trading up from mere murder to infanticide. The shriveled little thing that passes for her conscience acts up at last, and the deadlier of the Honeymoon Killers places an anonymous phone call to the cops, turning herself and her boyfriend in.
The Honeymoon Killers was based on the exploits of Martha and Raymond’s real-life namesakes, and the movie is actually pretty close to the truth, as these things go. The real Beck and Fernandez met through a matchmaking service in 1947, and they conducted themselves in the financially predatory way to which the latter was accustomed until 1949, when they killed the real Janet Fay and the real Delphine and Rainelle Downing. They remained creepily devoted to each other throughout their arrest, trial, and terms of imprisonment, until they were executed at Sing Sing on March 8th, 1951. The main difference between the movie and what is known to be true is that it was neighbors who called the cops to report the Downing murders. The police who investigated the case suspected that there could have been as many as 17 other victims over the preceding two years, but could give the prosecution no firm case for any but the Fay and Downing killings. Another interesting detail that didn’t make it into the film concerns the criminals’ lives before they met each other. The real Martha Beck had two kids from a previous marriage, while the real Raymond Fernandez had four back in Europe.
I really wish The Honeymoon Killers wasn’t so goddamned dull, and I say that not merely because I can think of few uses of my time less edifying than sitting through boring movies. The spectacle of a classic John Waters premise played straight is too alluring, to say nothing of the prospect of a genuinely female Divine. The relationship between the two protagonists is equal parts Divine and David Lochary in Multiple Maniacs, and Divine and Tab Hunter in Polyester, and it’s impossible to watch Shirley Stoler’s performance without looking for hints of Glen Milstead peeking out through her. The weirdly sympathetic portrayal afforded to real-life serial killers also suggests Multiple Maniacs, in which Lady Divine and Mr. David were to have been the perpetrators of the Tate-LaBianca murders (still unsolved when shooting began), and is recalled again in Female Trouble, with its dedication to Manson family hatchet man Charles “Tex” Watson. The movie’s visual style even suggests the no-frills journeyman esthetic that Waters exhibited throughout the early years of his career. I’d like to be able to recommend this movie to fans as an unheralded probable influence, but what the hell kind of recommendation would “check this out— it’s really interesting from an academic perspective, but it’s also stultifying and mostly terrible” be?
That “mostly” is the other big reason why I wish The Honeymoon Killers had some more life to it, because this movie contains a handful of scenes that any grindhouse atrocity exhibition would be proud to call its own. Even though the act proper takes place offscreen, it’s impossible not to be horrified by the drowning of Rainelle Downing, and her mother’s death as she’s force-fed pills is no picnic either. But the jewel in The Honeymoon Killers’ crown (if it hadn’t pawned the crown to buy crystal meth) would be the whole sick sequence that begins when Janet Fay wakes up in the middle of the night to pester Martha with inconvenient questions, and concludes with the younger woman bashing the elder to death with a hammer. In its way, the brutal slaughter of the helpless elderly is no less a taboo subject than child-killing, and the movies in general have been even shier about depicting it than they have infanticide. A film that violates both unspoken interdicts ought to be one not to be missed.