Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made CC, Boomer, and Brandon watch The Honeymoon Killers (1970).
Britnee: Leonard Kastle, a well-known opera composer, became a film legend after writing and directing his first and only feature, the 1970 cult classic The Honeymoon Killers. The film is based on the true story of serial killers Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck. Known as “The Lonely Hearts Killers,” the murderous couple would meet their victims by responding to “lonely hearts” ads in newspapers. Kastle personally performed extensive research on Ray and Martha’s crime spree in the late 1940s, and his hard work paid off because the film truly captures the dark, ugly world of the killer couple. In an interview featured on the 2003 Criterion DVD release, Kastle expresses his disdain for 1967’s Bonnie & Clyde, stating, “I didn’t want to show beautiful shots of beautiful people.” I let out a guttural laugh reading that statement because it completely caught me off guard. He wanted his film to be a realistic contrast to the big box-office Hollywood hit (such a rebel!), and that’s exactly what The Honeymoon Killers is.
The film may be based on a couple, but Martha, not Raymond, is the star of the show. Martha (Shirley Stoler) is a lonely, overweight nurse with a bad attitude who lives at home with her nagging mother in Mobile, Alabama. Her friend Bunny (Doris Roberts of Everybody Love Raymond fame) secretly signs her up for Aunt Carrie’s Friendship Club, which is essentially an early, in-print version of Match.com. This is how she meets her partner in crime, Raymond (Tony Lo Bianco). After scamming Martha into giving him a “loan,” he takes off and sends her a letter to end the relationship. Martha has Bunny assist her with calling Ray and selling him a fake suicide attempt story to guilt him into not leaving her. It works like a charm, and Martha leaves her life behind to join Ray in New York City. She soon find out he’s a con man that preys on lonely women to make his money, and it doesn’t bother her at all. She joins him on his escapades, posing as his sister. At first, the crimes aren’t violent and the women he scams leave with empty pockets and a broken heart, but it doesn’t take long for things to get deadly.
I love how The Honeymoon Killers starts off in a campy, John Waters-like style and transitions into something much darker once Martha makes her first kill. However, during some of the grimmest scenes in the film, Kastle is still able to keep a little dark humor and campiness intact. A great example would be the scene where the couple is burying the body of their first victim; Martha throws in the woman’s Jesus portraits and sarcastically says something along the lines of, “She always took them with her,” mocking the woman she just brutally murdered. Brandon, did you find Martha to be a likeable character? Did you find the same humor in her that I did?
Brandon: Interestingly enough, it’s the tension created by those exact two questions that most endeared me to The Honeymoon Killers. The film boasts a self-conflicted tone that alternates from punishing grime & cruelty to slapstick camp in a minute to minute rhythm, never committing to a single effect for any prolonged stretch. The Honeymoon Killers is both a continuation of the handheld, art house immediacy of The French New Wave films that likely inspired it and comfortably of the same cloth as early, over-the-top John Waters camp fests like Multiple Maniacs (which premiered the same year as this surprisingly violent curio). Now that Multiple Maniacs & Female Trouble have recently gotten the restorative Criterion Collection treatment also afforded The Honeymoon Killers, that split between low-fi, grimy camp and high-brow cinema aesthetic makes more cultural sense. However, I imagine that when Francois Truffaut claimed that this was his all-time favorite American film he was being somewhat of a provocative ass.
My sympathies with Martha were similarly conflicted. On one hand, she’s a ruthless murderer who supposes in the first act that maybe Hitler had some worthwhile ideas. Those are not the easiest personality traits to fall in love with from the outset, but Martha does find her own paths to worm her way into your heart. She begins the film on the receiving end of one of Raymond’s “lonely hearts” scams, but refuses to be a victim and instead muscles her way into his operation (and his bed). Martha is a lonely, unexceptional woman with absurdly over-plucked eyebrows and an endless parade of friends & strangers eager to comment on her weight. She’s a bully, but she’s also a wounded animal. Moreover, all of the murders committed in the film are a direct result of Martha flying into a jealous rage whenever she catches Raymond sexually engaging with their marks, infidelities he promised he’d never commit (again). Much like how the film at large drifts between camp & cruelty in its depictions of violence, Martha drifts between being a total monster & a put-upon victim without ever fully settling on either, which is exactly what makes her (and the film) so fascinating.
That Leonard Kastle quote about Bonnie & Clyde not going far enough in depicting the ugliness of its own romantic crime spree is interesting. Bonnie & Clyde, however polished, is often cited as being the first major studio production to break apart the tyranny of the Hays Code and usher in the more freewheeling morality (or lack thereof) that guided the New Hollywood movement. Operating far below the budget of that studio system game-changer, The Honeymoon Killers is a ramshackle AIP production that feels more spiritually in line with the feverish grime of films like Multiple Maniacs, Spider Baby, Mudhoney, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the “erotic” roughies purveyed by schlockteurs like Russ Meyer & Doris Wishman. Still, even as the grimier, low-fi alternative to Bonnie & Clyde, The Honeymoon Killers feels a little stifled by the morality of its time. At first it seems almost anachronistically horrific that Raymond & Martha would kill a child in the film to increase the convenience of a grift, but that murder is depicted with the same off-screen discretion adhered to in Fritz Lang’s M almost four decades earlier. It’s also daring for the film to depict a wide range of women initiating sex with Raymond for their own pleasure, but the only scene of onscreen naked flesh is de-sexed by having the woman in question flatly sing “America the Beautiful” at top volume in a bathtub (an unhinged display that is admittedly hilarious). If the tabloid coverage of the events is to be believed, the real-life story of the Lonely Hearts Killers was also more sordid than what’s depicted in The Honeymoon Killers, with the couple being accused of a much higher body count than what they were ultimately executed for.
CC, do you think The Honeymoon Killers could have been a better movie by depicting the full scope of Raymond & Martha’s accused, real-life brutality or was Kastle smart for holding back on some of the tabloidish details and sticking to their verifiable legal convictions?
CC: Short answer: Definitely the latter.
Long answer: I couldn’t help myself; I had to do some outside research for this one. In the book Death Row Women: Murder, Justice, and the New York Press, the factual elements of the killers’ lives are both lurid and horrifying. Martha Beck’s past included a childhood sexual assault she was punished and ostracized for. By her early twenties, she had two children out of wedlock (although she was technically married to the father of the second child, it was revealed he was also married to someone else, putting her marriage into question) and a shrill monster of a mother. Martha retreated into a fantasy world fueled by her love of pulp detective and romance magazines that were popular at the time, filling her apartment with hundreds of copies and obsessively reading and re-reading them. She did show some signs of a sinister (or at least unmoored to reality) streak, when she lied about the identity of her first child’s father and then “killed” him off via a fake telegram to generate sympathy. After arriving on Raymond’s doorstep with her two children in tow prepared to start a new life with him, he told her he would never allow children in his household. Her desperate solution was to abandon them at the Salvation Army in Manhattan; she never saw them again until she was on death row. Her life and later cruelty were the culmination of years of abuse and misery.
Raymond, however, took a very different path to becoming a serial murderer. By all accounts a kind and gentle man, he left his beloved wife and four children behind in Spain to get a job in the United States (where he grew up) with the intention of sending for them when he got established. A cheap way to cross the Atlantic back then was to work as a merchant marine in exchange for free travel fare. He had previously worked on ships, so this voyage should have been rather routine. A few days into the voyage, a heavy metal hatch fell on his head, heavily fracturing his skull, sending him into a coma for a week, and leaving him with a permanent furrow across his frontal lobe. As soon as he recovered enough to finish the journey, his personality took a rapid turn for the worse. For reasons unknown to even himself, he stole a large quantity of the ship’s linen, landing him a 12-month jail sentence. While incarcerated he met a Vodun practitioner and became obsessed with the idea that he had a supernatural power over women. He suffered from debilitating headaches and the delusion that he could make a woman orgasm from 1000 miles away with just a lock of her hair, both byproducts of that metal hatch.
Would it have been more fun to watch a lonely, brutalized woman and a man with a severe head injury kill even more people? Nah. There’s a point where verisimilitude stops being entertaining because it precludes the introduction of the camp elements that make this film so fun to watch. Of course, as with all exploitation cinema, that act of condensing & fictionalizing real-life detail to increase entertainment value does present ethical questions about whether this story should have been told onscreen at all. It’s a moral shakiness The Honeymoon Killers somewhat compensates for by affording Martha some sympathy as a protagonist, but it remains questionable all the same.
Boomer, what do you make of the morality of the film’s indulgences in over-the-top camp entertainment among its depictions of real-life greed & cruelty?
Boomer: First of all, let me just express my joy that you are here and joining us in the MotM roundtable, CC. I’m so excited and happy that the stars have aligned to make this happen.
As to your question, I think it’s strange that this film alters so much of the story while the names of the participants involved remain unchanged. My roommate often watches MotM films with me and generally for the best, as his positive reactions to some of them have helped me be more appreciative (for instance, his profound enjoyment of Unfriended helped temper my own initially cold reception of it; had he watched last month’s Born in Flames, I might have been less antagonistic of it in my response). For Honeymoon Killers, he was in and out of the room and up and down throughout in one of the manic moods that he sometimes exhibits after finishing a particular academic project, but there were points where I called him into the room to take note of certain shots that I thought he might appreciate. I rewound the scene in which Ray rhumbas across the screen, eclipsing and then revealing the elder Mrs. Beck; I also made sure he saw the panicked Delphine’s eyes dart back and forth while Ray and Martha debate her fate. At one point, when Martha ran into the lake to attempt to drown herself after Ray (once again) broke his chastity, my roommate asked what she was doing, and I explained, before stating “She’s my new hero.” Granted, this was after she had already killed Myrtle, but even though Ray’s “soothing” of Myrtle on the bus had dark undertones, the fact that her face contorted into such a comical rictus—complete with crossed eyes and her tongue hanging out—made the whole thing too campy to be taken seriously. It wasn’t really until Janet Fay starts to panic, with her realization of how screwed she is dawning on her and playing out in real time as Ray listens to her begging from the next room while shrouded in darkness, that the film crossed into capital-“D” Dark territory for me. As Janet begged for her life, the stark reality that Ray and Martha were not just lovefools but deeply sociopathic really started to set in.
That tipping of the balance from over-the-top camp to realistic greed and cruelty served to underline the horrific nature of the situation more than if the film’s earlier darkness, like Martha’s weird antisemitism (it’s worth noting that the actress herself was Jewish) or her cold and apathetic abandonment of her mother in an old-folks home, had been more of a throughline. As it is on the screen, they call to mind the technicolor melodramas of Douglas Sirk made stark by the lack of color, which gives the whole thing a feeling of being overdramatized but desaturated, like one of the romance novels that the real Martha Beck idealized if it had instead ended in a double murder (or the serial murders of 20 people, the number that some sources claim as the victims of the real Honeymoon Killers). There’s also something endearing about the staginess of it all, the gritty cheapness and spare place-setting making it feel like an overlong episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which of course elicits positive feelings from me.
Britnee, one of the things that really stood out to me, especially given that this was a first-time director with no apparent background in film, was the abundance of strategic uses of narrative shortcuts alongside unobtrusive foreshadowing (the fact that Martha is introduced scolding two lovebirds who let their feelings overwhelm their professionalism to literally explosive results is particularly clever). The first time this is apparent in the moment is in the way that Martha and Ray’s letters become more and more breathless and rushed as a way of accelerating what could otherwise be a dull recitation of other people’s love letters. Britnee, what are some of your favorite techniques used here, and which ones do you think work particularly well?
Britnee: One of the biggest strengths of The Honeymoon Killers is that the film doesn’t waste screen time. There are no prolonged, boring scenes like in most films from the 1960-70s, because the film’s small budget didn’t allow it. Martin Scorsese was initially hired to be the film’s director, but he was taking too much time to direct each scene. Time is money in the movie world, so this wasn’t great for the budget. One of the few scenes Scorsese directed was the one where Martha attempts to drown herself, one of the longest scenes in the film. Thankfully, Scorsese was quickly replaced with inexperienced Kastle. I can only imagine what the short sequence detailing Martha and Ray’s love letters would have been like if Scorsese directed it.
I love how Kastle was able to incorporate so many of the victims’ individual experiences with Ray and Martha in the film. There’s no silly five-minute montage of all the crimes committed by the duo, nor was there ever too much time spent on any of the individual victims. Instead, for most of the victims, we see what occurs from the moment Martha and Ray enter their lives until their grim ending in a matter of minutes. I think Kastle’s lack of experience is what gave him the ability to do this. He saw movies through the eyes of the viewer, and that gave him the ability to make a movie that the average moviegoer would appreciate.
After re-watching the movie for this discussion, I found myself more concerned about the relationship between Martha and Ray. At first, it seems like they are both two sociopaths who miraculously found each other, but after watching it again, I was so focused on figuring out if they were truly in love. Martha comes off as being so desperate for companionship that she clings onto Ray because he’s the first man to come into her life (as far as we know, at least). Ray seems to use Martha for assistance with his schemes, but when she has her suicide attempts (both real and fake), he can’t bear to lose her.
Brandon, is Martha controlling Ray or is Ray controlling Martha? Or do they both actually love each other in some sick way? What are your thoughts on their relationship?
Brandon: I suspect it’s the mystery of that relationship dynamic that made the real-life Lonely Hearts Killers such a tantalizing tabloid story and, thus, a large factor in how this movie got greenlit in the first place. Sure, Raymond & Martha’s peculiar method of baiting their victims through personal ads & the brutality of the resulting crimes are remarkable on their own, but it was likely public speculation around the details of their romantic dynamic that really piqued the morbid curiosity of Kastle & his audience. It’s difficult to imagine, for instance, two unromantically tied men posing as brothers to pull off this scheme enjoying as much tabloid longevity & thematic foundation for a movie as Martha & Raymond posing as a brother-sister duo. The movie’s main hook to audiences already familiar with newspaper coverage of the crimes depicted is in supposedly offering intimate insight into a bizarre romance outsiders struggle to wrap their heads around, even though the filmmakers likely knew as little about Raymond & Martha’s private rapport as anyone else.
As for my own speculation on their private dynamic, I personally read the Martha-Raymond romance as the archetypal story of the cunning con man who finally meets his match. Raymond appears to be used to running his grifts from afar, by letter, only popping in to seduce & collect when it was time to seal the deal. After the payoff, he would then retreat back to the safety & anonymity of his big city apartment hundreds of miles away from his target. When Martha appears at that apartment, bullying her way into his professional & romantic life, Raymond either doesn’t have the fortitude to turn her down or he is genuinely impressed with her gall, given how different that response was from the women he normally bowls over & leaves behind brokenhearted. I read Martha’s refusal to be just another grift as something that genuinely impressed Raymond, so that he fell in love with her through admiration of her audacity. As presented in the movie, I believed them to truly be in love, even if the violent, impulsive, controlling tendencies they employed in their grifts also privately manifested in ways that eventually led to their romantic (and legal) downfall.
It’s difficult to tell, however, if my interpretation of this relationship following the con-man-meets-his-match romantic trope is a result of my watching too many crime pictures or if that was Kastle’s desired intent. CC, do you think Kastle tips the scale in influencing how audiences are meant to understand the Martha-Raymond relationship dynamic or does he attempt an editorial distance to allow personal interpretations to develop on their own, the same way tabloid coverage would encourage amateur speculation?
CC: Awww, Mark! Thank you! I’ve never been super confident about my writing, so hopefully this will be a way for me to strengthen my voice while also putting my MoviePass to work (while it lasts).
Brandon, I think what Kastle made was a brutally honest portrait of a relationship. Sometimes, I didn’t feel like Raymond really loved Martha, as evidenced by his constant two-timing and generally duplicitous behavior. Sometimes, I feel like Martha didn’t really care who she shared her crime-novel-fantasy-come-to-life with, just as long as she got to live out one of her stories. But other times, they were so desperately in love any other alternative just didn’t make sense. Just like a real dysfunctional relationship, sometimes their love was apparent, sometimes it was buried under resentment and possessiveness. I think that’s ultimately the strength of this film: its willingness to be honest, no matter how ugly. I think a different filmmaker would have skewed too far towards either romanticizing their relationship (oh, look at these lovebirds, torn apart by their passions for each other!) or focusing only on the brutality of it (both trapped in a doomed relationship). Kastle definitely kept his distance from his subjects. We never get real insights into their motivations or inner dialogue; we just see their actions play out on screen. Maybe that leads to some people thinking this is a true love story or maybe it’s a case of two sickos manipulating each other.
As Britnee mentioned in the introduction, Leonard Kastle was originally more well known for his original operas and musical compositions. He said later in life that he had plenty of other screenplays he wanted to direct, but everyone wanted him to do another Honeymoon Killers. It’s interesting, then, that what ended up being his only feature film doesn’t stray too far from his operatic roots, even if its similarities to opera aren’t immediately apparent. It feels akin to professional wrestling, where it looks so different from a soap opera that people have trouble understanding that they have the exact same narrative structure. Mark, do you think that Honeymoon Killers is at its heart an American Opera (minus the music)?
Boomer: You’re definitely onto something here, CC. There are two major stereotypes about opera that have penetrated into the general consciousness and immediately come to mind when the subject arises: that all operas are tragic (although this isn’t necessarily true) and that women who perform in operas are often larger than what is the current, contemporary “ideal” shape for women (i.e., references to “the fat lady” singing). Although this heftiness is frequently exaggerated, it has its basis in fact and physics: small bodies generate higher sounds, and larger bodies generate deeper sounds. I’m not just talking about humans; go search for videos of little lion cubs learning to roar (or just click here) and compare that to the terrifying sound of a full grown lion’s roar. Although Kastle didn’t write this screenplay and wasn’t the first choice to direct, there’s definitely something operatic about the full-figured Martha Beck that I can see being an influence on Kastle’s decision to present her as a kind of tragic figure. She’s mad, surely, but so were Medea and Lady MacBeth in their respective operatic adaptations. Her story is a tragic one: unloved and unlovable, tied down to a shrew of a mother who belittles her (not that it makes the scene of her being left at the old folks home any less hear-rending); taken with a man who reveals his true colors as a con artist and a rake, he commits to her but only when it is convenient for him and he doesn’t seem to understand the meaning of the word “faithful.”
It’s also certainly American in the sense that it represents the truth about the dark underbelly of the so-called American dream. Martha can’t truly succeed in the world, even in her profession, because she is constantly sidetracked by having to tend to the libidos of her co-workers who lack self-control, or to the needs of her haranguing mother. Raymond has no real skills other than his charm, which is often vaunted as the most important asset in making your way up the corporate ladder, as evidenced by Fast Company‘s “5 Tips To Charm Your Way To The Top” or Forbes‘s exultation of the importance of charm and charisma in the business world. Despite his seductiveness (much of which is actually rather charmless at points, but his victims are so starved for attention that they fail to notice), he never manages to put it to use doing something with any kind of long-term returns on investment, instead going for the same kind of windfalls over and over again without much thought of the future. His need to take advantage isn’t motivated by a desire for wealth, but is compulsive and psychological, much like the aforementioned Lady MacBeth’s thirst for power. Both Ray and Martha are tragic figures, and that contributes to the overall operatic quality of the film.
Boomer: There’s a really great YouTuber named Sideways who did a fantastic video about how to make music scary, but it has apparently been deleted (another great one about the use and misuse of indigenous music and the “exotic” music styles that are used to evoke the sound of indigenous music despite being, like, Hungarian has also been deleted). I wanted to link it here, but since it’s gone, I’ll just say that he talks about how the pairing of small, high pitched chords with low chords creates a kind of neurological feedback that induces anxiety. It’s simply a matter of physics that large animals make scary, deep, low sounds, and smaller animals make comical high noises, so we are biologically programmed to consider low noises, like roars, more frightening than high noises, like birdsong. By pairing high and low chords, our brains are tricked into a kind of anxious state. That doesn’t have much to do with Martha and Ray per se, but does explain why larger women are generally better for opera over music which is not pitched as low.
Brandon: I’m always a sucker for a long-winded, sensationalist title card intro for a genre picture and The Honeymoon Killers packs a doozy: “The incredibly shocking drama you are about to see is perhaps the most bizarre episode in the annals of American crime. The unbelievable acts depicted are based on newspaper accounts and court records. This is a true story.” Now that’s how how you reel in a captive audience, some real carnival barker shit.
Britnee: The best victim is without a doubt Janet Fay, the 66 year old crazy Catholic who enjoys cheap cafeteria lunches. She is such a bizarre character. Between her funky feathered hat and her obsession with two large framed Jesus portraits, just about everything she does is hilarious.
CC: I can’t stop thinking about that early mark, the homely schoolmarm Doris Acker of Morris County NJ, knees pulled to her chest vigorously scrubbing her bony body in a washtub, bellowing “America The Beautiful.” America, the beautiful indeed!
ALSO, I just found out that University at Albany has a collection of Kastle’s papers in their archive, including early drafts for Honeymoon Killers. Swampflix trip y’all?!
Upcoming Movies of the Month
September: Boomer presents Live Freaky! Die Freaky! (2006)
October: CC presents The Pit (1981)
November: Brandon presents Planet of the Vampires (1965)
December: Britnee presents Cloak & Dagger (1984)
January: The Top Films of 2018
-The Swampflix Crew