Back before the internet, “cult” films became known by word of mouth, and by books. I can remember, for instance, first hearing of Taxi Driver and Targets in the same film book I took out of the library. One of the first books on cult films was Danny Peary’s Cult Movies, which covered many films that were largely or completely critically ignored. While now these movies are generally well known, and, like The Honeymoon Killers, often are available in beautiful Criterion DVDs, then they were often hard to find, regulated to midnight shows, short runs, or late night spots on TV.
The Honeymoon Killers is based on the real life story of Martha Beck and Ray Fernandez, who met via a “lonely hearts” club in the 1940s. Ray was a conman who used the then popular clubs to meet and rip-off lonely women. Martha was an obese, divorced mother of two and victim of childhood sexual abuse at hand of her brother (he raped her repeatedly when she was 13). Martha was also under the thumb of her domineering mother. Martha and Ray seemed to strangely hit it off, and soon Martha moved from Mobile to NYC to be with Ray. The arrangement made Ray’s preferred way to make a living difficult, but they continued to fleece women despite the fact that Martha was a nurse. Martha would pose as Ray’s sister, but her jealousy made the con difficult, and eventually they began a series of murders, which, when discovered, became a media sensation, both due to the prurient nature of their crimes and because of Martha’s weight. After a shoddy, dual trial, the pair was sent to Sing Sing to be electrocuted, still writing one another love letters (well, Ray was writing love letters to his wife back in his home country of Spain as well) up until the end.
First (and thus far only) time writer-director Leonard Kastle made the film in response to seeing Bonnie and Clyde, another film about a sensational murderous couple that Kastle felt glamorized crime and criminals and made them beautiful. Kastle took the story of Martha and Ray, did research, and wrote a screenplay using some of the elements of the story, but also elements of his own, including scenes satirizing modern suburban life, and making the victims stand in, more or less, for the establishment at points (we get a skinflint of a religious old woman, and an ultra-patriotic war widow who bakes a cake for Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, for example). Kastle was able to get the film funding (an even-then paltry sum of $150,000, which adjusted for inflation would be just under $900,000 today) but the initial choice for director-Martin Scorcese (Mean Streets)-turned out to be, according to Kastle, too extravagant for the tiny budget. Eventually Kastle himself directed the film, concentrating on performances-many rehearsals with few actual shots-and largely sticking to his budget conscious script.
The budget conscious black and white photography and the excellent performances give the film an almost documentary feel, and there are some truly amusing moments of black comedy (a meal at a cheap cafeteria in which the old skinflint advises Martha and Ray what to buy and berates the staff for deficiencies in the food) as well as real horror (one victim is unable to move but conscious and we watch her eyes as the pair argues about her fate) that are hard to match. Leads Shirley Stoler (Seven Beauties) and Tony Lo Bianco (God Told Me To) are excellently cast, though at some points Stoler isn’t quite up to her demanding role (or, just as possibly, Kastle was forced to use poor takes). The striking images are mixed in with some overly slowly paced scenes, especially in the beginning, and Kastle throws in the occasional weak moment. Compare with the recent movie based on the same story which stars Jared Leto and Salma Hayek-yes, an amazingly beautiful woman-as the thoroughly plain Martha and Ray and you’ll see that they really don’t make them like this anymore, if they ever did. That unglamorous look extends to the supporting cast, who all feel pretty authentic, and includes mostly TV actors (most notably Doris Roberts (“Everybody Loves Raymond”) as Martha’s friend Bunny) and unknowns. Even the murders themselves are stripped of glamor, and include real life details and arguements thrown in with the murder. The film is definitely unlike anything else you will see, and Kastle’s goal-an honest, unglamorous look at a pair of murderers who were very much in (some kind of) love is worth a look for true crime fans or fans of the unusual.