Ratings Key

= Excellent. The best the genre has to offer.
1/2 = Very Good. Perhaps not "perfect," but undoubtedly a must-see.
★★★ = Good. Accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.
★★1/2 = Fair. Clearly flawed and nothing spectacular, but competently made. OK entertainment.
★★ = Mediocre. Either highly uneven or by-the-numbers and uninspired.
1/2 = Bad. Very little to recommend.
= Very Bad. An absolute chore to sit through.
NO STARS! = Abysmal. Unwatchable dreck that isn't even bad-movie amusing.
SBIG = So Bad It's Good. Technically awful movies with massive entertainment value.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Honeymoon Killers, The (1969)

...aka: Dear Martha
...aka: Lonely Hearts Killers, The

Directed by:
Leonard Kastle

Overweight nurse Martha Beck (Shirley Stoler, in what may or may not actually be her film debut depending on whether or not you believe she's the "Shirley Fitzpatrick" who played the title character in 1959's camp-fest The Astounding She Monster) and her handsome immigrant gigolo/bum lover Raymond Fernandez (Tony Lo Bianco), the "Lonely Hearts Killers" as they'd later become called by the press, met through a singles-ad newspaper correspondence in the 1940s and went on to murder several desperate old battle axes for their money. There was a huge media frenzy during their day as the duo were captured, convicted and finally executed in 1951. Director / screenwriter Leonard Kastle (a replacement for original director Martin Scorsese) uses a completely original approach as far as "true crime" stories go, which will delight certain types of audiences but may leave the purists cold. If you want to see the same exact story told in a more straight-forward, easily accessible manner head straight for Spanish director Arturo Ripstein's wonderful 1996 sleeper Profundo carmesi (Deep Crimson), which takes a different approach to the material but is nearly as good as this one. Regardless, the dialogue in The Honeymoon Killers is often priceless, the stark b/w photography and documentary style approach to the camerawork is a plus and if you're a fan of truly tasteless humor and people plunging into the lowest depths of human behavior, you'll find yourself wondering why you're laughing so much watching these horrible events unfold. Well, you'll be simultaneously laughing and wincing, and maybe even shedding a tear or two for humanity in general. It's an interesting experience to put it mildly.

I know almost nothing about the real "Lonely Hearts Killers," but the deadly duo played so brilliantly by Stoler and Lo Bianco strike up just the right chord with audiences; they anger you, they repulse you and they fascinate you in about equal measure. I thought Martha seemed incredibly desperate and crippled by low self esteem. Apparently the real Martha had been sexually molested, raped and mistreated throughout her youth. The movie doesn't explicitly go there or give specific details about her childhood, but to be as intensely bitter and caustic as the character is in this film, we know she has had a very rough life. I thought they did an adequate enough job hinting at this at the beginning, from her short-tempered interactions with the hospital staff to showing a family dynamic that appears unnurturing and basically alien to her. People don't become that estranged/resentful without good reason, right? The film also does a good job illustrating her intense love for Ray (trying to drown herself when she catches him with another woman, ultimately deciding to spend the rest of her life in jail than allow him to be with other women, etc.), which makes her later descent into savagery seem plausible. Ray was a little more enigmatic, but apparently so was the real Ray. I really didn't pick up on him being someone psychotic (as he may have easily been in real life) but more like a suave sociopathic/remorseless type who will basically do whatever he wants without thinking twice about it (infidelity, theft, murder... whatever!)

I think the filmmakers basically took the skeleton of the true case and then turned it into an original, sick humored comedy about human desperation. I loved how the victims were portrayed and how each were given these eccentric and amusing quirks. I found it to be clever. Sure, it's borderline tasteless (almost slanderous if you want to get technical) to take tragic real-life murder victims (or just use their names) and turn them into oft-irritating weirdos and shrews. However, I liked this as a change of pace to how saintly murder victims are usually portrayed in these types of films. They might as well slap angel wings and a halo on them most the time. There's really no documentation about how these women behaved in real life and we can very easily approach this as a complete work of fiction anyway, so why not? I especially loved the penny-pinching, neurotic Christian lady played so very well by unknown Mary Jane Higby (a former regular "CBS Radio Mystery Theater" actress/writer in her only known film role). She was hilariously grating, yet when she's desperately pleading for her life you can only feel terrible for the poor woman. Loved that performance, plus the leads and the other women who played the victims, especially that oversexed Southern belle who Martha refers to as "the hottest bitch I ever met!"

Like I said, it helps that I am completely in the dark about the Beck / Hernandez case, so I can enjoy this on its own terms instead of having expectations about accuracy. If I actually knew more about this story I might not have the same exact reaction. Definitely a case of ignorance is bliss on my part, I know.


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