Saturday, November 07, 2015

Review: The Honeymoon Killers (1969)


The movie

Based, albeit somewhat loosely, on the famous real-life story of the so-called ‘Lonely Hearts Killers’ Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck, who in the late 1940s murdered a number of women whom Fernandez seduced through a correspondence matchmaking service with a view to stealing their savings, The Honeymoon Killers is a unique film in many ways – at least, I don’t think I’ve ever seen another quite like it.

Shot in stark, documentary-style black-and-white, on a paltry budget of $150,000, this was the first film to be made by its stars Tony Lo Bianco and Shirley Stoler, all of whose previous acting experience had been confined to the stage; the first to be produced by television current affairs programme-maker Warren Steibel; the first to be written and directed by Steibel’s friend Leonard Kastle, who was actually a composer by profession; and the first to be shot by cinematographer Oliver Wood. In fact, Kastle was the third choice as director – the first was a young Martin Scorsese, just starting out on his career, who was fired by Steibel for working too slowly, although the small amount of material he oversaw was retained in the final edit.

The rookie status of the film-makers and the impoverished nature of the finished production means that, at times, it almost has the look of a student film project. Apparently the actors had to do their own hair and make-up, as no professional input could be afforded for this; and another pointer to the lack of finance is that, instead of a specially-composed score, the soundtrack is comprised of sections from two Gustav Mahler symphonies – the use of which, it must be said, becomes a little over-the-top and distracting at times.

However, in spite of, or perhaps because of, its poverty row trappings, the end product is strangely effective and compelling. There is a cold brutality about the way the couple’s killings are depicted, and it is no surprise to learn that at the time of its release, it was seen as an ‘exploitation film’; indeed, it was banned in Australia until the late 1980s. Over the years, however, The Honeymoon Killers has certainly acquired plenty of admirers – famed French director Francois Truffaut once famously described it as his favourite American film – and reassessing it courtesy of this new Arrow Blu-Ray release, it is easy to see why.

Blu-ray presentation

Arrow have handily packaged the Blu-Ray along with a DVD of the film (not seen for this review), making a very nice dual-format release. With a brand-new 4K restoration, the quality of the Blu-Ray picture is excellent, as is that of the original, uncompressed mono audio. There is also a generous offering of well-presented extras:

Love Letters, a video piece by Robert Fischer featuring actors Tony Lo Bianco and Marilyn Chris and editor Stan Warnow.
Folie à Deux: Todd Robinson, director of the 2006 remake Lonely Hearts, explores the true story of the Lonely Hearts Killers.
Body Shaming: Todd Robinson discusses the film.
Beyond Morality: Fabrice du Welz, director of the 2014 Belgian-French film Alleluia, explains how The Honeymoon Killers inspired him.
Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly-commissioned artwork by Jay Shaw.
Illustrated collector’s booklet (not seen for this review) featuring an extensive new essay by horror author and researcher Johnny Mains on the film and its real-life inspiration, plus archive materials.

Highly recommended.

Stephen James Walker

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