Thursday, September 11, 2014

ALLELUIA: The Honeymoon Killers (1969)

The story of the real-life Honeymoon Killers--Raymond Hernandez and Martha Beck--is chilling, while the story behind the movie The Honeymoon Killers seems too unbelievable to be true.

 Director Leonard Kastle was an "opera composer, librettist, and director" and the film was his first and only foray into cinema. It wasn't the first acting venture for the two leads, however.

Tony Lo Bianco was on TV shows like Get Smart before The Honeymoon Killers. As compelling as Lo Bianco's performance is as Raymond Fernandez, it's Shirley Stoler as Martha Beck who steals the movie. She's sassy and savage and everything in between, like a John Waters character who hadn't yet been invented. And she was 40 at the time of the film's release, an unheard of age for an actress to make her film debut (then and now).

In 1970, The New York Times' Roger Greenspun said of The Honeymoon Killers:
"Unusually seedy in all its particulars, utterly unflattering to all its characters, sufficiently horrible (but never gratuitously shocking) in the details of its murders, Kastle's film succeeds as a kind of chamber drama of desperate attraction and violent death."
That's a terrific encapsulation of a film that feels as real and uncomfortable as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre but with almost no gore and little suspense. Its success derives from its languid, sinister atmosphere and the way that Stoler and Bianco are both lusty and dispassionate. The murders are shocking in how mundane yet gruesome they are. Stoler's Martha poses as Lo Bianco's sister, which makes his seduction of other women even more unsettling, especially when she's right there while it's happening. It's made more uncomfortable when she poses as a nurse, one wearing the traditional white uniform and cap, a figure who's supposed to be an symbol of comfort but is more like a cinematic precursor to Louise Fletcher's Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975).

The Honeymoon Killers
remained in semi-obscurity, despite cult and critical status, until the Criterion release in 2003. Sadly, Kastle never directed again, despite having written several screenplays. Lo Bianco went on to be in movies like God Told Me To and The French Connection and is still working; his latest role was in 2013's Send No Flowers. Stoler had a lengthy career and was even nominated for a Foreign Language Academy Award in 1976 for her performance as a Nazi prison commandant in Lina Wertmüller's Seven Beauties. She died in 1999 but her legacy lives on.

How does Fabrice Du Welz's interpretation of Raymond and Martha Beck add to this legacy? You'll have to watch Alleluia to find out.

ALLELUIA screening times:
Thu., Sept 11th, 3:00 PM, BLOOR HOT DOCS CINEMA
Sat., Sept 13th, 9:15PM, SCOTIABANK 13

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