The Honeymoon Killers Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: A Striking Portrait of Isolation

A one-and-done feature from Leonard Kastle, The Honeymoon Killers subverts expectations of exploitation.
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The only film ever directed by opera composer Leonard Kastle, The Honeymoon Killers wears its influences on its sleeve, but never feels derivative or carbon-copied. The story, based on the real-life “lonely heart” killings by Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck, is pure exploitation fodder, and while Kastle’s film acknowledges the luridness, it also dabbles in kitchen-sink realism and rhythms of alienation that recall some of the French New Wave. Kastle doesn’t gawk at his twisted subjects, instead opting to make their social and romantic hopelessness deeply felt.

The Honeymoon Killers also might have the best backstory of a “one-and-done” filmmaking debut, with Kastle stepping in to direct the screenplay he wrote when a young Martin Scorsese was fired for his painstakingly slow direction. With a scant budget of only $150,000, there was no time for that kind of artistry. And yet, the finished product belies its humble roots, with Kastle coaxing out a number of striking, gorgeous images in the midst of the film’s horrific (and sometimes, crudely funny) events.

Shirley Stoler stars as Martha, a nursing administrator downtrodden by her weight and lack of romantic prospects. When a friend (Doris Roberts) secretly signs her up for a dating-by-mail club, she’s reluctant, but quickly won over by the florid prose of Raymond (Tony Lo Bianco). Soon, he’s arrived in town, seduced her, taken some of her money, and disappeared.

Undaunted by the manipulation, Martha pretends Ray’s deceit has sent her tumbling toward suicide, so he allows her to come by for a visit in New York. Soon, she’s partnering with him in a series of schemes where Ray marries a lonely woman before stealing all of her cash and jewelry and murdering her.

Martha and Ray’s respective dishonesties imbue their entire relationship with uncertainty, and while they succumb to what appears to be a genuine love affair, their questionable motivations set the romance on edge. While Lo Bianco’s smooth and smarmy performance oozes duplicity, Stoler’s forcefully passionate turn sees her consumed by love and hate in equal measure. Posing as Ray’s sister, she’s forced to watch him woo other women, and Stoler’s seething is magnetic and terrifying.

The couple’s escapades grow bolder and sicker, as they move from a pregnant woman (Marilyn Chris) to an elderly widow (Mary Jane Higby) to a young mother (Kip McArdle). Kastle’s murder scenes range from shockingly blunt (in one, a hammer is suddenly employed) to tightly controlled and horrifyingly suggestive (a close-up of a woman’s eyes, a slowly encroaching camera on Lo Bianco’s stunned face).

A key shot of The Honeymoon Killers pictures Stoler’s Martha in the midst of a possible change of heart. Throughout the film, Kastle shoots her in odd compositions, her head stuck way down in a distant corner of the frame. Here, in a dark house, she’s framed way on the right side of the image, which is entirely black except for a sliver of light she’s standing in. It’s a potent picture of isolation, and after making a crucial phone call, she moves into the blackness, swallowed up a loneliness that was never quite overcome.

Criterion’s Blu-ray upgrade presents the film in a 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer that represents a significant upgrade from their original DVD, released all the way back in 2003. Based on a new 4K scan of the original camera negative, the transfer is clean and film-like, with impressive levels of fine detail, particularly in the film’s use of deep-focus photography. The uncompressed mono soundtrack is also reasonably clean, but can sound a little harsh at points, due no doubt to the low-budget nature of the production.

Carried over from the previous release is an interview with the now-late Kastle, who fondly remembers the experience and mentions his desire to get a long-gestating sophomore film project off the ground (unfortunately, it never happened). A new piece cuts together interviews from actors Tony Lo Bianco and Marilyn Chris and editor Stan Warnow, while Scott Christianson’s slideshow-style piece on the real killers has been upgraded to a visual essay. A trailer and an essay by critic Gary Giddins round out the supplements.

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