The Honeymoon Killers
Okay, I get why people are missing busy pubs, pounding nightclubs and heaving concert venues. I used to love and frequent all those social sardine-tins for years, often going to four loud, crowded concerts a week, before I came to love staying home watching football more.
What I don’t get is why anyone would miss what’s sweepingly referred to as the dating scene.
I don’t mean the more organic ways of meeting someone: the friend of a friend; the eyes meeting across a crowded bar; the fellow headbanger or raver in your local sweatbox. I mean the one where, based on a brief exchange of flirty messages and dubious photos, you go out for the night with a total stranger in the hope that it could be 4 Real.
The medium may change. Today you swipe right on a profile on a dating app. Back in the 1950s and ’60s you replied by handwritten letter to an ad in a lonely hearts column or dating agency. Sometime in between were things called message boards, a kind of steam-powered Twitter with all the toxicity but less of the HTML functionality.
Then as now, what happens next is pretty much the same: that perfect match transpires to be 10 years older, a foot shorter, a lot uglier and 100% crazier than advertised. Such a dread scenario could mean at best the discomfort of an awkward dinner, followed by an online ghosting or a flurry of unsettling texts. The Honeymoon Killers, a 1970 US film written and directed by Leonard Kastle, is the story of what happens at worst.
The premise is your classic ‘dating scene’ scene: lonely Martha, prevailed upon by her well-meaning friend, starts exchanging romantic letters with a certain Ray. The two meet, the party of the second part scrubs up well, and by the end of their first encounter we see them smooching already. Aww!
Oh, did I mention that Martha is surly and whiny? And Ray has a racket going on where he swindles gullible women through lonely hearts columns? Still, they seem genuinely attracted to each other, to the extent that Martha deposits her mother in a home, moves in with Ray, and starts colluding in his schemes. Soon the grifts get more and more disturbing.
If you enjoy the peculiarly ’50s American true crime vibe of Psycho and In Cold Blood, you’ll like The Honeymoon Killers, which stands up well to those two iconic works. Like the Hitchcock film, it’s shot in a rich black and white of painterly compositions, soundtracked by the Herrmann-esque squalling cellos of Mahler’s 5th and 6th symphonies. And like Capote’s book, the violence is senseless, heartbreaking and genuinely shocking; one such sequence begins with a slow, inexorable prelude — literally step by step — where you gradually realise just what unspeakable thing is about to happen.
Where Kastle departs from Hitchcock and Capote is in how resolutely un-cinematic and realistic this film is. The Honeymoon Killers was his first and only film; originally the director was to be a young unknown called M. Scorsese, but eventually Kastle had to do the job himself. Okay, some of the framing and editing feels ragged, the acting is a bit stagy, and you won’t be quoting any lines of its dialogue to yourself in the mirror. Still, I don’t think we’ve missed out on a Scorsese masterpiece. For one thing, a lot of the pleasure in The Honeymoon Killers is how this sharp, off-kilter story is told in such a sharp, off-kilter way. The future director of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, fresh outta film school, would probably have overbaked The Honeymoon Killers with John Ford grandiosity and nouvelle vague cine-literacy, something closer to the implausible glamour of Bonnie and Clyde. That said, Kastle does treat himself with the marvellous pull-out dolly shot that ends this film with a Hitchcockian flourish.
Added to that, Kastle’s story, based on a real-life couple, is terrifically strong and intense. The lack of a character arc, that artistic conceit where a protagonist changes (or is changed) by force of the events of the plot, actually makes Martha and Ray more believable and terrifying, their victims more pitiful and tragic, their crimes more horrifying. Some people are just not nice. Also, where this film could have been choppy and episodic as the pair move from town to town and victim to unrelated victim, instead it holds together smoothly while those implacable villains glide on like sharks.
The Honeymoon Killers is a sensationally good film in the cult style, and the good news is that as it’s out of copyright you can watch it for free online below. Meanwhile, at least your bad date will furnish you with a good anecdote, provided you live to tell it: