In the America of the nineteen-forties, a series of murders occurred which shocked the world and kept headline-writers busy for months. They involved a lovesick nurse called Martha Beck (Shirley Stoler), who was sacked from her hospital job for taking a holiday without telling anyone. Where did she go? To see the gigolo who had hoped to dupe her out of some cash, Ray Fernandez (Tony Lo Bianco). They had contacted each other through a lonelyhearts service, and Martha was so taken with him that she threatened to commit suicide if he didn't take her along with him. But she would do worse than that...
Tales of true crime have long been a staple of cinema, probably for the same reason as they appear in newspapers: a lot of people like to be shocked by the depravity of the worst members of society. Therefore it is not surprising that The Honeymoon Killers would attract a cult following, in spite of its obvious budgetary limitations - or perhaps because of them, with the cheap and sordid atmosphere that the grainy, black and white footage lends an already tawdry subject growing ever more oppressive as the couple willingly descend into hell as long as they can be together.
This film would not be the artistic success it was without two memorable performances inhabiting the title characters, and here Stoler and Lo Bianco found the roles that they would be most identified with, even if they did go on to consistent careers afterwards. As the overweight, granite-faced nurse, Stoler makes a chilling figure, at one moment passive aggressive, the next simply aggressive as the prospective victims all drive her to distraction with their whining or simply their ways of sending her into storms of cold-hearted jealousy.
Lo Bianco is equally as effective as the slightly dim Latin lover who is so in love with Martha that he appears to believe that their romance will conquer all the world of dingy apartments, diners and cramped car trips which make up his life, not to mention the killings and all the planning that goes into them. After Martha dumps her elderly mother in an old folks' home, she and Ray hit the road with spinsters and widows to take advantage of financially along the way, but with disturbing unsentimentality their schemes quickly turn to murder, first with a chatty middle aged woman who, after they have robbed her, they poison and leave to expire in a cross-country bus.
Leonard Kastle had only this film to his credit as director, and even then was brought on board to take over from Martin Scorsese who was not to the producer's liking, but he goes down in history as one of the one hit wonders of the movies. He adopts a documentary style that makes it feel as if the walls are closing in on the characters, forcing them together until they cannot stand each other anymore, but there can be a degree of sick humour to be found here. In fact, you could mistake The Honeymoon Killers for an early John Waters work, if Waters had ever decided to go in for drama instead of comedy; certainly the shock value is there, as is the grotesquerie. By the time of the hammer murder, this has become very uncomfortable viewing indeed, yet Kastle still manages to top it with an act which even horrifies Ray. With the stark look of crime scene photographs, this was a seedy success on its own terms, though hard to really love. The music is taken from Gustav Mahler (apparently at random).