Monday, March 25, 2024

“Just a Minor Sex Maniac” - Honeymoon of Horror (1964)

We will now return to the state of Florida to examine the relatively obscure thriller Honeymoon of Horror (1964), the only film directed by Irwin Meyer, producer of films such as Larry Cohen's Deadly Illusion (1987) and the TV movie Legion of Fire: Killer Ants! (1998).

Honeymoon of Horror is not well loved by your universe's prestigious critics. For example, reviewer rsoonsa writes, "The storyline is haphazard, the camera-work is erratic, with quaintly dreadful lighting, and the acting is substandard, often inadvertently comedic." Reviewer john22900 writes, "Almost everything about this production is pretty terrible." And reviewer mdstudio-75425 writes that "only a true aficionado will have the steely willpower of endurance required for full viewing."

Read on for a more realistic appreciation of the hidden gem Honeymoon of Horror...

As the movie opens, a woman wearing a polka-dot dress runs along a highway at night as dozens of cars pass her. Without explanation, the film cuts to a daytime shot of a narrow road, where a man and woman, presumably on their honeymoon of horror, ride in a red Jaguar. As light jazz plays, they pull up beside a mansion and kiss each other.

In voiceover, the woman, Lilli, narrates what is happening: “We’d just been married and Emile was so sweet and formal.” (What more could a woman ask for than a husband who is both sweet and formal?) She adds, “Even in my dreams, I hadn’t dreamt of it as wonderful as this. For me, it was a stairway to heaven, and Emile’s eyes were filled with stars.”

Shockingly, however, the happiness is interrupted when Lilli screams at the sight of a body with a knife in its back lying on the bed!

The body is only a prank, however, as Emile’s rowdy friends have fooled the happy couple. Dozens of them jump out of the closet to surprise Emile and Lilli, which the couple reacts to gracefully.

Lilli meets Emile’s friends for the first time. She learns he has a brother who was born in America, though Emile was born in Europe and has been living there. Also, Emile and his friends are artists (indeed, there is a shirtless drum player, a woman wearing a Flintstones costume, and a belly dancer). Lilli meets Helene, an “old, old friend” of her new husband’s.

Lilli also meets another woman who tells her, “Emile’s hard on a woman. He drives them buggy, they say.”

“Why is that?” Lilli asks.

“He wants to draw the life out of them,” the friend explains. “For his statues, I guess.”

“I guess that’s the meaning of great art,” Lilli says.

“Maybe. But it’s sure hard on the models.”

After many hours of the party, Lilli and Emile go to bed. (Some might say a honeymoon that starts with a party full of artists is a complete honeymoon of horror, but the film continues even after the party.) As they are kissing, Lilli quite naturally asks about Helene. Emile explains that all the artists, including Helene, have keys to his house because they use the place as an art studio. 

“We’ll dance on the stars together, won’t we darling?” Lilli says.

With eloquent imagery, Emile replies, “Yes, then string them all together in a golden chain, and make a necklace just for you.”

In the morning, Lilli gets a mysterious phone call where nobody speaks, and then she meets Hajmir, Emile’s manservant who lives in Emile’s house. “I have been with the master for six years now. And you, madam. Who are you?”

When she tells him she is the master’s wife, he says she must not disturb the master while he is working, which occasionally happens at night.

Later, in a scene some might describe as inexplicable, Lilli faints when she sees the point of a small knife emerging from a keyhole. She immediately awakens to find Hajmir and Emile standing over her. Hajmir explains that the knife is a sculpting knife that Emile misplaced.

“I think it was an accident,” Emile says. “A crazy accident.”

Later, Helene interrupts breakfast by the swimming pool, telling Lilli and Emile that she was beaten up on the way over to their house. Emile walks her back to her car, where she kisses him and complains that his marriage shouldn’t stop their relationship.

In a baffling scene later that day, Emile and some of his artist friends are questioned by a private investigator named Albright who was hired to find a young woman named Nerissa who has gone missing. Albright shows the men a photo of an attractive young woman and they say it could be Nerissa, which the investigator uses as absolute proof that Nerissa is alive and well and living in Mexico. (Albright explains, “We make our money by nosing around and then coming up with the right answer.”) Then the investigator tells Emile, unprompted, that Emile’s brother was committed to an institution. “Brain damage,” Albright says. “Insanity is the better word for it.” Also, Emile’s brother was released into Emile’s custody.

Emile throws the investigator out of his house, though Albright protests he has no negative intentions.

Meanwhile, Lilli fends off the advances of Emile’s brother, the bespectacled and aggressive Max. Lilli runs out of the house, stumbling into the Florida jungle, where she trips over a root and is discovered by another of Emile’s creepy friends, a blind man named Socki who says, “I like to look at nature. It’s true, I can’t see, but my sense of touch is miraculous.” He volunteers to create a statue modeled on Lilli. When she leaves him, he ponders his eloquent philosophy by himself: “From the cradle, then full circle back to the cradle again. The long circle of life. The beautiful circle of life.”

At night, Lilli lies in bed, fully made up. She receives another phone call, but nobody is on the other end.

The next morning, Emile and his friends are lectured by Albright, who has for some reason returned to the mansion. Albright points at a circle in a painting. “The circle,” he says. “The key to it all. The key to life itself. The key to madness, even. That’s true, gentlemen. The insane person is often obsessed by circles.” He adds, perhaps to ingratiate himself with the artists present, “Surely you must realize that art is often a manifestation of a kind of insanity. In asylums, for instance, the inmates paint. It’s called therapy.”

The point of Albright’s visit eventually becomes, if not clear, then somewhat visible. “There was a murder last night on the highway,” he says. “About half a mile from here. The woman was found dead with a large circular gash in her midsection. Almost a complete circle.” He adds that Nerissa is not really in Mexico; her photo was identified as someone else. Albright is putting together various lines of inquiry. He reminds Helene she was attacked and beaten up. 

“Yes,” she says, “but he was just a minor sex maniac, not a murderer.”

Sometime later, a visit by a wealthy patron of the arts named Baron von Turko initiates further plot complications. The baron wants to buy a small gold statue that Emile created, based on Nerissa, the model who has disappeared. In a flurry of exposition, we find out that Max, the lecherous artist, was in love with Nerissa and wanted to ask her to marry him right before she disappeared. The baron decides to buy the small statue for $20,000 but Max grabs it from him angrily.

Later, Lilli swims in the mansion’s pool. A circular sculpture hanging above the pool, made of wires that must weight upwards of two pounds, suddenly falls near Lilli and she screams, apparently having almost died due to the wire sculpture falling. Emile pulls her from the pool. Of course, Lilli is frightened for her life.

The next day, Emile confronts both Max, whom he thinks is up to the violent ways that led him to the asylum, and then the amorous Helene, whom he insults by telling her, confusingly, “You could turn snow black.”

At night, more complications ensue. Lilli receives a phone call from Helene, who is now at the airport, fleeing Florida because she believes her life is in danger. She wants to meet with Lilli, so Lilli rushes to the airport.

Continuing the intrigue, Lilli receives a page at the airport and picks up a phone; Helene tells her to go to the parking lot, where Lilli is chased by a man with a cane, struck by a car (causing her to fall and immediately get up), then given a mysterious note telling her where to find Helene, who may have been kidnapped. Significantly, the note includes a circle, which has been established as an unmistakable sign of insanity.

Lilli calls Albright, who drives her to the address in the note. (This driving scene is scored to familiar library music that would be used four years later in Night of the Living Dead, perhaps the most terrifying aspect of the film.) The drive leads to a Florida swamp, where Albright follows Lilli through the foliage as they look for Helene.

In the thrilling finale, Lilli stumbles upon a phone booth in the swamp. (Albright has disappeared, but he will return in the denouement.)  The phone rings and a man’s voice says he told her to come alone. She runs to a diner but is brushed off by the quirky woman running the place. Then she runs outside. It is suddenly dark. We are at the beginning of the film’s again as she runs away from car headlights on a highway.

Meanwhile, the quirky diner counter woman is killed by an unseen assailant.

Lilli runs all the way to her madam, where he finds Helene dead. After mistaking a mannequin for Emile, she struggles with Hajmir, believing he is the killer, but then Emile hugs her. He takes control of the situation. “It’s over,” he says. “Helene was so beautiful. So beautiful.” He explains about himself, somewhat confusingly, “I had to get away from him. Away from Emile Duvre. He’s a brute and a killer! But you wouldn’t listen!” He admits, “I killed them all. Nerissa. Michelle. Yes, you can see everything. The ugly waitress.”

Then he explains he was looking for a way to give his sculptures life. “And I found the answer in this circle. The circle leads from life to death. The power of life is the power of death. And I have that power, to take life from death and immortalize it forever. That’s why I had to kill, to give life to my statues.” Of Helene, he says eloquently, “Her blood is still wet, but her soul will live forever.”

Emile tries to strangle Lilli but Hajmir stops him. He tells her to run, which she does (having waited for Hajmir’s suggestion). However, Emile catches her and strangles her, but Hajmir rescues her again by throwing a knife into Emile’s back, killing him.

Later, Detective Albright wraps up the situation, explaining to Lilli, “It was a classic case of Jekyll and Hyde. Two men in the same body, both strangers to each other. One man sober and artistic, and the other man a murderer. And the first man never knew what the second man was doing. So you see, Emile in his calm state was totally unaware that he was a killer.” (It must be said that Emile’s final confession/explanation does not match any of Albright’s explanation, suggesting that Albright’s wrap-up at the end is a flight of fancy.)  

As is true of many classics reviewed here on Senseless Cinema, Honeymoon of Horror's title is not in fact accurate. The word "honeymoon" is not accurate at all. Although Emile and Lilli have been married recently when the film begins, their experience is not a honeymoon in any way, as they have simply returned to Emile's mansion to begin their married life. Similarly, the word "horror," though subjective, is absent from the film. Most of the deaths are not shown on screen, though there is some violence involving knives sticking out of people's clothing. Most audiences would certainly consider the film a thriller rather than a horror film. Fortunately, the word "of" is accurate, so the title is not a total loss.

Despite the inaccurate title, Honeymoon of Horror is a solid example of a 1960s "mad artist" film, and one that is more gothic than most, with the newly married ingenue living in the Florida mansion while suspecting various hipsters of sinister foul play. Perhaps the most fascinating (and educational) element is the linkage of circles with madness. Nobody who watches this film will trust circles ever again. I know I will be on the lookout for those sinister shapes from now on, and I hope you will do the same. After all, one can never be too careful.