Our second Haunted Honeymoon lives up to its title, though the “honeymoon” here is a pre-wedding trip. Directed and co-written by Gene Wilder, Haunted Honeymoon was a box-office bomb, a bittersweet sentiment considering it was the final film for Wilder’s wife, co-star Gilda Radner and prophetically acts as a love letter to their romance. On-set issues aside, I can’t figure out why Haunted Honeymoon has such a bad reputation because it’s a genuinely funny ode to 1930s and 1940s “old dark house” thrillers, with Wilder and his cast game for a little dip in the dark.
Larry Abbot and Vickie Pearl (Wilder and Radner) are two radio hosts who work on the spooky “Manhattan Mystery Theater.” They’re also meant to be married. But Larry suffers from on-air panic attacks that threaten the duo’s job, so his uncle suggest giving Larry the scare of his life to negate his original anxiety. Larry and Vickie travel to Larry’s ancestral home, where his beloved Aunt Kate (Dom DeLuise) plans on leaving her entire estate to her nephew. But with a litany of cousins also arriving, Larry starts to wonder if someone is truly trying to kill him?
As mentioned, Wilder’s final directorial outing is a bit of a bag of sadness: Radner suffered a miscarriage during filming and started having the symptoms that would be part of the ovarian cancer that claimed her life four years later. With a budget of $13 million the film only did $8 million at the box office, playing in several theaters for a week or less (Wilder’ insistance on adhering to techniques employed during the studio era kept the budget low). The 1970s was the heyday of doing films in the style of 1930s-’40s film, so maybe the time passed Wilder, but that’s the only explanation I can see.
Haunted Honeymoon plays up to the people who watch TCM or have listened to radio suspense dramas like “Lights Out.” The “Haunted Honeymoon” of the title is actually a plotline from Larry and Vickie’s show, and the audience wonders if the drama inspired the reality or the other way around (or was entirely fictional). Inspired by Bob Hope horror films like The Cat and the Canary (1939) and The Ghost Breakers (1940), Wilder introduces his Agatha Christie-esque cast of characters and quickly makes with the scares.
Seeing 1930s horror shots in a 1980s film gives a whiff of fresh air, particularly knowing that in a few short years CGI would dominate. Actual hands hold candelabras – reminiscent of the coat racks in Willy Wonka – floating effects are done with strings (actually part of the joke within the story), and Wilder gets a chance to rely on his physical comedy and reactions. A scene of him trying to get rid of some cops sees Larry using an unconscious man’s legs as his own, resulting in some great hijinks. Wilder’s perpetual paranoiac person works wonders here, playing a character whose name is a callback to The Wolf Man (1941). Larry fears his own history of lycanthropy – which his Aunt Kate casually reveals at dinner with all the flair of asking for the rolls – as well as possessing a general fear of fear itself. His facial contortions as the scares increase are a hilarity in themselves.
Werewolves, an inheritance and possibly murderous family members are nothing new, and the supporting cast don’t hold a candle to our leads. Dom DeLuise in drag is a gimmick that gets old quickly. Considering Wilder wanted this to hearken back to ’30s and ’40s horror features I’m unclear on where he found drag elements. Jonathan Pryce is deliciously wicked as Cousin Charlie (rocking a weird Boston/New York hybrid of an accent). Wilder and Bryan Pringle as the butler Pfister have the best chemistry, anticipating each other’s moves like in this exchange:
Larry: I just found Cousin Francis in my bed.
Pfister: Was he wearing a dress?
Larry: (beat) Yes, he was.
Pfister: Just ask to him to leave, Sir. Tell him you have a headache.
The colorful character pad the haunt’s atmosphere but the joy is in watching Gene Wilder and Gilda Radner play off each other. The on-set and future sadness that plagued the film’s legacy aside their love is branded onto every frame of celluloid. Front-loaded onto the first half of the film, Radner’s beatific smile naturally leaves Wilder smiling. It’s obvious why her on-screen credit, with that captivating smile, is the final image before the screen cuts to black. Radner’s Vickie is Larry’s rock, able to calm his fevered mind with a whispered “I Love You.” Watching the two cuddle is just darling to witness, and it’s coupled with a brief musical interlude at film’s end. Not quite a co-lead, this is Wilder’s show, Radner has several moments to shine. Her beguiling smile segues into cool cattiness during her attempt to push aside Larry’s ex, Sylvia (Eve Ferret). After magically appearing outside Sylvia’s door like a vengeful spirit, Vickie saunters off to protect her man another day.
Maybe I’m a soft touch but Haunted Honeymoon is a fun send-up of the ’30s and ’40s haunted house thriller you should see, if only to enjoy the infectious romance between Wilder and Radner.
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