Have you got a favorite movie that was either a total bomb at the box office or no one else seems to have ever seen? I’ve got a few, but given the fact that Halloween is nigh and we recently lost an icon of comedy genius, I’d like to talk briefly about one item high on my list right now: the woefully unsung Haunted Honeymoon, which seldom gets mentioned whenever Gene Wilder himself does. This is my Young Frankenstein, my Willy Wonka. And by that I mean a movie starring Gene Wilder that’s close to my heart. I assume we all have one.
Let’s start with a few selling points about Haunted Honeymoon.
- It came out in 1986—you know, the same year some of you may have seen either Top Gun or Troll in theaters (but probably not both)—but the story takes place during the golden age of radio dramas in the late ’30s.
- It’s one of the few films that Gener Wilder directed (it was his last in the director’s chair) and also co-wrote.
- It stars not only Wilder, but his then-wife Gilda Radner, an actress and comedian known especially for her Saturday Night Live roles.
- It stars Dom DeLuise, who was also pretty popular in his day and is still a favorite among Mel Brooks fans.
- It stars Jonathan Pryce, who’s been in so many great things, but most of you kids probably only know him as some robe-wearing priest in Game of Thrones. To which I can only say, please go and watch the movie Brazil.
- It also stars Jim Carter! Wait, you don’t know him by name? Aside from his hilarious role in 1984’s Top Secret and a great slew of other movies and TV shows, he’s Mr. Goddamned Carson on Downton-freaking-Abbey. Does that help?
For all of those reasons you should give this movie your time, but honestly it’s just a fun watch. Haunted Honeymoon is a horror comedy, and the premise is fairly original: two beloved radio actors, stars of the Manhattan Mystery Theater, are about to get married, but one of them, Larry Abbot, has developed an inexplicable phobia—set off by the sound of thunder—and it’s giving him some speech problems. Larry’s uncle, a doctor, suggests a cure that involves scaring Larry “to death,” for which he secures the cooperation of Larry’s fiancée, Vickie Pearle, and the rest of his family.
So the young couple retreat to Larry’s family estate—a great gothic castle overseen by his melodramatic aunt Kate (Dom DeLuise)—for their wedding and honeymoon. There, the uncle’s plans for Larry become intermingled with an actual plot against the family seemingly enacted by a cursed werewolf. The movie is one part golden age horror, one part murder mystery, and three parts Scooby Doo-style caper.
If you’re the kind of person who can’t be bothered with goofball horror comedies like Clue or Transylvania 6-5000, I’ll concede that you probably won’t care for this film. Haunted Honeymoon isn’t a ground-breaker of brilliant plot twists and cinematic wonder. (There’s even a silly dance number because Gene Wilder. It’s no “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” but it’s amusing.)
This film is just an atmospheric comedy where Gene Wilder is at his Gene Wilderest and his cast of friends will make you laugh. It’s got bombastic, over-the-top characters and Dom DeLuise in drag. It’s got eccentric, Edward Gorey-esque relatives, a sinister magician, a stern family butler, and a mousy, high-strung maid. Oh yes, and a smoking werewolf. And thunder, lightning, dramatic music, and hands thrusting out of graves. And a play within a play.
There is, alas, sorrow here, too. It’s hard to talk about this film without talking about Gilda Radner herself, as this was her last acting role. During the making of the movie she was already suffering the signs of the illness that would eventually claim her life, and after a series of misdiagnoses and way-too-late treatments, she died within a few years of its release. Wilder devoted much of his life afterwards to raising awareness of hereditary ovarian cancer, to combat the disease responsible for what he believed had been the needless loss of his wife. Early detection might have changed the outcome. He founded the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Center at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles. Radner’s life, loving marriage to Wilder, and decline are well documented both in her book It’s Always Something and in many print and online articles since.
Sure, Gene Wilder was a big star and he lived like one, with multiple marriages and a certain amount of pre-Internet celebrity mystique. His marriage to Gilda Radner was tragically brief but storied; of it, she wrote, “It felt like my life went from black and white to Technicolor.” They co-starred in three movies and by all reports lived a very happy life together while it lasted.
Now Gene Wilder himself is gone. As the family butler, Pfister, declares though it is obvious already to everyone: “The lights have gone out, madam.”
But not forever. The legacies of both Wilder and Radner combined endure in this film (and the two that came before it). It’s uncommon and always delightful to see a real world relationship play out in movie roles, especially when it’s feels so legit. I mean, sure, we’ve seen celebrity couples act together in movies before, but they’re seldom believable. The chemistry between Gene and Gilda is obvious in the film, but also in some offscreen footage, interviews, and as observed by their friends. With these jokers, it was real, which means sweet but imperfect.
“We’re just like anybody else,” Gilda said in one interview, “Good days, bad days, sometimes funny, sometimes irritable and cranky.”
My takeaway is that Wilder doesn’t carry this film alone. He’s laugh-out-loud funny, but the story works because he’s pretty much exactly what he’s pretending to be: a man in love surrounded by old-timey horror special effects, good physical comedy, and quirky characters. Nothing more, nothing less.
And I also agree with Wilder when he said of Haunted Honeymoon, “It’s my favorite kind of film in the world.” He was referring to the sorts of films he loved as a kid, what he called comedy chillers, that “scared you but you also laughed.”
You could say they don’t make them like this anymore, but that doesn’t have to be true, right?
Jeff LaSala, who’s written some sci-fi/fantasy fiction and gaming articles and now works for Tor, thinks there still aren’t enough movies about haunted houses. And certainly not enough featuring Gene Wilder. For now, he regularly listens to old radio horror dramas. No, really.