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“Why don’t you go to bed, honey. I’ll bag the Nazi and straighten up around here” isn’t the sort of dialogue one expects to hear in a high-style comedy. Neither is “Those amputees get awfully mean if they don’t get their grub.” But Eating Raoul (1982), one of the most bizarrely sophisticated movies ever made, is far from ordinary. No, it’s not Lubitsch—but it’s not quite John Waters either. What director-star-writer Paul Bartel and his chief collaborators—coscripter and actor Richard Blackburn and leading lady Mary Woronov—serve up is a “comedy of murders” (as Chaplin called his Monsieur Verdoux) that neatly mixes the crisp politesse of the Ealing Studios classic Kind Hearts and Coronets and the savage black humor of The Loved One, with a soupçon (as the title clearly indicates) of Sweeney Todd.
Cannibalism in modern-day Los Angeles? That’s the very thing that may have put off the otherwise intrepid Roger Corman, the B-movie maestro who had employed Bartel and Woronov so successfully in such drive-in delights as Death Race 2000 (1975) and Hollywood Boulevard (1976). See, Corman had just financed The Territory (1981), a presumed-to-be thriller about a group of vacationers who find themselves eating one another. But as directed by freewheeling avant-gardist Raul Ruiz, from a script by puckish surrealist Gilbert Adair, The Territory bore nary a trace of Ruggero Deodato gross-out, and no on-screen human consumption scenes—thus rendering it “unreleasable” as far as the auteur of The Viking Women and the Sea Serpent was concerned (it did play in Europe, though). Eating Raoul may also disappoint those looking for another Cannibal Holocaust, but don’t imagine that its swingers would be at home in Design for Living. For Eating Raoul is a genuine original—a “bad taste” comedy executed with exquisite taste, utterly disarming in its mixture of the subtle and the broad.
By 1982, the so-called sexual revolution had lost all ability to shock. The three Johns—O’Hara, Updike, and Cheever—had mined adultery in the suburbs down to its last zircon. Studio 54 had made “bisexual chic” banal. Consequently, a loving but square, seemingly platonic couple like Paul and Mary—our film’s antiheroes—appeared as radical as the Baader-Meinhof Gang. Well aware of the fact that their anti-licentiousness puts them at some distance from the world they live in, they’re not resentful. If they can’t convince others to follow their example in the bedroom, they can at least offer them a decent meal in their dreamed-of “Country Kitchen.” The deliciously unexpected irony is that Paul and Mary find a way to finance their restaurant by appealing to the very people they despise—the swingers who infest their apartment building. In other words, Vice becomes the Mother of Invention.
It all begins in the lowest of keys. Having lost his latest job, at a liquor store (he was ordering cases of Château Lafite Rothschild rather than the rotgut the customers preferred), Paul sadly returns home, where he and Mary (who has steady but scarcely lucrative employment as a nurse) were planning to cook dinner for their real estate scout, James (Blackburn). But a drunken and extremely aggressive swinger (Garry Goodrow) has forced his way into the apartment and is forcing his unwanted attentions on Mary. When Paul tries to intervene, he gets stabbed in the leg with a kitchen knife. So he picks up the frying pan in which Mary was planning to cook dinner and knocks the creep dead. Surprised at their ability to deal with such a situation so efficiently, the couple are further delighted when they discover that the just-deceased is flush with cash. As they stuff his body in the garbage disposal, a modus operandi occurs to them. Clearly there are more “perverts” where this creep came from—they pass up and down the halls of the apartment building day and night, looking for an orgy—people no one would miss if they should suddenly disappear, and all carrying cash to pay for their pleasures. So Paul and Mary decide to place ads in the sleazoid press, promising all manner of depraved delights, to lure the suckers in, bop them with the frying pan, and rake in the dough.
Pretty simple, right? Well, not that simple, for this is where Raoul (Robert Beltran) comes in. An exceedingly clever con man and thief who has been lurking around the building for some time, Raoul is not only on to what Paul and Mary are up to, he wants to join in. Give him a cut of the profits and he’ll dispose of the bodies—no questions asked. Paul and Mary, being amateur serial killers, find this quite copacetic. Little do they know that Raoul is getting even more money by selling the cars the victims leave behind and then selling the meat off their corpses for (brace yourself) dog food. Making matters both better and worse is the fact that the smoking-hot Raoul has revived the prissy bluestocking Mary’s long-dormant libido. Does this mean she and Paul are kaput? There’s that title again. No, there’s no real suspense here, and it’s clear with a comedy like this that everything will turn out all right in the end—at least for our couple. But getting there is more than half the fun, and that’s what makes Eating Raoul so special—offscreen as well as on.
The Corman turndown didn’t faze the fearlessly resourceful Bartel. He started production anyway—shooting select scenes on “short ends” (the partial rolls of unexposed film stock left over from other productions), carefully editing the results, and arranging screenings for potential backers. And so the first assemblage of Eating Raoul that saw the light of a projector lamp was just ten minutes long. The money collected from these screenings was combined with a loan from his parents (made after they sold their New Jersey home), and Bartel was eventually able to complete Eating Raoul in twenty-two days, over the course of a year, for a mere $500,000. Not nearly enough to pay for the coffee consumed during the shoot of Titanic, but a figure that exemplifies what seat-of-your-pants independent filmmaking is really all about.
What Eating Raoul lacks in production values it more than makes up for in moviemaking zest. For Bartel was able to engage a number of first-rate comedy performers and “special guest stars.” Besides Goodrow (a veteran of both the Living Theatre and the Los Angeles improv group the Committee), Eating Raoul boasts Buck Henry (The Graduate); Ed Begley Jr. (Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman; She-Devil), contributing a memorable turn as a “flower power”–obsessed customer; the irrepressible Edie McClurg (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off); fellow directors Jonathan Kaplan (The Accused) and John Landis (An American Werewolf in London); and even film critic Myron Meisel. That’s him in the scene where Paul and Mary eradicate a bevy of orgygoers in a hot tub by tossing in a space heater. Sound gruesome? Well, it’s not. It’s hilarious.
Bartel, who passed away in 2000, was born in Brooklyn, and his career as a director and actor in independent film began in New York. But when he moved to Los Angeles in 1972, he took to the place like the proverbial duck to water—especially to its sexual margins, as evidenced by the indescribably weird Private Parts (1972, not to be confused with the 1997 Howard Stern film of the same name), about the denizens of an exquisitely seedy downtown L.A. hotel, including a fetishist addicted to injecting human blood into rubber blow-up sex dolls. He made notable comic raunchfests post–Eating Raoul, the most memorable being the Tab Hunter and Divine–starring western spoof Lust in the Dust (1985) and the cool, almost Rohmer-like romp about ambitious houseboys bedding their gorgeous and well-fixed employers (Mary Woronov and Jacqueline Bisset) Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills (1989). Besides Eating Raoul, the above-mentioned delights, and the Corman-produced sci-fi comedy-thriller Death Race 2000, Bartel’s directorial legacy includes the comedy-of-paranoia classic The Secret Cinema (1966, expertly remade for television by Bartel in 1986). His impact as a performer was quite extensive. Like the classic comic character actors of Hollywood’s golden age (e.g., Robert Greig, Eric Blore, Franklin Pangborn), Bartel was always the same—speaking his lines in rich, resonant tones, as if they were Shaw or Shakespeare, even though they were light-years away from the classics. It’s impossible to forget his turn as the high school teacher who becomes a Ramones fan in Rock ’n’ Roll High School (1979), or as the Z-movie director explaining to an actor in a Godzilla suit what his “motivation” is in Hollywood Boulevard, not to mention his demented doctor in Joe Dante’s “Reckless Youth” segment of Amazon Women on the Moon (1987), counseling a VD-infected Carrie Fisher against “fast cars with rumble seats.” If you were looking for someone to deliver utterly absurd dialogue with absolute seriousness, the go-to guy was Paul.
Mary Woronov came from an entirely different context. She was a college student in Boston when an invite to Andy Warhol’s infamous Silver Factory (via Andy’s second-in-command, Gerard Malanga, who, with an eye for female beauty second to none, was primed for the stately likes of Mary) resulted in roles in such outré confections as Shower, Superboy, Hedy, and, most important of all, Chelsea Girls (all 1966). She didn’t regard this as “acting” at the time. Warhol was an artist, and she was simply one of the materials he was working with—like a performer in “happening” free-for-alls. But the genuine acting bug took hold nonetheless, and on moving to Los Angeles, she found herself supplementing her career as a painter and occasional writer (she would eventually publish Swimming Underground, a 1995 memoir of the Warhol years, and Snake, a 2000 novel) with roles in films as varied as Night of the Comet (1984), Black Widow (1987), and Dick Tracy (1990). She has noted, though, that her partnership with Bartel (friends, allies, and fellow bohemians to the manner born, they appeared in seventeen films together) occupies a very special place in her heart. This is obvious from the scene in Eating Raoul where, in a Minnie Mouse–like outfit and having served up the latest sex maniac to Paul’s trusty frying pan, she sits down, exhausted, in a chair and complains about the heat—as if she were a typical wife finding it hard to unwind after a long, hard day. You don’t get roles like that all the time. But you don’t get directors like Paul Bartel very often either—or films like Eating Raoul, which after all these years is still as scrumptiously sui generis as ever.
Over a nearly five-decade career as a film critic, David Ehrenstein has written for such publications as Film Culture, Film Comment, Film Quarterly, Cahiers du cinéma, and Positif. His books include The Scorsese Picture: The Art and Life of Martin Scorsese; Open Secret: Gay Hollywood, 1928–2000; and Masters of Cinema: Roman Polanski. He lives in Los Angeles.