For Mary and Paul Bland, the protagonists of Eating Raoul, the world never stops offending. A sexless but happily married couple played by former Warhol star Mary Woronov and her frequent on-screen partner Paul Bartel—the film’s director and co-writer with Richard Blackburn—the Blands dream of opening an old-fashioned country restaurant, but can’t seem to get ahead, held back by bills and unexpected unemployment. (Turns out the corner liquor store employing Bartel didn’t need a healthy supply of expensive French wine.) So they’re stuck instead in their tastefully retro apartment in the middle of one of Los Angeles’ most tasteless corners, surrounded by swingers who, gasp, even invite them to loosen up and join their party. But when one violates their home, and attempts to violate Woronov, they kill him, pick his pockets, and hit on an idea: Why not take out an ad in a sleazy local newspaper to attract sexual perverts and repeat the process until they have money enough to get out? After all, who’s going to miss a few swingers anyway?
Turns out, no one. One of the darkest, if uncommented upon, touches of this gleefully dark comedy is that the protagonists’ actions have no consequences. Sure, they have to dispose of the bodies, and eventually enlist the titular unethical locksmith (Robert Beltran) to help with that task, but they live in an early-’80s L.A. that’s descended into a consequence-free place of irredeemable debauchery, a city where taboos get shattered on an hourly basis (even the most basic of taboos; note the title). It’s a sly satire that fit right into the times, becoming an arthouse hit in 1982 and developing a cult following in the VHS era. Exemplars of uptight middle-class conformity—apart from the murder and the sex ads—the Blands fought the culture war years before it had a name.
The film’s a bit more complicated than that, though. For all their aspirations to dull prosperity, the Blands’ backsliding social standing makes them have-nots in a decade that preferred haves. Eating Raoul makes it hard not to see where the protagonists are coming from, too. They’re awful, sure, but the people around them are worse. Theirs is an L.A. where the sexual revolution’s promise of freedom has tapered out into a bunch of flabby debauchees in tasteless clothing with nothing on their mind but scoring the next fuck. A blow on the head with a frying pan might be the best thing for them.
Despite the casual homicide and a premise rich with Reagan-era political undertones, the gleeful satire draws inspiration as much from Bugs Bunny as Luis Buñuel. Bartel liked to cite British comedies like The Ladykillers and Kind Hearts And Coronets as inspiration, and Eating Raoul shares their embrace of genial violence. But it owes just as much to the B-movies of Roger Corman, for whom Bartel spent the ’70s working as a character actor and director, most famously with the equally twisted, and pointed, post-apocalyptic chase movie Death Race 2000. Corman passed on the chance to make Raoul, which most likely gave Bartel a chance to push the black comedy further than he might have in the Corman system, rounding out the cast with members of L.A.’s improv scene like Ed Begley, Jr., Edie McClurg, and future Pee-wee’s Playhouse co-star John Paragon (who has a memorable scene as a pushy sex-shop clerk). Barel had learned lessons from Corman, though, never allowing the satire to get in the way of a steady flow of sex and violence.
That’s part of the reason Eating Raoul still plays so well, but it’s the spirit of the film that sets it apart, the sense that those making it knew they were getting away with something they’d probably only be able to pull off once, so why not take it all the way? Everyone’s a target here: the repressed, the liberated, the rich, the poor, and, above all, those in the middle looking on in disgust at those around them, whether hoping to move up in the world or secretly desiring to lose themselves in the flesh parade. And how to get what they want? Best to start eating or risk getting eaten.
Key features: Two terrific early Bartel shorts: “The Secret Cinema,” from 1968, in which a woman discovers her life has unknowingly been the subject of a film series (Bartel later remade it for Steven Spielberg’s ’80s series Amazing Stories, and no doubt the makers of The Truman Show knew of it), and “Naughty Nurse,” an ahead-of-its-time kink-positive short. Also included: a new documentary featuring Woronov, Beltran, and others, and a chummy audio commentary with Blackburn and some key members of the production staff. Most striking about these features is the way no one can resist doing an impression of Bartel, who died in 2000 at the age of 61 and who, by all evidence, brought the haughty mannerisms of his on-screen persona into real life. Or vice versa. Either way, they almost, but never quite, mask the wicked sense of humor beneath the veneer of class.