“Eating Raoul”: A little comedy about murder & cannibalism in the world of L.A. swingers

By on May 5, 2017

Some movies are ahead of their time. Some movies are strictly of their time. Paul Bartel‘s 1982 cult classic Eating Raoul was both.

Eating Raoul debuted in theaters on March 24, 1982, and quickly became one of those movies you heard people on city streets talking about.

The jabber usually went: “Have you seen it? You have to see it!”

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In those days, managers of art cinemas prayed for a movie to have some legs, and Eating Raoul, a little comedy about murder and cannibalism in the world of L.A. swingers, became one of those quirky, sleeper hits that took lasting residence on art house marquees.

Think Repo Man, or Diva, or The Brother from Another Planet.

If the home video boom didn’t come along to put them out of business, Eating Raoul might’ve joined Pink Flamingos as a midnight movie staple.

(You may have noticed from the out-of-date and slightly NSFW trailer we’ve added above that Eating Raoul was screened at L.A.’s Cinefamily theater back in 2011).

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The key to its success back then, and its enduring appeal, is in the extreme likability of the married couple at the center of the story: Paul and Mary Bland. They may have slept in separate beds, but you couldn’t deny their chemistry.

As played by Bartel and Mary Woronov, the Blands are a couple out of touch with their times. Lucky for them, they’ve found in each other a perfect match. For one thing, they’re both disgusted by sex.

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“I don’t mind a little hugging and kissing,” Mary says at one point, appalled by the behavior of their oversexed neighbors.

The Blands live in a Hollywood that appeared to have been born in an old issue of Hustler Letters, with a perverted fiend lurking in every corner.

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A narrator warns:

“It is a known fact that prolonged exposure to just such a psychopathic environment will eventually warp even the most normal and decent people among us.”

The Blands dream of opening a country kitchen restaurant. Unfortunately, Paul has lost his job and their landlord has increased their rent. Things look grim.

When one of the local swingers wanders into the Bland’s apartment by mistake and tries to rape Mary, Paul clobbers the guy with a skillet and kills him. The next day, Paul kills another would-be rapist.

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When Paul and Mary find nearly $1000 in the dead men’s wallets, they hit on an idea. All of these L.A. deviants seem to be wealthy. Since they’re all rotten perverts, it might be reasonable to kill a bunch and take their money to fund their restaurant.

The Blands, you see, despite their wholesome demeanor, are criminally insane.

After placing an ad in a local sex publication, Mary endures a variety of warped clients, including one who demands she dress like a cartoon mouse. Paul dispatches them all with his trusty skillet.

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Fearing that people might “wander in while we’re bopping perverts,” Mary hires a local locksmith to add more security to their apartment.

This is how they meet Raoul, a shady hoodlum who poses as a lock expert so he can break into people’s homes.

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Things grow complicated when Raoul falls for Mary. He’s soon wooing her with Thai stick and the first hot sex of her life.

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Bartel, who at one time worked in animation, keeps the grisly story light by not showing us any blood. Keeping to his cartoonist’s roots, most of the murders are carried out with a simple bonk to the head, Bugs Bunny-style.

Earning his bones by making underground movies and working for producer Roger Corman, Bartel’s earlier features included a peculiar horror film called Private Parts (1972), Death Race 2000 (1975), and Cannonball! (1976).

His first film, a 28-minute short called The Secret Cinema, was one of the first paranoid delusion fantasies.

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As for Woronov, her career dated back to the 1960s, to when she was part of Andy Warhol’s circle. To call her a cult figure is an understatement. John Waters once said, “When I die, I want to come back as Mary Woronov.”

Bartel and Woronov had known each other for years. She’d been in his films, and they’d appeared together as actors in Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979).

As their friendship grew, Bartel wondered if their personalities could actually carry a feature film.

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When Bartel couldn’t convince anyone to cast him and Woronov in a project, he pooled his earnings from Cannonball!, along with money from his parents, to finance his own venture. It would cost a shade less than a half-million dollars.

Bartel wrote the outline with Richard Blackburn in one afternoon at Schwab’s, and then it was off to the 1980 Berlin Film Festival where they finished the first draft. The movie was shot in approximately twenty-two days, spread out over a year or so.

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In an early interview to promote Eating Raoul, Bartel claimed he’d been inspired by two British films, Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), and The Ladykillers (1955). Both films were darkly comic and told from a murderer’s point of view.

Bartel said:

“I wanted to make a film about two greedy, uptight people who are at the same time not so unlike you and me and Nancy and Ronnie, to keep it funny and yet communicate something about the psychology and perversity of those values… My movie touches on many things: the perversion of middle class values, the resurgence of Nixonism, machismo versus WASP fastidiousness, film noir…”

Yet, in another interview Bartel quickly killed any notion of hidden meanings: “I’m not setting out to satirize anything. The film was intended as an entertainment.”

Eating Raoul was the surprise hit of The New York Film Festival, and was fairly well received by critics.

It was even nominated for two Saturn awards from The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, one for Woronov as Best Actress, and one for Best Low Budget Film.

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Eating Raoul certainly had its own tone and style, partly because of Bartel’s unique musical choices.

For instance, where else can you hear a Spanish language version of the old Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels chestnut, “Devil With A Blue Dress On,” performed by Los Lobos?

The movie’s memorable theme song was “Exactly Like You,” an old Jimmy McHugh/Dorothy Fields tune from 1930. The jaunty melody creates an atmosphere of romance that is eventually turned upside down by, you know, a skillet to the head.

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The cast is loaded with familiar faces, too.

Robert Beltran, best known for his work on Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001), played the conniving Raoul.

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Buck Henry and Ed Begley Jr. are funny as a pair of degenerates, the latter playing a hippie who memorably pulls out his nicknamed pecker (saying “Here comes the Duke!”) before he’s strangled with a belt.

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Those with sharp eyes might even notice cameos by Joe Dante and John Landis. They’d direct some of the most popular movies of the ’80s.

The “Real” Don Steele, a longtime L.A. deejay, also makes a cameo appearance as Howard Swine, a foul-mouthed radio announcer and the host of a Hollywood Hills swingers party who has a memorably fatal scene in a hot tub full of naked ladies.

The Blands’ apartment is a character in itself. Located at 7251 Hollywood Blvd and known as the Peyton Hall apartments, the building once housed such luminaries as Cary Grant and George Raft.

By 1980, when work on Eating Raoul began, Peyton Hall had lost some of its old glamor and was more in line with the movie’s opening narrative: “Hollywood: Home to the rich and powerful, yet so popular with the broken and destitute.”

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Art Fein in his Peyton Hall apartment (photo courtesy of Art Fein)

Art Fein, a Los Angeles-based personality known for his long-running public access television show “Poker Party,” lived in the apartment that was ultimately used in many scenes.

Fein recalled for Night Flight:

“The wonderful old apartment complex, where Johnny Weissmuller used to swim in the Olympic size swimming pool, was a marvel. Other celebs lived there. Robin Williams ‘kept’ an apartment, I was told. One of the guys from “M.*A.*S.*H.” was a resident, but not friendly. The lady downstairs, no fool, campaigned for a small payout not to turn her stereo on full blast. She got it.”

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Fein’s assortment of vintage furniture added to the apartment’s odd allure.

“I collected ‘50s stuff,” said Fein, “A few months earlier I held a huge party there to celebrate the arrival of the ‘50s Philco Predicta TV set.”

The unit was condemned with only six weeks until full eviction. The film crew rushed to fix it up, but there was no need.

As Bartel told interviewer Jim Vieniere upon the film’s release:

“When I saw Art’s apartment with its ‘50s décor, it occurred to me that this was a perfect visual metaphor for the idea that the Blands are stuck in the ‘50s. Emotionally, socially, sexually; all of their attitudes are out of date. It seemed perfect.”

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The movie’s legacy is sound. It has inspired a musical adaptation that played off-Broadway and in London.

In 1997, Eating Raoul was mentioned in Entertainment Weekly’s list of the “50 Greatest Independent Films.”

A planned sequel fell through when financiers backed out, but Bartel was still trying to get it made up until his death in 2000.

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During the years since Eating Raoul, Woronov divided her time between acting, writing, and painting. In 2016 she was the subject of a yet to be released documentary, Cult Queen: From Warhol to Corman.

The success of Eating Raoul seemed to link Woronov and Bartel permanently. They would appear together in seventeen movies, including Get Crazy (1983) and Chopping Mall (1986), where they recreated the Blands for a cameo appearance.

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For many of her fans, Woronov will always be the prudish but murderous Mary Bland. Vulnerable enough to sleep with stuffed animals, but not afraid to stick a pervert in the gut with a rattail comb, Mary Bland was a kind of dream role for Woronov.

In promoting the movie, she praised Bartel for letting her play someone so unlike her usual butch characters.

Yet, when she appeared recently on Lip TV’s “Talk Show” with Harper Simon, Woronov described her relationship with Bartel as strained.

They’d appeared together so many times that the openly gay Bartel had begun telling people they were married. The lie, and Bartel’s refusal to stop telling it, upset Woronov.

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Woronov also seemed irritated that Bartel didn’t cast her in his follow-ups to Eating Raoul, which included Lust in The Dust (1986).

She explained:

“He said, ‘I’m not using you. I’m using real actresses.’ I swear to God. I just looked at him and said, ‘Fine. Go ahead.’ And do you know those movies? No, because they were no good.”

Bartel did cast Woronov in his 1989 film, Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills, which didn’t solve things. “I hated that movie,” she said on “Talk Show.” “I won’t talk about it.”

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She still had a soft spot for Eating Raoul, though, and praised Bartel’s effort to get it made.

“All through that movie, he was great. He had no money, and he made that movie come hell or high water.”

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If Bartel and Woronov had their ups and downs, that doesn’t cast any shadows on Paul and Mary Bland in Eating Raoul. They’re one of the great cinema couples.

It’s not only because of dialogue like:

Mary: “He’s dead!”

Paul: “Shit. That’s just what I need.”

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It’s also because of the loyalty they have for each other. They have an unbreakable bond that goes beyond their matching pajamas.

“I wanted people to cheer for Paul and Mary,” Bartel once said.

Thirty-five years later, we’re still doing exactly that.

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About Don Stradley

Don Stradley has been a busy freelance writer for several years, covering everything from the pop culture to sports to crime. His work has appeared in various places, including Cinema Retro, ESPN.com, and the Film Noir Foundation's official magazine, Noir City. He's currently serving as editorial consultant for The Film Detective, a massive archive that specializes in restoring vintage films. He lives in the Boston area.