This is my favorite kind of Criterion acquisition because there are a lot of classic dramas, noir thrillers, and westerns in the collection. There are underseen international and arthouse films as well, but there isn’t nearly enough shlock. That’s why anytime Criterion announces a new John Waters or Alex Cox flick, I can’t help but flash a wide Grinch smirk. Just because a movie is trashy doesn’t mean it’s not art. Movies don’t have to have stars, effects, or an impressive budget to be important. Personally, I find these films most valuable, which means Eating Raoul is like finding buried treasure.
Eating Raoul is Paul Bartel’s magnum opus. “Can a magnum opus really be a film about killing swingers with a frying pan?” Yes, yes it can. Known best as one of Roger Corman’s company players, Paul Bartel had a good run in the ’70s/’80s directing cult classics like Death Race 2000 and playing stuffy intellectuals in films like Rock and Roll High School and Piranha. He was never leading man material… Except for in Eating Raoul.
Eating Raoul is about a married couple (The Blands) who dream of opening a restaurant but don’t have the money. Paul (Paul Bartell) is a wine connoisseur who gets fired from his liquor store job after ordering “too fancy” wine, and his wife Mary (Mary Woronov) is an unfulfilled nurse with a passion for fine dining. One night, the couple returns to their apartment complex to find a swinger’s party going on. By mistake, a swinger enters the Blands’ apartment and tries to have his way with Mary. Paul kills the stranger with a frying pan, and instead of reporting it to the police, steals money from the man’s wallet and hatches a plan.
In order to raise money for their restaurant, the Blands put out an ad to fulfill ANY sexual fantasy to lure unsuspecting swingers, kill them with a frying pan, and then rob them. Such fantasies include Mary pretending to be a mother to a man acting as a baby, Mary pretending to be a girl tied up by a Nazi, and Mary pretending to be a dog. Every scenario ends with Paul coming in and killing the swinger with a frying pan.
It’s hilarious. The movie has big ZAZ energy (Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker) with straight-laced leads rarely batting an eye at the over-the-top situations they find themselves in. The tone is light but obviously dark because of the adult subject matter. It’s the kind of movie that scratches the very specific itch you didn’t know you had.
The plot thickens when the Blands are found out by a thieving locksmith named Raoul (Robert Beltran) who decides to join in on the scheme. Raoul disposes of the bodies, and the three split the profits. All is well until Raoul finds himself in a sultry affair with Mary.
To complicate things even further, we learn that Raoul has been disposing of the bodies so that he can steal the corpses’ car keys and sell the cars for profit. It’s a part of the scheme he hides from the Blands. Tension grows between the three, resulting in a game of cat-and-mouse between Paul and Raoul.
The story feels like Hitchcock by way of National Lampoon and is never short on gags or quotable lines. Here are a few of my favorites:
Mary: At the store, can you buy a new frying pan? I’m a little squeamish about using the one we use to kill people.
Paul: Why don’t you go to bed, honey? I’ll bag the Nazi and straighten up.
Blind Nun: Do you believe in the sixth sense?
Raoul: I think I gave you over a dollar.
Blind Nun: No, no, no. The sixth SENSE.
Sex Shop Salesman: “Le Orgy Gel” comes in lemon, mint, cherry, or trail mix.
Paul: Trail mix?
Sex Shop Salesman: I was making a joke.
Sex Shop Customer: Have you got the latest issue of “Nuns and Nazis”?
Sex Shop Salesman: Tuesday.
Richard Blackburn and Paul Bartel’s script is razor-sharp and filled with memorable characters. My only complaint is Raoul himself (although marvelously played by Robert Beltran) feels like a bit of a Chicano stereotype, but I don’t see this as meant any ill will towards Chicanos. The film is full of exaggerated characters; it’s part of the satire. Except instead of “Eat the Rich!” it’s “Hit the Rich over the head with a frying pan.” Well, there is one “eating” scene, but I won’t spoil it. Even though the title does.