Tag Archives: mary woronov

Satanists and Suspense in The House of the Devil

[The following was written by both of us as part of the Final Girl Film Club; go check them out. Also note that spoilers are abundant, like demonic rituals on the night of a lunar eclipse.]


Andreas:

The suspense is killing me. I hope it lasts. —Gwendolyn, The Importance of Being Earnest

Pity the poor babysitter. Half the time, she’s strung out on LSD and roasts the baby like a Christmas ham; the rest of the time, she’s harassed by psychos calling from inside the house. Or else she dies, and nobody tells mom about it. Or she’s being prepped, again like a Christmas ham, for the satanic rite to end all satanic rites. That last scenario is the crux of Ti West’s The House of the Devil, a film that revels in spinning mundane straw into horror gold. Most movies about unsuspecting young women and satanist covens descend quickly into a slew of impalements and beheadings. West gives us a suspenseful status quo, then holds it, and holds it, and holds it, ratcheting our anxiety up higher with each phone call or mention of an eclipse. Explicit clues as to what’s really going on are sparse, especially for poor Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), our plucky and lovable heroine; in short, it’s one of the most thrilling, titillating, and fun horror movies of the past decade.

One of The House of the Devil‘s major assets is its simplicity. Both its title and plot feel generic, as if they were copied from the 1980s Horror Pastiche Handbook, but West breathes new life into them. And not in a creepy voodoo way, either. No, he does it more in a “this man is one of the most innovative writer/directors currently working in horror” way. House is just about Samantha, a cash-strapped college girl who gives babysitting a shot. When the situation gets weird – i.e., the old couple hiring her are ambiguously creepy motherfuckers, and there’s no baby – her friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) recommends that she leave, but alas, the prospect of paying for one month’s rent is just too tempting. The rest of the film is just Samantha biding her time… until, as it must, the coven of satanists drugs her for a bloody, pentagram-filled human sacrifice.

So, at least superficially, House has all the earmarks of a typical slasher movie or urban legend: a girl, a house, and the devil. But it’s also one of the least crass, most subtle variations ever done on those themes. Take the first portion of the movie, for example. Not much happens: Samantha confirms her new living place, goes jogging, calls about the babysitting job, waits around, meets with Megan for pizza, etc. But it’s compelling, mostly because West squeezes in so much dense observational detail. Yes, detail about the ’80s (a decade I didn’t live through) but also just detail about normal, stressful college life. It’s in the frostiness and desolation of the campus in the morning. It’s in the way Samantha lounges around on the front steps of the student center. And it’s in her getting sexiled, as well as her mildly contentious relationship with her roommate. It all forms the very realistic groundwork for the heebie-jeebies that fill the rest of the movie.

So in addition to its simplicity, one of House‘s greatest virtues is its plausibility. And for a movie whose plot is basically Halloween crossed with Rosemary’s Baby, that’s saying something. Just by knowing the movie’s title, we expect bad shit to go down, so West engages in the most economical, masterful kinds of suggestion. A desperate voice on a pay phone takes on a sinister pall. And when that voice belongs to the seemingly harmless (maybe too harmless) Mr. Ulman, to whose secluded house1 the girls journey, we infer something sinister about the whole gosh-darn situation. Of course, objectively weird remarks like “I promise to make this as painless for you as possible” don’t exactly help his case. But the age difference factors in here, too: on the surface, Mr. Ulman and his wife (played by cult film mainstay/total fox Mary Woronov) just feel a little, you know, out of touch, unable to relate to today’s youth. So maybe that‘s why he reminds Samantha about ordering pizza several times. And it’s not because the pizza’s actually going to drug her in time for the sacrifice. Maybe?

The bulk of the film, in which Samantha mucks around the house trying not to get bored, is pure genius. In its immaculate subtlety, it’s like Robert Wise’s The Haunting times infinity. Part of the reason is that Samantha doesn’t know her movie is called The House of the Devil, and we do, so of course we’re going to yell, “Don’t go up there! Get out of that house!” to the consternation of our sleeping neighbors. She’s not stupid; she knows she was taking a risk by staying there, as she admits to Megan. But she seriously does need the money, and nothing about the deal conclusively says, “You’re going to get blood poured on you through a goat skull.” It says something more like, “This old couple is kind of odd, and they shouldn’t have lied, but that’s a lot of money.” That’s why this movie is great horror: it manages to have a smart, interesting female lead and still lead her into a dangerous, yet terrifyingly reasonable situation.

Unlike us, Samantha doesn’t know that Megan is dead, but she does suspect that something‘s up. However, since she has no concrete evidence,2 she just thinks she’s losing it, tells herself to “get a grip,” and sits back down to watch TV. Until, say, she hears some weird noises… and the cycle starts all over again. This is a movie about irrational fear. And since it keeps everything at such a low register, the smallest frights feel exaggerated – like the off-putting cadence of the pizza man’s voice (“See you in thirty…”), or the shots that peek into the house through the window, or worst/best of all, the hair in the bathtub. It’s a sublimely disturbing moment would feel at home in Psycho, when Lila Crane is rummaging through Norman’s childhood possessions. Samantha looks into the bathtub, gasps, and after mere seconds of agonizingly sustained curiosity, it’s revealed: numerous clumps of dark hair. It’s so much less gory than what we’d expect, but it’s so jarring and unexpected that, in the long run, it’s way scarier than a hacked-off limb could ever hope to be.

After all of these minor incidents and their chilling implications, I won’t deny that the climax is something of a let-down. But it’s necessary, as well as intensely scary. I don’t really know who/what that goat person was, but the makeup creates just the right blend of a corny urban legend-type satanic priest(ess?) and a “holy shit!” materialization of all the anxiety we’ve been experiencing. And it’s hard not to feel Samantha’s pain as those diabolic snippets flash through her poor head. Granted, we’ve got some shakycam, and Samantha dispatches those satanists with remarkable ease, but let’s not split Mary Woronov’s creepy hairs here. It’s a fitting culmination to all that accelerating unease, finally releasing the tension in one quick and amazingly gory burst. It’s almost so gory as to be a parody of traditional horror climaxes, one that puts the rest of the movie’s menacingly quiet style in perspective.

Whatever the purpose, it’s a satisfying grand finale, leading in to the film’s coup de grace: the hospital scene. Again it’s menacingly quiet, we’re privy to some suggestive reports about the moon, and a nurse utters that crushing last line: “You’re going to be just fine. Both of you…” After that, what is there to say? I’d prefer not to discuss the bleak implications, and instead to say that The House of the Devil is the movie to show that silly friend of yours who whines, “Horror movies are nothing but stupid teenagers getting stabbed to death!”3 It’s a very functional argument for the power of suggestion; it’s an eerie depiction of how hard it is to get rent money; it’s just a great horror movie overall. The House of the Devil is a house of awesome, and with that, I turn it over to Ashley.

Ashley:

I don’t know if I’ve ever sympathized so much with a horror movie heroine as much as I do with Samantha from The House of the Devil. I am pretty much in the same situation she is; desperate college student with next to no money trying to find a place to live. If some old couple said they needed a sitter for their mother right now and they offered me $400 I’d be all over that shit, even if the situation was kinda weird. Sam’s desperation is very real and relatable and she feels like a very real girl. This movie, with all of its slow-burning horror and sluggish pace, would just not work without the amazing cast. Everyone, even the landlady who is in the movie for about five minutes, feels real and the performances are amazing. For me, this film works because I really honestly give a shit about the characters and am emotionally invested in what happens to them.

Samantha, as far as horror film heroines goes, is definitely comparable to Jamie Lee Curtis’ Lori from Halloween (who just happens to be one of the best Final Girls in horror). They are both calm, intelligent girls who are victims of circumstance: Lori just happens to be babysitting in the town where Michael runs amok (and also just happens to be his sister) and Samantha is a cash-strapped teenager in a desperate situation who takes a chance on a ‘babysitting’ job. When Megan flips her shit (like a real friend would; theirs is one of the best friendships ever committed to a horror film) and tells Sam that she’s stupid for sticking around after all the weirdness is revealed, we are torn. We know that Megan is right because we know that this is a horror movie but it’s not like Sam, who doesn’t know she’s in a horror movie, is making a completely outrageous decision that is beyond belief. She’s a smart gal in a weird situation but we don’t fault her for it because it’s understandable.

Since Andreas did an excellent job with plot summary/analysis, I want to focus more on isolated incidents of terror/outright creepiness. There are probably three or four major shocks in this film (if you’re excluding the straight-forward horror climax, which I am) depending on how you look at it: Megan’s death, the bodies on the other side of the door, the hair in the bathtub and the last line of the film. But outside of those shocks the film is peppered with such clever, suggestive dialogue and foreshadowing, it makes for a very satisfying cinematic experience. Megan, who is probably one of the best characters EVER (Andreas says he wants a Megan-centric prequel and I have to agree with him), has some of the best lines including “What if the kid’s from hell?” in reference to the babysitting job. We as the audience take note of that because we know the title of the film, maybe even laugh at it; it seems like a moot point later when we learn that there is no child for Sam to babysit. But then it comes back to haunt us with the final revelation of the film: the kid is from hell.

Megan is also a very well-done example of Death By Genre Savviness; she’s not so snarkily self-aware as some Genre Savvy characters but she knows what’s up. She knows a fucked up situation when she sees it and she states it flat-out:

Sam: It’s $400! For four hours? This equals first months rent and then some! It’s too good to be true.

Megan: Did you ever think it is too good to be true?

Sam: Megan, please. I need the money.

Megan: It’s so stupid. It’s so stupid. I’m so mad at you.

This exchange not only reflects Megan’s genre savviness and Sam’s desperation but also reinforces the friendship between these two. And it makes the next scene all the more jarring and horrible. I am firmly of the opinion that “Are you not the babysitter?” has the potential to go down as one of the greatest, creepiest horror lines ever uttered on film. It could be the new “They’re here” or “Come play with us”. The scene is set: creepy cemetery, nervously smoking a cigarette, random guy with a beard pops the fuck out of nowhere. And Megan’s Death By Genre Savviness lines continue even then: “I almost died. I almost had a heart attack and died.” He doesn’t seem too threatening other than the fact that he’s in the cemetery for no good reason and is trying to make small-talk. The way that line is worded is so odd: he could have said, “Are you the babysitter?” but no, it’s “Are you not the babysitter?” The thing that really gets me about this scene is that it’s NEVER explained in full detail. What part of their Satanist plan included him waiting in the cemetery? Was it to make sure, if their last resort girl decided to bail, that she wouldn’t get away? What was he supposed to do if she had been the babysitter? These questions are never answered and all we’re left with is Megan’s face splattered against the windshield.

Other than Megan and obviously Sam, one of the most important characters in this film is Mr. Ulman. This character is so intensely interesting to me (I told Andreas that I wanted a prequel about Megan and Mr. Ulman; that could totally work, right?) because, again, he doesn’t seem that threatening. He’s odd, yeah, but he doesn’t seem like he would hurt you. He doesn’t even seem like he could hurt you. His desperation to find a sitter for ‘mother’ seems very sad and driven by his wife (whom he sometimes appears to be afraid of) and is a direct parallel to Sam’s desperation. She’s desperate for cash, he’s desperate for her to stay. The first time we hear Mr. Ulman (after he somehow calls Sam back on the payphone she just called him from), his voice is so soft, gentle and yet somehow implicitly creepy. I think that a lot of the things that I perceived as creepy in this film, seemed that way because I knew this all had to part of a Satanist plot; it all seemed way too normal and that was really, really off-putting. The first time we see Mr. Ulman is even stranger; it’s framed in such away that the girls gaze up at him and his face is cut off from view. Again, extremely off-putting.

The horror of this film is deeply entrenched in the concept of Nothing is Scarier: the idea that the building tension and expectation of seeing something creates a more palpable horror than actually showing us the blood/monster/whatever. And it fucking works, man. There were so many scenes where it’s just a static, unmoving shot; Sam is walking around, in and out of frame and we’re just sitting here waiting for something to happen, for something to move, for someone or something to come into frame unseen by Sam but it never happens.We never get that release of adrenaline and so we have tension building until it feels like it’s about to snap. The few moments we do get are all the more powerful because of this. When Sam is outside the door that she almost opens and is speaking through to the nonexistent ‘mother’4, we’re finally treated(?) to something gruesome. And it’s very jarring because we’ve spent the last 50 minutes being teased and wound up by the atmosphere and style of the film.

As an homage to the ’80s, this film is top-notch. I was born at the very tail end of that decade but I watched many ’80s horror films and was then bombarded with the recent deluge of nauseating ’80s nostalgia, throwback wank-fests that are currently popular. Why we as a society feel so attached cinematically to this decade is beyond me because it wasn’t a very stellar decade  for film, especially compared to the ’70s (this is just generally speaking of course; there are a some very good and/or fun films from the ’80s, as with any decade). A lot of these throwback homages that we see tend to glorify some of the dumber aspects of the decade. The House of the Devil captures the nostalgia perfectly without having to be kitschy or garish or completely in your face about it like it’s yelling “REMEMBER THE ’80s, WEREN’T THEY AWESOME?!” As noted by Scott Tobias in The AV Club’s New Cult Canon:

…West evokes ’80s horror while making a movie that’s infinitely more skillful than the ones he’s referencing. And that’s what nostalgia, at its best, can accomplish: It makes our memories sweeter and more perfect than our actual experiences at the time…Because as much as people like myself—and I’m sure West, too—like to reminiscence about our formative slasher-movie days, the reality was hours of precious time squandered on artless, exploitative, retrograde garbage. The House Of The Devil gives at least 96 of those minutes back, with interest.

The House of the Devil is damn near perfect, especially if you’re not a fan of the typical Kill ‘Em All slasher flicks. It moves slowly but with purpose and slowly builds you up; by the time we get to the (somewhat ridiculous) climax, it hardly matters that this isn’t as scary as what we’ve been watching because we’re finally getting the release of tension that we’ve been denied for most of the film. And there must be something said for a film that’s bloodiest part, isn’t nearly as terrifying as the 80 or so minutes of bloodless tension we’ve been served.

1 (of the Devil)

2 I mean, those photos in the closet sure are ominous, and so is Megan’s failure to answer her phone, but (for Samantha, at least) they hardly prove that anything’s going on.

3 Although it can be fun to watch stupid teenagers getting stabbed to death.

4 The idea of the mother not even existing completely freaks me out and brings up a lot of unanswered questions, the most prevalent being why did they even feel the need to tell her that it wasn’t a babysitting job? Why not just lie and say “The baby will sleep throughout the night, you won’t even need to check on it”? And I think the answer to that question, other than the Ulmans are just effing weird, is that if they had done that we wouldn’t have had the scene where Mr. Ulman tells Sam the ‘truth’, which is a very good, important scene and it sets up the rest of the film for us.

4 Comments

Filed under Cinema

Satire, Americana, and the Death Race

In the opening monologue of Patton, George C. Scott intones, “Americans love a winner, and will not tolerate a loser.” In the year 2000, Americans have found their winner, and his name is Frankenstein. Death Race 2000 is a movie about what Americans love – winners, speed, and violence – and what they’re willing to put up with in order to get it. It’s also a gory, stunt-filled action movie co-starring Sylvester Stallone. So it’s easy to imagine viewers only enjoying the campy, ridiculous surface without catching the surprising profundity that lies beneath.

Death Race 2000 (1975) possesses this strange tension mostly because it was produced by Roger Corman and directed by Paul Bartel, whose later cult classic Eating Raoul I wrote about a while back. Eating Raoul gave a taste of how Bartel and the Corman team could integrate their dark social satire into basic B-movie formulae, and they succeed big time with Death Race. Its silly sci-fi premise is twisted into a giant, layered joke about pompous patriotism and governmental mendacity. And there’s still a whole lot of fast driving.

That premise is pretty well-known, but here it is anyway: since 1980, America’s most popular sporting event has been a transcontinental road race. Five drivers compete to get to New Los Angeles the fastest, and to “score” the most bystanders along the way. In 2000, however, the Army of the Resistance is actively sabotaging the race, so the drivers must reckon both with each other and with rebel booby traps scattered along country roads. Each driver has a navigator in the passenger seat, and a gimmicky theme to their costume and car; this aspect of the film is nicely carried out considering the budget, and it’s clear that even if this were just another dumb B-movie, it’d be an especially imaginative one with a really DIY design aesthetic.

But it’s far from dumb. Many of the ideas aren’t fully realized, sure, but for an ostensibly trashy movie, there’s so much rich ideological terrain. For example, the film just savages the mainstream media, which is complicit in shoving the race down the citizens’ throats. In the government’s scramble to provide breads and circuses as a distraction from economic woes, they have no greater ally than the nation’s television personalities. There’s the yammering, neckerchief-wearing reporter Junior Bruce (played by “The Real Don Steele”), who dishes out constant race-related updates and is more than happy to suppress real news and scapegoat the French if it suits the current administration’s whims. Or the fawning talk show host Grace Pander, who refers to every racer as “a dear friend of mine” and translates every new plot twist into dramatic camera fodder.

They’re both presented as willing lackeys of the beloved “Mr. President,” whose broadcasts from his palace in China are literally nothing but pure spin. Clearly, Bartel and the film’s writers believe that if political leaders want unquestioned authority, then gently taking away freedom of the press is the way to do it. Late in the film, the racers ask a supercilious government agent about the rebels’ role in a colleague’s death, and he replies, “Who mentioned anything about rebels? There are no rebels. Understand?” For a film that’s supposedly about racers knocking down pedestrians, this is a surprisingly subtle method for dealing with dissent, invoking Goebbels’ concept of the “big lie.” Mr. President’s government makes its lies truth through repetition, and the news media gladly volunteer to repeat. (Keep in mind that this was made the same year as All the President’s Men, and only a year after the real-life Watergate revelations.)

But of course, the race isn’t just forced onto a reluctant citizenry. It really is the most popular sporting event, and most Americans are devoted fans cheering on their favorite racers. Like I said, the movie is about what Americans love. They love to be lied to, as long as the lies go down easier than the truth. And, obviously, they love to watch other people commit acts of violence. This is where Frankenstein (David Carradine) comes in. Trained from birth to be the world’s greatest racer, he’s simply that. The film’s opening sequence, in which the racers pull up to the starting line, is intercut with a press conference where a doctor (played by Bartel) announces Frankenstein’s recent “limb transplant,” and every reporter oohs and ahhs at his mangled-and-repaired body.

But this is all more spin. As he reveals to his navigator Annie, his body is totally intact, and all the myths are just that – compiled by the government to build Frankenstein up as the national hero he’s become. It’s like if Chuck Norris “facts” were treated with as much seriousness, by the government and the people, as the official story about 9/11. At moments like this, Death Race 2000 resembles an intentionally frivolous 1984. Frankenstein is the hero, ready for worship, and when he speaks his mind in private, the film’s engaging in some crafty deconstruction of American iconography. It’s like catching the guy who plays Mickey Mouse at Disneyland without his costume’s head on… and then hearing him say that he wore the costume only so he could sabotage Uncle Walt.

So although the film’s nominally about the race itself, much of the dialogue actually involves Frankenstein’s role as the race’s iconic hero. His name, after all, borrows from real-life horror iconography, but with a messianic twist: like the monster, he’s (said to be) an ugly assemblage of disparate body parts, yet he’s anything but hated. He’s broken anew during every race (he loses limbs, his navigators die), then stitched up by the start of the next one. He’s Christ rising from the tomb, he’s the Fisher King, he’s T.S. Eliot’s Phlebas the Phoenician. Frankenstein, once a hideous murderer from horror fiction, is now the American people’s hope for eternal life.

This theory is given some credence by an oddly powerful scene in the middle of the movie. While taking a break in St. Louis, Frankenstein is confronted by a teenage girl named Laurie, a member of the Lovers of Frankenstein, and they have this exchange:

Laurie: I wanted to meet you, Mr. Frankenstein. I wanted you to know who I am. So it would have meaning.

Frankenstein: I don’t understand. So what would have meaning?

Laurie: We love you, Mr. Frankenstein. I know just saying it doesn’t mean much.

Frankenstein: Why do you love me? Because I kill people?

Laurie: Scoring isn’t killing, Mr. Frankenstein. It’s part of the race. You’re a national hero, and we want you to know, we’re with you 100%. Good night, Mr. Frankenstein.

The next day, as the race continues, Frankenstein and Annie spot Laurie standing in the middle of the road, with a gaggle of other girls on the curb taking pictures. Frankenstein scores her and drives on. Annie asks, “Why did she do that?” and Frankenstein answers, “Show me she loves me.”

This scene speaks so much to the nature of fame and fandom. Everyone may love Frankenstein, but Laurie sacrifices herself to give him additional points. Her sacrifice, accompanied by classical music played on a synthesizer, has an ethereal quality; it proves that even with something as crass, violent, and pointless as the race, someone can find real love and meaning in it. Laurie probably hasn’t known a time without the race, so it’s all she really has to believe in, and her sacrifice lets her enter into Frankenstein’s cycle of death and rebirth. Everyone needs something to believe in, and if necessary, they’ll forge their own belief system out of whatever’s available.

Another testimony to Frankenstein’s symbolic power comes from the reporter Junior at the end of the film, when the race has been declared abolished. He protests, “Sure, [the race] is violent, but that’s the way we love it! Violent, violent, violent! And that’s why we love you!” The race is a political distraction, but it’s more than that. It’s a condensation of all sports and phallic metaphors into one competition and five cars. It’s an American monomyth, played out each year for the same reason as the Super Bowl or the World Series: not to see who wins, but just to see the game. It’s the same channel for aggression as 1984‘s Two Minutes’ Hate.

I don’t want to give the impression that Death Race 2000 is nothing but sophisticated social commentary. It’s still a wacky ’70s B-movie starring David Carradine, with its share of comical dismemberments, crude sex jokes, and amazingly dated fashion statements. But this is the miracle of Corman-trained filmmakers: working with minuscule budgets and restrictive schedules, they could turn out cheap-looking yet intellectually fierce movies. Paul Bartel never quite broke into the mainstream, but I still think he knew what he was doing just as well as Scorsese, Bogdanovich, James Cameron, or any of the other auteurs who started out with Corman. (Also note that Death Race‘s director of photography, Tak Fujimoto, had worked on Terence Malick’s Badlands and would go on to collaborate with Jonathan Demme on numerous films, including Silence of the Lambs.)

So although the film has its share of dumb vulgarity, and occasionally undermines its own intelligence with self-contradictory nonsense, it’s nonetheless a self-consciously over-the-top work of legitimate satire. In many ways, it reminds me of William Klein’s politically volatile superhero spoof Mr. Freedom (1968), though I think Death Race is substantially less pretentious and funnier. It’s a film that’s content to let nuggets of serious wisdom and feeling lie awkwardly cradled between explosions and broad comedy. It ends on just such a peculiarly incongruous note, after the marriage of Annie and “Mr. President Frankenstein,” with a voiceover that sounds like it’s from an anthropological documentary: “Yes, murder was invented even before man began to think. Now, of course, man has become known as the thinking animal…”

This ominous conclusion exemplifies much of what I love about Death Race: how the filmmakers were willing to throw in all kinds of enigmatic tangents that we don’t expect under the auspices of a supposedly bad, cheap movie. After all, like Shakespeare’s wise fools, sometimes cheap movies get away with statements that a blockbuster could never risk. So there’s my defense of Death Race 2000. Do you have any opinions on the film, Paul Bartel, or Corman? Do you love Frankenstein?

[Note: Having just recently written about Splice and It’s Alive, I feel like I’m accidentally documenting Frankenstein‘s influence on horror/sci-fi cinema. Maybe I am.]

3 Comments

Filed under Cinema

Hungry for Cinema: Eating Raoul

I’m looking for new formats in which to discuss individual films or directors. Haven’t really thought of anything yet. However, I do have a movie to discuss – I watched it last night and, after browsing the Internet, decided that no one’s really talked about it thoroughly enough. So this is my meager attempt to do so.

The movie is Paul Bartel’s cult classic Eating Raoul (1982), a recent purchase I requested for the Carleton library. It’s a very entertaining black comedy about a perversely normal couple named Paul and Mary Bland (played by Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov) who want to start up their own restaurant, but lack the necessary funds. One thing leads to another, and soon they’re inviting rich perverts up to their apartment, bopping them on the head with a frying pan, then taking their money. But then they team up with a Chicano locksmith/thief (Robert Beltran, later Voyager‘s Chakotay), and things get a little complicated…

The film opens with a very cute credit sequence set to the 1930 song “Exactly Like You,” and followed by an introduction to “Hollywood, California! City of contrast… Here, sex hunger is reflected in every aspect of daily life…” All of these little touches add up to a very disarming atmosphere – sure, it’s about rape and murder, but in a pleasant, nostalgic way. Mary Bland works in a hospital, where she deals with a horny patient; Paul is fired from his job at a liquor store for pushing expensive wines. Their inability to get along with the modern world is a recurring subtext – with their utter disinterest in sex and their fixation on providing high-quality wine and dining, they’re actually pretty weird.

“I don’t mind a little hugging and kissing,” says the prissy Paul after a run-in with a dominatrix, “but that…” In an adorably bizarre twist, the Blands even sleep in separate, adjacent beds – Mary with her stuffed animals, and Paul with his stuffed bottle of wine. It’s such a strange choice, to make a film not about perverts, but about hard-working asexuals who are OK with a little murder now and then (or, as it turns out, every night). It gets especially interesting as the Blands’ scheme introduces them to sex, after a little prompting from Doris the dominatrix.

Their conference with her is unforgettable: she spoon-feeds her baby while explaining to the Blands, “Everybody’s gotta make up his own mind about where to draw the line. Like I personally draw the line at golden showers.” (Sadly, Susan Saiger, who plays Doris, has only had three other screen credits, and none in the past 20 years.) As Mary begins catering to the fantasies of strangers, they find themselves exposed to all sorts of weird fetishes, from a wanna-be Nazi commandant to a Vietnam vet with a sexual grudge against hippies, played by Ed Begley, Jr.

Then Raoul comes in. Robert Beltran plays him brilliantly: he’s dishonest, charismatic, sexually voracious and not exactly shy about it. He’s a man of many rackets, and makes an odd fit as a business partner with the Blands, leading to no end of friction with Paul, and a decided lack of friction with Mary. Paul’s paranoia leads him to stalk Raoul for a day, and later to hire Doris for some undercover work… as you might imagine, hilarity ensues.

But recounting the film’s plot doesn’t really do it justice. While the story’s clashes between very different ideas of the American dream (most of which either involve sex or someone’s death) provide the background for the morbid comedy, it’s the offbeat dialogue by Bartel and Richard Blackburn that make Eating Raoul the spicy treat it is. It’s often absurd and gleefully satirical, taking shots both at the Blands, who just can’t seem to help killing people, and at the swinging, rape-happy world they live in.

As the film’s introduction suggests, this is a world where “the barrier between food and sex has dissolved.” Every act is just about expressing one’s appetites: hot tub orgies, burglary, marijuana use, cooking dinner. Eating Raoul, right up to the titular event and the unexpected ending that follows, is a deliciously sick movie, constantly shifting the targets of its weird sense of humor. I trace a lot of this sensibility back to Bartel’s origins as a student of Roger Corman, for whom he made his directorial debut, Death Race 2000; you can see a lot of similar comedy in such Corman classics as A Bucket of Blood (1959) and The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), both of which also have well-meaning protagonists who commit mass murder.

While watching Eating Raoul, I was also reminded of other 1980s black comedies, like Basket Case (1982) and Repo Man (1984), both of which also take broad, comical shots at the modern world. I’d be interested in finding other ’80s movies that integrate comedy with horror/sci-fi with such great success. But ultimately, no film can quite pull off what Eating Raoul does so hilariously. I have to give credit to some stand-out supporting players: in addition to Beltran and the multitalented Saiger, the film has appearances by Buck Henry as a lecherous bank employee, and Edie McClurg as an inane swinger who giggles, “We like B&D, but we don’t like S&M. We met at the A&P!”

So I grant that Eating Raoul isn’t for everyone (the same probably goes for most comedies where fetishists are ground into dog food), but it’s about as funny a cinematic exploration of libidinous violence as you’re likely to find. I’ll also mention that the film has been adapted into a stage musical, which seems oddly appropriate. As cult films go, Eating Raoul is both rare and well-done.

Beaujolais

1 Comment

Filed under Cinema, Sexuality