Today’s cinema adventure: Eating Raoul, the dark 1982 low-budget satire which became a surprise hit and helped to start a wave of goofy “camp” comedies that pervaded the rest of the decade. Director/co-writer Paul Bartel, an exploitation cinema veteran, also stars with longtime friend and frequent co-star Mary Woronov as a married pair of sexual squares who lure “swingers” to their Hollywood apartment and kill them with a frying pan in order to finance their dream of opening a restaurant. Macabre as the premise seems- and in spite of a plot which features such elements as rape, serial murder and cannibalism- the film is kept light and fun by a healthy dose of good-natured kitsch and by its ridiculously over-the-top portrayal of the lurid “swinger” culture and its sexually liberated denizens. Bartel and Richard Blackburn’s screenplay is loaded with pseudo-shocking dialogue which exploits the ridiculousness of both prudish repression and extreme sexuality, peppered with great deadpan one-liners, and thematically unified by an exploration of the depravity hiding just under even the most respectable-seeming surfaces. Clever writing aside, the primary factor in the film’s success is the charm of its leading players: Bartel is somehow likeable and endearing despite his pompously indignant and über-nerdy persona; former Warhol “superstar” Woronov is a complex confection, undercutting her character’s uptight austerity with smoldering sensuality and a girlish vulnerability; and the chemistry between these oddball stars is palpable- they are clearly driven by the same skewed vision. Rounding out the main cast is Robert Beltran, equally charming and sympathetic as Raoul, the hot-blooded Latino hoodlum who attempts to blackmail and come between the couple- and whose ultimate fate is foreshadowed by the tongue-in-cheek title of the film. In addition, there are some delightful cameos by comedic masters such as Buck Henry, Ed Begley, Jr., and the incomparable Edie McClurg. The sordid proceedings play out against a now-nostalgic backdrop of seedy Los Angeles locations, accompanied by a quirky and eclectic soundtrack and driven at a brisk pace by Bartel’s quietly masterful direction. Don’t get me wrong here- Eating Raoul is by no means a masterpiece, even in the world of underground cinema- it lacks the anarchic, subversive edginess of a John Waters film, and its “shocks” are pretty tame, even by 1982 standards- but it is nevertheless a delight to watch, perhaps because for all its satirical snarkiness and its unsavory subject matter, there is an unmistakable sweetness at the center of its black little heart.