Saturday, December 12, 2009
Not to be confused with Howard Stern's auto-hagiography, Paul Bartel's Private Parts is another great movie from the seemingly bottomless pit of interesting-to-good-to-great films from the 1970s. Bartel, who died of a heart attack in 2000 shortly after being diagnosed with liver cancer, is a much-missed B-movie giant. He acted in Hi, Mom!, Big Bad Mama, Hollywood Boulevard, Grand Theft Auto, Piranha, Rock 'n' Roll High School, White Dog, Frankenweenie, Chopping Mall, Gremlins 2, The Usual Suspects, and Basquiat, just to name a few, and he directed Death Race 2000, its sequel Cannonball!, and the dark cannibalism comedy, Eating Raoul. He also co-wrote Raoul with Richard Blackburn, director of Lemora. Private Parts was Bartel's first full-length feature as a director, but it's such a confidently made movie it plays like Bartel had been directing for years.
Private Parts is a dark horror comedy about sexual repression that manages the neat trick of being sleazy and endearingly cheerful at the same time. The film opens with a couple in the midst of a sexual encounter in a shag-carpeted, hippie-beaded beachside Los Angeles condo. A pair of boots appears under the beaded partition, but it's not a psycho killer. It's just the roommate, Cheryl. (For some reason, most of the characters pronounce Cheryl with a hard "ch," as in chuds, not a soft "ch," as in champagne.) Cheryl, played by the lovely Ayn Ruymen, is caught peeping and given the what-for by her roomie, who tells her she can "never make the scene" and other hippie put-downs. It turns out that Cheryl and her roomie are teen runaways from Ohio, but Cheryl is still too young and naive to plunge into the free love scene and peeps instead, much to roomie's chagrin. They split acrimoniously, and Cheryl heads to a seedy downtown flophouse, run by her long-lost Aunt Martha. Martha is a weirdo with a pet rat who likes to attend funerals and who thinks women are "painted devils" and sex is disgusting. The tenants of the flophouse are even seedier, including a British reverend with a sexual attraction to young beefcake studs, a raging drunk whose room is full of leaves for some reason, a batshit crazy old woman, and a creepy weirdo photographer.
Begin the sexual awakening of Cheryl! Bwa ha ha ha ha ha! She soon hears all kinds of weird noises in the night, and erotic fiction and sexy lingerie mysteriously turn up in her room. She becomes fascinated with the creepy photographer, played excellently by John Ventantonio, who has one of the best creepy guy voices in the movies, and he becomes fascinated with her. His apartment is something else and looks like it was designed by some mutant fusion of Larry Flynt, Andy Warhol, and David Cronenberg. Weird stuff happens. Weirder stuff happens. Stuff even weirder than that happens. And then it gets weirder. The film becomes funnier and creepier as it progresses, and it started off on a high.
I won't say anymore about the story because there are too many pleasures I don't want to ruin. Bartel is in top form throughout, and his movie is a visual treat, full of audaciously creative images and rich location shooting in seedy downtown 1972 Los Angeles. His actors are expressive and interesting, with great movie faces. Ventantonio should have had a longer career. He makes a great psychopath. Bartel sustains both the humor and horror throughout, and the lean 87-minute running time contains no padding and no fluff. I love this movie.