Judge Paul Corupe thinks it's too bad Paul Bartel didn't live long enough to get a show on Sirius satellite radio.
"We have to be selective about our clientele."—Aunt Martha (Lucille Benson)
Definitely not to be confused with the Howard Stern biopic, Paul Bartel's dark, psycho-sexual thriller Private Parts is an exceptional little exploitation film that wallows in the beautiful filth of human degradation. Long buried in the studio vaults due to its unsettling view of sexual relations, Private Parts is a well-crafted, patently disturbing effort that has finally been released by Warner on DVD. Although fans of Bartel's boundary-stretching cult comedies Death Race 2000 and Eating Raoul will find that Private Parts shows a very different side of the esteemed cult director, it's still a pitch-black comedy that presents us with a shocking milieu of perverts, cretins, and crazed killers.
Facts of the Case
Unable to return home and face her parents after getting in a fight with her roommate, teen runaway Cheryl Stratton (Ayn Ruymen, Go Ask Alice) decides to look up her Aunt Martha (Lucille Benson, Silver Streak), owner of the rundown King Edward Hotel in downtown San Francisco. Against her better judgment, Aunt Martha agrees to provide free room and board in return for help with the housekeeping in her glorified skid-row flophouse. Soon, Cheryl comes face to face with many of the hotel's down-on-their luck denizens—a raging alcoholic, a senile woman forever calling out for someone named "Alice," a numerology-obsessed priest, and George (John Ventantonio, Alien Lover), a good-looking but intensely aloof skin mag photographer. But when Cheryl begins to find suggestive, hand-written notes strewn around her room and discovers peepholes cut out to spy on her bed, she grabs her aunt's keys and slips into the rooms of these degenerates to find out who is responsible. What she finds isn't exactly what she's looking for, but it takes her into a world of perversion as she uncovers deep secrets about the hotel's residents, including her aunt.
Private Parts isn't a film that's easy to categorize or even describe, but fans of outré cinema will relish Bartel's fascinating feature film debut—easily his darkest and bleakest work ever. Produced by Gene Corman for MGM, it's amazing this film ever got play in a cinema, but for pure excess and surreal humor, it's something of a minor pop art masterpiece; a careful blending of the eccentric and the sleazy, very much akin to other midnight revival mainstays like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and the '70s films of John Waters, with a wickedly unique take on repressed desire and secret shame.
Ostensibly a mystery thriller, Private Parts picks up steam when Cheryl stumbles upon the remnants of a past tenant named Alice, a teen fashion model who recently disappeared. Things get weirder when Cheryl's ex-friends who come looking for her to reclaim some stolen money quickly end up decapitated or stuffed away in the basement. Without realizing the fate of her former roommates, Cheryl traces the sexually suggestive notes to the mysterious George, even dumping the neighborhood locksmith's son to cater to her shutterbug beau's all-consuming voyeurism in a series of sleazy strip-shows and fashion dress-ups that are less erotic than they are just plain unsettling. Bartel brilliantly builds a sense of constant unease into the proceedings, crafting a filthy-feeling experience that seems much dirtier than it actually is.
The plot is lurid enough, but what really makes Private Parts feel like a creepy Dan Clowes comic book story come to life is the odd cast of characters staying at the hotel. Scenes in which Cheryl drops funeral-obsessed Martha's beloved-but electrocuted-pet rat down the garbage disposal, or when Reverend Moon's penchant for well-muscled "refrigerator repairmen" is revealed via a secret shrine to the male form hidden behind a life-sized crucifix in his bedroom are all played relatively straight, but they're just barely over-the-top enough to reveal Bartel's mocking eye. Most disturbing of all is George, who spends his evenings injecting a water-filled blow-up doll with a syringe of his own blood, that is when he isn't taking snapshots of strangers romping behind bushes in the park—one of whom is the director himself. Although Bartel isn't usually known for his visual flair behind the camera, some of the images in the film are absolutely unforgettable, and Private Parts lingers in the memory long after the last frame has vanished—a rare feat for a low budget exploitation film.
It's surprising that Warner chose to release Private Parts at all, but surely no one anticipated it would appear with such an exceptional transfer. We're used to seeing WB step up to the plate on big name titles, but their loving treatment of this obscure little film is proof that they are one of the few studios who really get it when it comes to treating DVD consumers right. Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, the picture is amazingly bright and bold, highlighting some of the better-than-average cinematography. Sound is also quite good, a solid mono track that delivers on its promise. The only extra feature we get is a trailer, though, and while this may be par for the course with Warner, it's still a little disappointing—I would have loved to hear Ayn Ruymen's thoughts on the making of the film.
Given Bartel's penchant for the weird and strange, it's almost a shame that he ended up making broader comedies like Lust in the Dust and Death Race 2000 in later years, as it would have been fascinating to see him continue to make more intriguing, very "human" pictures like Private Parts. Make no mistake, this film is not for all tastes by a long shot, but it's a must-see for cult aficionados on the lookout for under-looked gems.
Innocent of all charges.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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