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CampBlood Reviews: Senseless Rants from a Picky Sissy

 

Private Parts Paul Bartel 1972

Private Lessons

Proof that they simply do NOT make them like they used to anymore, Paul Bartel’s first feature film Private Parts is an example of how perfectly the line between comedy and horror can be walked without tipping completely into either. I just saw this film for the first time 35 fucking YEARS after it was made (and having been raised on Texas Chainsaw sequels, Friday the 13ths, and truly tasteless direct-to-video trash), and it still made my jaw drop on more than one occasion. Thanks to an incredibly assured directorial hand, a measured, classical approach, and one of the most unhinged and bizarre scripts in movie history, Private Parts stands out as both a landmark in gay film and an accolade-worthy entry into the all-too-lean cadre of horror-comedies that are actually watchable. Pick your chintzy prize from the wall, Paul – you earned it.

After a gorgeous montage of luridly-colored photos under a lush, Herrmann-esque score (composer Hugo Friedhofer, who had scored everything from Fleming’s Joan of Arc to Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, outdoes himself here), we meet Ayn Ruymen as mousy-sexy Cheryl (hilariously pronounced “chair-ill”, with a hard “ch”, throughout), who is on the outs with her slutty roommate Judy (Ann Gibbs). The two ran away from Ohio to Los Angeles and Judy is sick of Cheryl’s goody-goody attitude and voyeuristic snooping. The scene begins with a loving freeze on a hot guy’s tan-lined ass – the way every self-respecting scene should.

Cheryl hits the road (after stealing Judy’s wallet) and heads out for the King Edward Hotel, which her uncle Orville is supposed to own. The hotel itself is a run-down palace from the 20’s, from the looks of it – and proprietor Aunt Martha (Lucille Benson, best known to most as condiment-happy Mrs. Elrod from Halloween II) doesn’t look to be holding up much better. Cheryl talks Martha into letting her stay at the hotel in exchange for doing some odd jobs and agreeing not to wander around on her own, suggesting that there are things going on at the hotel that she’d rather not anyone know about. She also makes it clear that no makeup or funny business are allowed under her rapidly decaying roof.

From here things veer alarmingly into the surreal, thanks mostly to the company at hand. Amongst the hotel’s denizens are: Reverent Moon, a bizarre, numerology-obsessed priest who has a shrine to male physique models in his room and takes regular visits from male hustlers pretending to be “refrigerator repairmen”; an aged, toothless woman who tans in her room and calls out for someone named Alice; a drunkard who lives in a room full of what looks like shredded paper bags; and a young, rather striking photographer named George (John Ventantonio) who takes voyeur photos of couples in the park for skin mags. Cheryl navigates her way through the madhouse with almost no fear, even when handwritten notes start appearing in her room and she starts finding peepholes into her bath.

The genius of Private Parts is that it is able to be both ridiculously kinky and completely harmless at the same time. The film is called Private Parts, and yet there are none to be seen – there’s a tiny bit of nudity, but it’s not even of a sexual nature. The characters are all perverts, but they don’t seem like panting lunatics, just oddballs – and Cheryl’s total lack of fear in this situation is certainly a deliberate attempt to bring the audience along in this unbiased manner. The gay elements (the reverend and his hunks, and some later trannie secrets) are not presented as anything more shocking than an old woman who walks around with her dentures in her hand, which is pretty progressive for a studio film (MGM!!) in 1972.

One of the most hilarious sequences in the film involves Cheryl’s encounters with Martha’s pet rat, Whitey. Whitey learns the hard way that Martha electrifies the keyring upon which the hotel’s master keys are hung, and Cheryl winds up very matter-of-factly putting the dead rodent into the garbage disposal. Completely nuts, but presented like any other domestic hurdle that can be overcome with a little ingenuity. I bet she'd be a crackerjack on The Price is Right!

Likewise, the scenes featuring George cuddling up to a water-filled plastic doll with Cheryl’s face plastered on it are so incredibly disturbing because they’re presented with little or no fanfare. Every shocking moment of the film simply happens and is over before you know it -- and each progressively more bizarre element leaves you with a sort of "well... THAT happened!" reaction. Bartel’s restraint is simply stunning, especially considering how camp he’d get in his later films like Deathrace 2000 and Eating Raoul. The score, camerawork (which is marvelously smooth and deliberate, just the way I like it), and subject are pure HitchcockBartel was riffing Psycho before De Palma even got the chance (when Cheryl swings her arm and knocks over a lighting instrument in the climactic scene, it's like the punctuation from Lila Crane's Bates house freakout times fifty). The combination of technical chops, visual impact, setting, tone, and twisted family portrait theme make Motel Hell (one of my all-time favorite movies) the closest cousin to Private Parts. One wonders if Martha and Ida Smith might be kin.

The characters are on the whole a Shakey's Pizza Buffet of weirdness: we've got bitchy hippies, creepy voyeurs, pervert priests, creepy old ladies, hot Los Angeles trade (the guy that arrives to "fix" the Reverend Moon's "refrigerator" -- martial arts expert Patrick Strong -- is fucking SMOKIN'), drunks, and assorted pervies and vagrants. Oddly, it seems that several of the cast members took parts in Parts to break out of their more conservative typecasting. Laurie Main (who plays hunk-loving Reverend Moon) is best known for his work in Disney movies (he was notably the narrator for the Winnie the Pooh cartoons), and Stanley Livingston (who plays Cheryl's suitor, Jeff) is best known as youngest son Chip from the apple-cheeked family sitcom My Three Sons. As our lead airhead Cheryl, Ruymen is an easygoing blend of curious, devious, annoying, and innocent -- a rather hard balance to strike, and one she does quite well. I wasn't quite sure how old she was supposed to be in the film, but I had her tagged right at about her actual age at the time (25), and I have a feeling the character is supposed to be more like 18, given how everyone's always harping about how young she is. Some folks might recognize her from the anti-drug hoax Go Ask Alice, which was made for TV the following year.

While the ending is a bit too avant-garde for my tastes (I don’t mind the twist and certainly don’t mind the humorous way in which the carnage is handled, but the final image just doesn’t hold up following all that build), it’s still a wild ride overall, and one that will leave a number of images burned into your brain. There’s a bit of bloodshed, but not as much as you might remember after -- and there’s some kinky stuff, but nothing really as bad as what you might remember there being once it’s through. Bartel’s wonderful, sick little film pulls off the near impossible feat of making you feel like you’ve seen something incredibly naughty, when in reality you haven’t seen anything at all. And in this day of excess for the sake of excess, there's a lesson or two to be learned from that.

Rating (out of 5):