Friday, September 18, 2009

Film Review: PRIVATE PARTS (1972, Paul Bartel)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 87 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Paul Bartel, Andrew Davis, Laurie Main (WINNIE THE POOH narrator), Lucille Benson (DUEL, HALLOWEEN II), Ayn Ruymen (some guest spots on 70's and 80's TV like QUINCY and HAWAII 5-0).
Tag-line: "A most bizarre voyage into the psycho sexual!"
Best one-liner: "Cheryl dear, when you're older, you'll realize that the body is a prison that traps and bends the natural spirit to its will. It makes us weak or sick or ugly, it makes us into men or women or whatever it likes, whether we like it or not."

PRIVATE PARTS is cult legend Paul Bartel's feature film debut, and he manages, even at this early stage, to provide the perfect blend of black comedic timing, jaw-dropping shock, and art house flavor- it's a work that remains as fresh today as I'm sure it was back in 1972. In form and aesthetics, the film owes a great deal to the works of Alfred Hitchcock (VERTIGO, PSYCHO), Mario Bava (BLOOD AND BLACK LACE), and Michelangelo Antonioni (BLOW-UP), but that is not to say that Bartel didn't leave his own peculiar artistic stamp on the proceedings.

I picture this as Paul Bartel's ALICE IN WONDERLAND: our heroine Cheryl (or, as everyone says, "Chair-yl") chases her innocence 'through the peep-hole,' so to speak, and she meets all variety of colorful characters, leather-daddy priests, trannies, wackos, and pervs (look for a Bartel cameo as 'Man in the Park at Night').

The labyrinthine, mod-Gothic visuals are photographed by future director Andrew Davis (UNDER SIEGE, THE FUGITIVE), with each space captured as a distinct, painstakingly-crafted diorama, not unlike the colored rooms in Corman and Roeg's MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH.

There are moments of genuine terror: everything involving the psychosexual trauma of the freakish, watery blow-up doll is handled expertly: it's strange, outrageous, unsettling, and provides one of the most eerie images ever committed to celluloid. Other elements, like a photograph of a nipple in the photographer's apartment blown up to grotesque proportions, provide an excellent visual metaphor for the delicate balance between taboo and normalcy. But this movie is also hilarious, and it ends, like most Bartel films (from DEATH RACE 2000 to EATING RAOUL) on a barrage of perfectly set-up zingers.

Four stars, and a fitting start to a career that frequently toed the fine line between the monstrous and the inane, and managed to celebrate human eccentricity and nonconformity in forms both delightful and chilling.

-Sean Gill

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