Before he discovered his gift for high camp while directing bizarre car-race movies for producer Roger Corman in the mid-’70s—and well before he dove headway into psychosexual satire while making outré indie movies in the ’80s—director Paul Bartel made his feature debut with this strange little picture, which is perhaps best described a transgressive homage to Hitchcock. Set primarily at a dingy hotel in downtown Los Angeles, the movie tracks the adventures of a naïve girl from the Midwest who falls into the orbit of several sex-crazed psychos. The movie doesn’t sustain interest, but it does contain some uniquely disturbing images.
Private Parts opens provocatively, with a young couple interrupting their lovemaking because someone is watching them. The voyeur is Cheryl (Ayn Ruymen), the aforementioned naïve Midwesterner. She moved to L.A. with her worldly gal pal, but their relationship went downhill fast. After the voyeurism incident, Cheryl gets kicked out of the apartment she shares with her friend, so Cheryl looks up her only relative in California. That would be Aunt Martha (Lucille Benson), the creepy proprietor of the King Edward Hotel. Residents at the hotel include a priest who’s heavy into bondage and leather, a pasty young photographer with unusual nocturnal habits (more on those later), and Aunt Martha’s pet rat.
This is the sort of stylized movie in which the protagonist ignores obvious clues that she’s entered a loony bin, simply because it’s narratively convenient for her to stay put. In other words, abandon all hope of logic, ye who enter here. For the first 30 minutes or so, Bartel—working from a script by Philip Kearney and Les Rendelstein—mostly generates garden-variety suspense through odd sound effects and vignettes of mysterious people trying to break into Cheryl’s room. There’s also a quick beheading, just to keep things lively. As Private Parts enters its second half, however, Bartel starts to explore genuinely twisted behavior. It’s giving nothing away, plot-wise, to say that the film’s creepiest scene involves the photographer humping a transparent sex doll filled with water, drawing a syringe full of his own blood, and then orgasmically injecting the blood into the sex doll’s crotch so the plasma reddens her interior.
Private Parts doesn’t contain nearly enough scenes with that level of deviant imagination, but the picture does boast a generally disquieting atmosphere. The main location is suitably decrepit, and composer Hugo Friedhofter does a bang-up job of mimicking the wall-to-wall orchestral textures that Bernard Hermann regularly supplied to Hitchcock. As for the movie’s performances, they’re mostly beside the point, since the actors are cast to type—and, to be frank, playing crazy isn’t the most difficult thing to do. That said, John Ventantonio provides adequate pathos as the photographer, Benson is believably odd, and Ruymen has moments of skittish vulnerability.
Private Parts: FUNKY
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