DIRECTED BY: Paul Bartel
FEATURING: Ayn Ruymen, Lucille Benson, John Ventantonio
PLOT: A sexually curious teenage runaway negotiates the deviant scumbags in her crazy aunt’s creaky boarding house.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It might make the List thanks to the atmosphere of sleazy psychosexual depravity that’s slathered on thicker than the blue eye shadow teenage Cheryl cakes on to try to make herself look like a woman.
COMMENTS: Private Parts is a haunted house movie, except that the ghosts bedeviling the heroine are the bizarre, boozy boarders at her aunt’s decrepit hotel, and she’s not nearly as wary of them as she needs to be. This is a movie full of creaking floorboards, turning doorknobs, and unseen men peeping through knotholes in a dusty old hotel. Adding to the atmosphere is a wonderfully overwrought Bernard Hermann-inspired soundtrack that’s with us so constantly that it actually creates tension when it disappears for a moment to allow the characters to speak. Not that what this collection of skid-row oddballs has to say would be particularly reassuring. We have the Reverend, who at one point suggests he should slip out of his clerical vestments into something more comfortable; the spooky old hag who calls young Cheryl “Alice” after a resident who disappeared a long time ago under suspicious circumstances; and there’s the hotelier herself, Aunt Martha, who loves funerals, hates painted women and believes “the body is a prison.” There’s also George, the silent young photographer with the darkroom in the basement and the creepy stare that focuses on pubescent Cheryl whenever she’s in the room. Each of these weirdos has deeper secrets in their closets, which Cheryl will uncover when she starts snooping around their rooms against her Aunt’s orders (hint to future runaways: you should never trust a guy who owns a customized carrying case for his personal syringe). Obviously, this is no place for a naïf like Cheryl, but she’s not oblivious to the degeneracy—she’s actively drawn to it. Curious about sex but totally inexperienced, she enjoys the feel of a grown man’s eyes on her developing body, without understanding the difference between healthy lust and sick perversion. All she knows is, after receiving presents of erotica and spiderweb lingerie from a secret admirer, boys her own age suddenly seem boring. Although the movie sports a body count, the tension comes from hoping Cheryl will somehow escape what seems to be her inevitable seduction and corruption. If IMDB is to be believed, Ayn Ruymen was 25 years old when she played the part, but you may have a hard time believing the actress is a day over 16. Not only does she have an adolescent build, she plays the part with a wonderful mix of innocent naughtiness; she mischievously snoops and pranks the boarders, but still sleeps with a teddy bear and isn’t half as sophisticated as she thinks. The bits with a bizarre, customizable “blow up” doll are unforgettably creepy. After playing as straight psychohorror through most of the running time, Private Parts takes a strange detour into black comedy territory for the conclusion with the arrival of a couple of ludicrously blasé cops, and throws out a couple of scarcely believable twists at the very end as the weird capper. All told, Private Parts a deliciously depraved debut from oddball Paul Bartel.
Private Parts is a should-be cult movie that’s still searching for its cult forty years after release. For some reason, MGM picked the movie up for distribution, then apparently balked at the pseudo-pedophiliac subject matter and buried the movie. The flick has been consistently overlooked since; those who caught it in its brief theatrical run or stumbled upon its unheralded VHS or DVD releases remember it, but word of mouth has never made it a hit, despite its midnight movie feel and pleasing perversity. Ironically, director Paul Bartel received more exposure making films like Death Race 2000 for Roger Corman (Roger’s brother Gene was producer on Private Parts) than he with this Hollywood debut.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…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.”–Paul Corupe, DVD Verdict (DVD)
(This movie was nominated for review by “Gerby” who called it “a strange one!” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)