Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, May 14, 2012

Director Report Card: Paul Bartel (1972)

Paul Bartel isn't a director you hear a lot about. This is somewhat surprising considering how many beloved cult films he's had his hand in. Maybe it was due to his early passing or, perhaps, his tendency to show up as an actor in more famous films.

A key director from Roger Corman's New World Productions, Bartel was a comedy director who, early in his career, found himself directing horror and action films. Later on, he broke away to make independent films in his own style. His movies lean towards the surreal, the satirical, and almost always the perverse. Long time readers should know by now that this is a winning combination for me.

1. Private Parts

“Private Parts” is the kind of cool, weird quasi-horror film that is best viewed late at night on a far end cable channel, stumbled on to unprepared. The story of an innocent teenage girl living at this hotel, a weird world full of oddballs and deviants, provides plenty of opportunities for the director to indulge in his idiosyncrasies. There’s at least three characters, a priest/gay leather freak, a senile old woman constantly wandering the halls calling out for a missing girl, and a falling-down drunk. (In a later film, I suspect Bartel would have played the priest himself. Laurie Main amusingly suffices in the part while Bartel has a brief cameo as a public urinating bum.) These characters make minor contribution to the plot themselves but their prescene add a quirky sense of personality to the film.

What also adds to that personality is the location itself. I don’t know if the history of the hotel this movie was shot in or whither or not it’s still standing, but the obvious textile history of the location adds to the total atmosphere completely.

There’s a sense of sleazy sexuality running throughout the entire film. Voyeurism is prevalent. The opening scene of the film is Cheryl, our lead character, snooping on her roommate coupling with a male friend. Later on, she peaks through an eyehole. There’s a hidden room adjacent to the bathroom, where peering eyes can watch undetected. What’s most surprising about the film is that, later on, Cheryl embraces being watched. She dresses up in a kinky mask and stockings for her observer. Most filmmakers would exploit this kinkiness for revulsion and fear but Bartel, instead, approuches it from an agreeable cocked grin.

Aye Ruyman is fantastic as Cheryl, a young girl coming into her own sexuality. She is na├»ve in many ways but her snooping, Nancy Drew curiousity is involving and charming. The main thrust of the plot involves her relationship with her observer, a strange man named George. His room is filled with weird, kinky photographs. He fills a blow-up doll with water, glues a picture of Cheryl to its face, and injects it with a syringe of his blood. If all of that wasn’t off-putting enough, he was obviously involved in the disappearance of a previous girl. John Ventantonio brings an appropriate amount of off-putting strangeness to the part. The final main character is Lucille Benson as Aunt Martha, a controlling old lady who keeps a scrapbook of funerals and is clearly hiding something.

Now, is this a horror film? There’s a surprisingly graphic decapitation early on and another off-screen murder but, for the large stretch of the film, this is a surreal comedy and a creepy mystery. The ending pushes the film into the full horror again, as the twist ending (which isn’t too hard to predict, if you pay attention.) is revealed and the violence starts up again. There’s a little coda that brings things full circle but doesn’t make much sense, story-wise or emotionally.

“Private Parts” turns out to be as quirky, cultish, funny, and oddly creepy as any thing else Paul Bartel would go on to make. (Odd, considering he didn’t write it.) It’s doesn’t all line-up and the story is a little rough around the edges but, as late-night midnight movie madness, it satisfies fantastically. [Grade: B+]

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