Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Private Parts (1972): or, I Always Feel Like Somebody's Watchin' Me

Voyeurism. Is there a better or more fruitful, disturbing sexual metaphor for the filmmaking and filmwatching enterprise? Is it even a metaphor? Long before Hitchcock's Rear Window, long before Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, long LONG before De Palma's Body Double and the countless lesser rip-offs, the idea of the movie-goer's gaze as an invasive, more-than-a-little perverse one was well established. Hell, one of the first films ever presented commercially to the public, the Thomas Edison Company's 47 second-long, 1896 effort The Kiss (aka The May Irwin Kiss, aka The Rice-Irwin Kiss, aka The Widow Jones) was decried by moral guardians as pornographic, corrupting, and generally a herald of the decline of morality in Western Civilization. (Turns out they were right. Go fig.) Yes, our discomfort with and simultaneous attraction to watching something we probably shouldn't be has been a part of movie history since its very rose-fingered dawn.

Over the years directors of all nationalities and artistic skill-levels have tackled the subject, sometimes turning the camera back on the viewer and shaming him or her for enjoying the filth paraded before the lens (the recent Funny Games and its remake are well-known examples of this; the pretty-good but not as well-known indie flick The Last Horror Movie is another), other times merely using the concept of voyeurism in a metacritical way to comment on their own movies while still in the process of telling a story. Paul Bartel's 1972 horror/thriller Private Parts falls into this latter category, I think, though to his credit the director never leans so heavily on the metacritical as to get in the way of the story he's trying to tell. It's more a garnish than a main course, and the entree for the most part is fairly satisfying--albeit with a slightly fishy aftertaste.

Bartel sets up the voyeurism motif from the very beginning, with an artfully done credits sequence consisting of high-contrast photographs of men and women in various states of undress or sexual congress, all seemingly unposed and washed over with bright, garish colors. After the director's credit fades, the scene on screen--a bright red print of a muscular male ass between spread feminine thighs--fades from duochrome into living color, and we find ourselves peeking in on a passionate sex scene! We're not the only ones, apparently, as a giggle from offscreen alerts the lovers there's someone else in the room. The boyfriend, a bearded beefy boy with perfectly permed hair and NO tan lines, leaps out of bed toward the camera, threatening to reveal his disengaged coupling gear to us all, not thirty seconds in! Luckily (for some of us) Bartel then cuts to the curtains by the window, where we see two tell-tale tennis shoes under the edge of the drapes. Beefy Boy pulls the voyeur out by her ankles, thus introducing us to our protagonist Cheryl (always pronounced with the hard "CH"--"CH-CH-CHAIR-UHL") played with skinny ripe-for-the-plucking innocence by Ayn Ruymen.

Cheryl's roommate Judy is NOT amused, since apparently this isn't the first time Cheryl has slipped in for a surreptitious peek at the poke. (It must be said that Judy, while she possesses a decent 70s sexpot body of which we get more than a glimpse as she rolls around with Beefy Boy, has a face like a female Peanuts character grown-up and gone whorish.) In a manic rage of Lucy Van Pelt-ish proportions, Judy instructs her naked boyfriend to "Strip her!", apparently seeing rape as the only just punishment in this situation. To his credit Beefy Boy draws the line there and tries to calm his psychopathic girlfriend down, giving Cheryl the opportunity to escape with a few clothes, her teddy bear, and Judy's red leather wallet--pay attention kids, it's a plot point.

"You think you can kick MY fucking football? FORGET IT, BITCH!"

Alone in LA without a place to stay, Cheryl decides to look up her estranged Aunt Martha, who runs The King Edward Hotel--a great old inn that retains intimations of its opulent past despite its present-day squalidity. Aunt Martha is a pudgy battle-axe with a thick country churchwoman accent, despite repeated claims that the family is originally from Ohio. Martha is reluctant at first to take her niece in, quickly and correctly deducing that she's run away from home and found nothing but trouble in the City. Cheryl's pleas and promises of good behavior eventually wear the old woman down, though, and Martha finally gives Cheryl a room and a stern warning: "Promise not to wander around the hotel alone--this is no place for a little girl!"

Judging from the glimpses we get of the King Edward's residents, she ain't just whistlin' Dixie. Cheryl's barely entered the lobby before she meets a Flamingly Gay Priest with an avuncular manner and admirably wide CRAZY EYES. A handsome but creepy young man watches her wordlessly as she climbs the stairs, his half-lidded eyes wet with menace. And a crazy old woman insists on calling Cheryl "Alice," a name Aunt Martha is pointedly unwilling to allow into conversation. A viewer might easily believe Cheryl would be better off staying in her room.

That is, until the viewer SEES the room and goes through the first night with our heroine. Decorated in Early American Brothel, the room seems paradoxically cavernous and cramped, the shadows thrown by the lamplight closing around the antique brass bed like solid walls. The bathroom down the hall is not much better, with its dingy-hospital tile, questionably stained ceramic tub and startling full-length mirror. When a drunken resident bangs forcefully on the door and lets out a string of obscenities as Cheryl is preparing for her bath, his unseen hostility is powerful and disturbing. Unwashed, she flees back to her room and lies awake through the night, hearing arguments through the walls, sirens outside the window, and strange creaks coming from the presumably empty storage room next door.

My Colleague, The Bishop of Buttsecks

Bartel uses some truly effective and disorienting low-angle shots along with smothering shadow and knife-like beams of light to create a very unsettling atmosphere and make the viewer feel how vulnerable Cheryl is, alone in an unknown place, surrounded by God-knows-what terrors.

Things get even more unsettling when Beefy Boy shows up looking for Cheryl, hoping to get the wallet back from her before Judy finds her and things get even more ugly than usual. The bearded bodybuilder comes off as a solid, even good-natured sort of fellow, oblivous to the Gay Priest's hilariously suggestive questions when he meets him in the lobby; really, he only wants to keep Cheryl from getting into even more shit with her former friend. This makes his SUDDEN AND STARTLING DECAPITATION even harder to take...though no less awesome. (<--Spoilers!)

With the creepiness and real physical danger to our heroine firmly established, now we can move on. Aunt Martha regales her niece over an unappetizing dinner with tales of the past and pictures of her unnamed daughter as a baby. "You and Uncle Orville had a girl?" Cheryl asks, leading to the first of many strange interludes from Auntie M. "Not Orville," Martha replies. "Just me. He was too old. We went to a doctor and worked it out another way. Didn't need Orville." Adoption? Artificial insemination? Cloning? Schtupping the doc in the exam room? These questions are left unanswered, along with Cheryl's query about the fate of Martha's little girl. "I guess you'd say she's in the Lord's hands," Martha quips cryptically. Hmmm....


Meanwhile the weirdnesses of hotel life get ratcheted up several notches. The sounds continue from the locked storage room, the Gay Priest displays an unwholesome interest in numerology, more hints about the mysterious Alice emerge, Cheryl meets George, the creepy dude from the lobby who is a professional photographer and doesn't get any less disturbing upon acquaintance, and Aunt Martha reveals herself to be a funeral fetishist, going to funerals for people she doesn't know in order to enjoy the service and take pictures. "I try to capture the exact moment when the spirit leaves the body!" she enthuses. Whatever melts your butter, Auntie. Furthermore, Cheryl discovers that instead of having a Gideon's Bible in her nightstand, she has a typewritten manuscript entitled Desire in the Shadows, complete with handwritten notes especially for her! Porn evangelism--an idea whose time has come.

During one of Aunt Martha's funereal outings, Cheryl is left in charge of her aunt's pet rat Whitey and told not to leave the kitchen. She's not rat-sitting for long before Whitey is electrocuted on a set of booby-trapped keys over the stove, which of course only piques the young girl's curiosity. Gaining the keys with the help of a nonconductive broom handle, Cheryl decides to spend the afternoon snooping around the hotel, ostensibly to find guests' handwriting samples to compare to the notes in her Gideon's Porn, but actually furthering her own voyeuristic desires and those of the audience.

One of the first places she goes is the mysterious locked storage room, which she finds full of piles of trash, its walls riddled with peepholes--on the bathroom, the hall outside, and of course her own bedroom as well! She also finds large, high-resolution prints of the mysterious Alice (the photos are labeled, helpfully, "Alice"), a beautiful blonde with big breasts and a slightly mischievous smile. Hmm...big arty boob pics...you'd have to be a professional photographer to get prints like those, wouldn't you?


Following her hunch she moseys down the hall to George's room, where she finds more gigantic pictures of Alice's boobs as well as a groovy television set ensconced in a giant print of two feminine lips. (Seriously, it's awesome; I've got my people working on a 37-inch version right now.) As she leaves the room, we the viewers see George himself sneaking out of an armoire, where he's been watching the watcher. A peeper peeping on the peeper peeping him! That's meta, bitchez!

Cheryl also invades the Flaming Gay Priest's room, which she finds littered with holy icons and muscle porn. (The altar with its votives always burning stands right next to an alcove full of gay bondage snaps, and a giant stand-up cut-out of a muscleboy lies on the ground next to a bed over which hangs a pair of antlers. This guy is LIVING THE DREAM.) Having struck out on her amateur graphology quest, Cheryl scuttles back to the kitchen before Aunt Martha gets back.

In the next few scenes we get to see Cheryl enjoying the knowledge her voyeuristic ways have gained her, making knowing comments to tenants and their visitors and smiling while they squirm. (She even makes a comment to one of the Gay Priest's gentlman callers that gets the harmless kook beat up--not cool, CHAIRUL.) But she gets as well as she gives, as her not-so-secret admirer leaves her lingerie and more notes, asking her to "perform" for him while he watches through the walls. Cheryl is as excited by being watched as she is by watching, and readily agrees, deducing correctly that George the Shutterbug is her Knight in Shadowy Spaces.

"You into...photography, eh? Candid photography? 'He asked her knowingly!' Eh?"

Unfortunately for her, George has more than one fetish, as we learn in one of the freakier sex scenes it's been my pleasure to witness recently. Voyeuristically, we watch as the lone and obviously agitated George fills a transparent vinyl inflatable love doll with water, dresses it in lingerie identical to Cheryl's "gift," and pastes an enlarged photo of her face on its featureless head! Before you have time to wonder what kind of heat retention a thing like that would have--well, almost--George has stroked and fondled the thing and got himself into such a state that there's only one thing he can do...PULL OUT A SYRINGE, TAKE A FEW CCs OF BLOOD FROM HIS ARM, AND INJECT IT ROUGHLY INTO THE CROTCH OF THE DOLL! Bartel gives us a shot from below as the water in the doll goes from clear to crimson, with the photo of Cheryl's horrified face staring down from the background. YIKES. I think we just pegged the Disturbo-Meter.

So now knowing what lies in wait for our unwary Cherry, we get more clues about Alice (I think we can guess by now what happened to her), a visit from Judy that ends badly for her in the basement darkroom, Cheryl going out on a date with a square kid who used to know Alice, and more weirdness from Aunt Martha, culminating in a strangely moving soliloquy where we start to wonder if George is the only psycho in the apartment block:

"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."


Anyway, it all ends up in a wild finish in George's studio that's not really a twist--if you've been paying attention or have seen a big-budget Meyer flick in your life, it's pretty well telegraphed--but is nonetheless weird and disturbing. If it had faded out here, this would be a near-three thumb flick for sure.

But unfortunately it DOESN'T end there--after the climax, we get another five to ten minutes of the square kids' dad bringing the police to the King Edward and discovering the carnage upstairs, which occurs with such a drastic shift in tone that it's really kind of incomprehensible. Up until now we've had an occasionally eccentric but pretty much straightforward psycho-thriller, with a serious somber tone and artfully disturbing cinematography; but for this coda Bartel brings in a few members of his comedy troupe and treats the whole thing like some kind of vaudevillian farce, with overblown Jewish accents, slapstick, smirking one-liners, and a fairly stupid ending for no good reason I can see. I mean, I know he later made his name with the black comedy cannibalism flick Eating Raoul, but come on--this is just jarring.

Still, for the most part the movie is an excellent excercise in moody lighting, suggestive score, strange visuals and eccentric plotting that hits more often than it misses, with those added layers of voyeuristic commentary to give it some intellectual flavor. And it's been a while since we had a good disturbing dummy in a movie, it has to be said. So I give Private Parts 2.5 thumbs--like many private parts, this one's well worth having a look at.




Tenebrous Kate said...

I remember the VHS box for this little gem from many, many years ago and it haunts a little part of my nightmare dream-space. Knowing what lurked within that creepy packaging makes me alternately relieved (I mean--c'mon, I was a wee, impressionable lass back then) and a little disappointed that I waited this long to seek out the movie, as I shall surely do now!

Le Morte d'Whitey is killing me. He died as he lived--in a pyrotechnic shower of sparks. No wait--something tells me I'm doing that wrong....

The Duke of DVD said...

Wow. Just... wow. At first I thought, "Ok, this sounds like my kind of movie. I mean, it has a gay priest in it that resembles Dr. Loomis on crank. How could it get any more awesome?" But then it does! The whole injecting blood into the inflatable doll with the mug shot pasted on it... well, yeah. That's art right there.

Brilliant review as usual, dearest Vicar. When next we meet for our usual hedonistic consumption of libations I'll know what caused the maniacal gleam in your eye.

Karswell said...

Yeah, this flick is a totally underrated gem. I rented it from Netflix not too long ago and actually pondered just keeping it and reporing it missing in the mail or something. Watched like 3 times in one week.

The Vicar of VHS said...

K--I'm glad you didn't! Otherwise I might have missed out. ;)

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