Although better known as a supporting player in a variety of films (including quite a few by fellow Roger Corman alum Joe Dante), the openly gay Paul Bartel was also a skilled director, having helmed cult classics like DEATH RACE 2000 (1975), EATING RAOUL (1982) and SHELF LIFE (1993) before his death in 2000 at age 61.
PRIVATE PARTS was the first feature directed by Bartel, following the well-received shorts “The Secret Cinema” (1968) and “Naughty Nurse” (1969). Roger Corman’s producer brother Gene hired Bartel to direct PRIVATE PARTS based on the promise shown by those shorts. The film, photographed by future director Andrew Davis (of THE FINAL TERROR, UNDER SIEGE and THE FUGITIVE), was not a success, but it did inspire Roger Corman to hire Bartel to helm DEATH RACE 2000 and its follow-up CANNONBALL (1976).
Cheryl is a young runaway living in Los Angeles. Following a fight with her roommate Cheryl moves into a downtown hotel owned by her aunt Martha, a dotty, severely moralistic old bat. But aunt Martha is just one of many freaks residing in the hotel. There’s also a lecherous priest and a photographer named George who resides in the room next to Cheryl’s—and spies on her through a hole in the wall. As if all that weren’t enough, there’s also a murderer on the loose, whose victims include the previous tenant of Cheryl’s room and her former roommate, who meets her end while searching for Cheryl in the hotel basement.
Cheryl becomes intrigued with George. She takes to sneaking around his room, which is decorated with porny photos and contains a transparent blow-up sex doll George likes to fill with water. Cheryl takes to following George on nighttime walks through the seedier parts of LA. George is himself quite besotted with Cheryl: alone in his room he puts a photo of Cheryl’s face on the head of his sex doll and does pervy things to it. He also nearly kills a nice guy who’s been putting the moves on Cheryl.
Aunt Martha grows fed up with Cheryl’s rebellious ways and orders her out. Cheryl agrees to leave the hotel, which freaks out George and leads to a violent finish in which the identity of the murderer is revealed, as is a thoroughly twisted secret.
PRIVATE PARTS’ script, by Philip Kearney and Les Rendelstein, is serviceable at best—it’s a bit overly derivative of PSYCHO, down to the final transgender twist—and the acting, in common with most seventies-sploitation films, isn’t much. The film’s effectiveness is due almost entirely to Paul Bartel’s spirited direction.
Bartel was never much of a stylist but had a real flair for the odd and perverse. PRIVATE PARTS is competently made; it may be a first film, but it never feels the slightest bit disjointed or amateurish. What really distinguishes it is the overwhelming atmosphere of seedy horror and dark comedy.
Bartel also pulls off some truly mind-scraping imagery. The film overall isn’t one of my favorites, but I’m certain I won’t be forgetting the sight of a water-filled transparent sex doll injected with blood.
Director: Paul Bartel
Producer: Gene Corman
Screenplay: Philip Kearney, Les Rendelstein
Cinematography: Andrew Davis
Editing: Martin Tubor
Cast: Ayn Ruymen, Lucille Benson, John Ventantonio, Laurie Main, Stanley Livingston, Charles Woolf, Ann Gibbs, Len Travis, Doroty Neumann, Paul Bartel