Cult Filmmakers You Should Know #20: PAUL BARTEL

By Michael Varrati

In gazing upon the kindly visage of Paul Bartel, the first images to arise are certainly not those of “suburban cannibal” or “high-octane racer.”

Prior to his untimely death in 2000, the seemingly reserved Bartel had made a career out of portraying the lovable curmudgeon, winning hearts in movies such as Rock ’n’ Roll High School and Tim Burton’s original Frankenweenie. For a whole generation who was used to seeing him as the befuddled teacher or loveable uncle, it seemed unfathomable that something far more subversive lurked beneath the surface of Paul Bartel. Yet, for those in the know, Bartel has always been more than just a mere character actor. True cult aficionados are aware that Paul Bartel can be cited as the man responsible for some of midnight cinema’s finest moments.

Openly gay in an era where it was considered taboo, Bartel found being upfront about his sexuality afforded him a lot more opportunities in the independent film world than mainstream Hollywood. An outlaw from the beginning, Bartel almost instantly fell in with the “King of the B-Movies,” Roger Corman. In 1972, Corman and his brother passed along a horror script to Bartel, a tale of skid-row lodgers and living dolls called Private Parts. Bartel gave the film his own macabre touch, morphing the horror piece into an outrageous black comedy.  With Private Parts, the actor-turned-director was able to establish a presence in the world of cinema, creating an original, outlandish voice that shined from the very beginning.

Following the minor, small-market success of Private Parts, Bartel wandered into one of his most notable projects, and ultimately, one his most celebrated partnerships.

After working on several of Corman’s other features, in 1978 the B-Movie impresario once again turned to Bartel for directorial guidance. The film, Death Race 2000, was an ambitious project about a post-apocalyptic future where high octane car racers killed to earn points on the road. Featuring early turns from Sylvester Stallone and David Carradine, Death Race 2000 also featured Warhol Superstar Mary Woronov, who became an instant fixture in the Bartel universe.

To audiences, the chemistry was instant. Woronov’s acerbic, cynical delivery combined with Bartel’s dry wit was a match made in cult heaven. A hugely celebrated duo to the midnight movie crowd, Woronov and Bartel were frequently paired up after Death Race 2000, appearing in no less than 17 projects together.

It’s safe to say that Woronov is as essential to the Paul Bartel story as the director himself.

In addition to finding the Robin to his Batman, Bartel had a hit with Death Race 2000. The movie received an instant following from genre fans. The film’s bizarre mix of dystopian themes and outrageous violence made it a fixture on the midnight circuit. Death Race 2000 became a benchmark of cult cinema, seemingly serving as the inspiration for future high-speed horrors like Mad Max.

Indeed, such was the success of Death Race 2000 that Bartel returned to the theme of adrenaline-pumping car chases with 1976’s Cannonball. Featuring several cast members in common with Death Race 2000 (Carradine and Woronov, for example), Cannonball focused less on a dystopian future and more on the reality of the illegal car racing underground of the present. Although less popular than its predecessor, Cannonball garnered a small-following, and is notable for a rare B-movie universe cameo from film auteur Martin Scorsese.

Following his dabbling into the world of filmic racing, Bartel made a break from Corman to develop what was possibly his most famous project. Co-writing with Richard Blackburn, Bartel crafted a wicked tale of a suburban couple who turn to murder to gain finances to open their own restaurant. The film, titled Eating Raoul, starred Bartel and Woronov as the desperate duo, and served as a hilariously blood-soaked social statement. Considered by many to be the apex of the Bartel/Woronov partnership, Eating Raoul shows the team at their most caustic and cynical, laying waste to swingers for cash, all the while dodging the titular Raoul (Robert Beltran).

Eating Raoul connected with cult audiences for its tongue-planted-in-cheek approach, and maintains a widely celebrated status with genre fans. The film has been celebrated with continued screenings over the years, and even spawned its own stage musical. Because of the sheer amount of heart put into the project, Eating Raoul remains, for many, the film most synonymous with Bartel.

Following Eating Raoul in 1984 with the far more basic comedy Not for Publication, Bartel proved he was not a director limited by genre. The light-hearted comedy about a tabloid journalist looking for a higher level of prestige won over many critics and helped further establish Bartel as a leading humorist of his day.

1985’s Lust in the Dust, however, landed Bartel firmly back in the world of cult, and won him a celebrated sense of notoriety amongst the John Waters fans of the world. The film, a western farce, served as the first non-Waters movie that drag superstar Divine worked on, pulling in a lot of interest from the Dreamland crowd. Also starring Cesar Romero and Tab Hunter, Lust in the Dust has garnered a cult momentum all its own, largely due to Divine’s involvement. Nonetheless, for a remarkably fun take on the old west, Bartel was able to put another feather in his already well-decorated cap.

Bartel continued to work into the 1990s (including his biting tale of societal discord, Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills), mainly directing television and contract projects. Though his acting career surged on for nearly a decade after his final directorial effort, he remained ever on point with a remarkable sense of wit and cynicism.

As always, the entries in this Cult Filmmakers series are meant to be an introductory overview and celebration of some of genre cinema’s very best. To truly delve into the complete career of someone like Paul Bartel would take far more space than these few pages allow. Having acted in nearly one hundred films, and directing a vast assortment of his own, Paul Bartel was a remarkable artist whose work is continuously reflected in the modern world of horror and cult. For performances alone, Bartel (who worked with the likes of John Carpenter, Joe Dante, and Gregg Araki) should be venerated by the cult community, but for his filmmaking he should be canonized.

What is truly significant about the work of Paul Bartel is how each of his films contains multiple layers. In a genre that is so often surface level blood and boobs, Bartel used each of his films as a greater commentary on society at large. Eating Raoul’s reaction to counterculture and Death Race 2000’s commentary on man’s worship of machines are but a small fraction of the cleverness at work in Bartel’s movies. That he was able to craft midnight fare that not only provided thrills, but insight, may well be Paul Bartel’s greatest achievement.

Speaking with total bias, I have no shame in proclaiming that Paul Bartel is one of the very best the pantheon of B-Movies has ever offered. His consistent wit and unrelenting vision always culminated in a cinematic twinkle of the eye. Through blood and guts, Paul Bartel was never afraid to show us who we really are as people…

…even if that meant revealing we were all just racing to death.

For that, and so much more, Paul Bartel is most certainly a Cult Filmmaker You Should Know.

Until next time!

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