Cult films, generally, have a perverse aptitude for normalizing abnormality. We don’t willingly suspend disbelief: we just suspend it.
Private Property is hardly clever – though the cinematography is often outstanding – yet, despite its limitations, hermetically encircles your judgment: it’s not long before you, in some way, accept the situation. This kind of film is not grounded to a geographical location or climate. It doesn’t build a three-act narrative. No, it is empowered by our preconceptions and instincts whereby familiarity breeds contempt. We know these people.
The characters, however hapless, are puppets to the powers. Terror is that which violates: the title, one comes to believe, refers to the soul.
For a thumbnail sketch, think Of Mice and Men meets In Cold Blood – and garnish lightly with French New Wave noir.
We enter a daytime, black and white world of sunny Southern California – suburban but oddly isolated. We could be anywhere. The focal point of our existence is a swimming pool.
Duke (Corey Allen) and Boots (Warren Oates), are twenty-something drifters and thieves who hold up a gas station. Duke is the man of action, brutal and smart. Boots is slow-witted and equally violent as his buddy.
Duke teases his pal for his lack of sexual experience and suggests a solution: he will seduce a woman for Boots – and fortuitously spots the victim as she drives by the robbed gas station – the beautiful Ann Carlyle (Kate Manx), neglected wife of an insurance executive (Robert Wark).
They convince a traveler who is gassing up at the station to help them follow the woman of their dreams. Down the highway they go, finally discovering where she lives, and waste little time breaking into an empty house overlooking the backyard pool of the Carlyle home.
The film is not so much about the motivation behind voyeurism – of which there’s a lot – but sexual frustration, poisoned and unhinged, in Duke’s case, by mental illness. Duke’s amorality has an unexpected existential edge: his sociopathic condition contributes to a few insights which rise above the emotional morass.
The film has an undercurrent of morbid, joyless sensuality. The three principal characters are encircled by a desperation they cannot define; it rests at a subterranean level. That’s where tension always lives.
It’s ‘plausible’ – and I use the word carefully – that Ann Carlyle is unaware of the threat presented by the gruesome twosome…but it really is a strain on credibility. It’s not the fault of actor Kate Manx: the script, by director Leslie Stevens, stumbles through too much bargain-basement Freud, never generating requisite momentum to reach an inevitable resolution. Instead, we receive only a satisfying ending. Too bad – because the organic conclusion to Private Property is that all ownership – everything – is transient.