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Psycho Beach Party

Gidget Gone Awry

By Lianne Habinek

Directed by Robert Lee King

Written by Charles Busch

Starring Lauren Ambrose, Thomas Gibson, Nicholas Brendon, Charles Busch

Remember, the other day, when it was still summer vacation? Now, the stark reality of the school year is once again upon us. At least director Robert Lee King boots us back into autumn with a satirical, if not always funny, kick in the pants.

The campy Psycho Beach Party begins at a Malibu drive-in, where Florence Forrest (played with fantastic spunk by Lauren Ambrose) and her friend Berdine (Danni Wheeler) bemoan the fact that teenagedom necessitates a preoccupation with boys. They’re forced off the subject, however, when Berdine finds the girl in the car next door murdered. As Captain Monica Stark (Charles Busch, who also wrote the stage version of Psycho Beach Party) heads up the investigation, Florence decides to take up surfing. To do this, she must first be accepted by the guys -- college psychology drop-out Starcat (Nicholas Brendon), Yo Yo (Nick Cornish), and Provoloney (Andrew Levitas) -- who nickname her Chicklet. She then opts to get surfing lessons from the great and rhyme-spouting Kanaka (Thomas Gibson).

Kanaka soon discovers that Chicklet has several personalities, among them the sadistic Anne Bowman. Meanwhile, Berdine and the surfing gang run into Bettina Barnes (Kimberly Davies), a Hollywood B-movie starlet on the run from the studios. Soon, plans are underway for a luau, but -- Oh, no! Someone starts killing off Chicklet’s friends. “That is totally the flip side of cool,” as one character quips. Who could it be -- Chicklet’s mother, the perfect housewife with several ex-husbands, a dark secret in her past, and a foreign exchange student (Matt Keeslar) in her house? Or maybe it’s Bettina Barnes, fed-up as she is of being hounded by critics? Might it even be Chicklet herself? The investigation, which takes numerous back-flips and a few surprising twists, can’t stand in the way of the party at the climax of this mildly amusing film.

There’s plenty of fodder for aspiring Freudian scholars, not to mention obvious homosexual subtexts and an apparent critique of feminine exploitation.

What Psycho Beach Party is best at, however, is chewing up the wildly mindless beach party films of the 60s (Beach Blanket Bingo, Bikini Beach, and Catalina Caper, to name but a few). This movie functions primarily to remind us just how silly the genre was, with the help of screamingly loud swimsuits, sudden and improbable dancing showdowns, a sarcastic soundtrack, and, my personal favorite, surfing scenes against blue screen waves intercut with stock footage of wipe-outs. Psycho Beach Party might be accurately described as an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 without Joel and the ’Bots, for the cracks are neatly self-contained. What it lacks, however, is confidence in its jokes, as evidenced by the uncertain laughter and frequent silences of the audience I saw it with. Such hesitation to recognize a joke may be due, on the other hand, to unfamiliarity with the genre, so you may want to do some catch-up before you see Psycho Beach Party. If you’re looking for the black-comedy genius of Hitchcock’s Psycho, you should look elsewhere. This movie is cheese for the most part, but at least it doesn’t smell all that bad.