Remember the Beach Party movies of the 1960s? Wholesome fun with surfer dudes and bikini girls, twisting away on golden sands - they were a stone-cold groove, baby! Here, Broadway satirist Charles Busch crafts a campy plot that pokes gentle fun at the halcyon days of Gidget (1958), Beach Blanket Bingo (1965) and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965), but with a psycho-horror twist. A wild sex-kitten go-go dancing over the opening credits sets the tone as we segue into the drive-in theatre where a knife-wielding maniac slashes a moviegoer’s throat.
Elsewhere, it’s a glorious California summer for some fresh-faced teens. While dishy, beach bunny Marvel Ann (Enchanted (2007) star Amy Adams) flaunts her bikini-clad curves to lure surfer stud/ amateur psychologist Starcat (Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Nicholas Brendon), aspiring surfer-girl Florence ‘Chicklet’ Forrest (Six Feet Under’s Lauren Ambrose) wants to prove she can ride the waves. “Surfing’s a man’s domain. No minnows in the shark tank”, rebukes Starcat, but grows to respect and falls madly in love with his new surfing buddy. Poor Florence has bigger problems. In a nod to The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Crazy Mixed-Up Zombies (1964), the sight of whirling circles prompts a schizoid transformation in our lovable heroine. She becomes her foul-mouthed, psychotic alter-ego Ann Bowman.
This makes her prime suspect in a string of murders investigated by Captain Monica Stark (Charles Busch in drag) and Officer Cookie (Jenica Bergere). Someone is killing people who are physically ‘imperfect’: a girl with a hair lip, a boy with one testicle, a nasty disabled girl (Kathleen Robertson). Is Florence the culprit? Or maybe it’s her mom, Ruth Forrest (Beth Broderick) who has a secret to hide? Or surf legend the Great Kanaka (Thomas Gibson), who so turned on by Ann Bowman he can’t help triggering Florence’s psychotic episodes. Meanwhile, Florence’s intellectually inclined gal pal Berdine (Danni Wheeler) becomes girl Friday to Hollywood sex kitten Bettina Barnes (Kimberley Davies), star of such films as “Tarantula Queen of Hoboken” and “Sex Kittens Go Bossa Nova”. The gang gather for a wild party at Bettina’s pad, where the killer is set to strike…
Psycho Beach Party is an absolute hoot, chockfull of lovable characters and pithy, quotable dialogue (“Some people were born to die”; “Her alibi is as tight as Sandra Dee’s butt”; “It’s an existential fate worse than death!”). With luaus, love triangles and surf showdowns evoking all the Beach Party clichés, Charles Busch and director Robert Lee King (who went on to write offbeat teen comedy: Slap Her, She’s French (2002)) also craft a silly, yet engrossing murder mystery, with touches of John Waters-style, sexual perversity. Two buff, surfer buddies play-wrestle a little too enthusiastically; Mrs. Forrest tries her best to seduce Lars (Matt Keeslar) the hunky, foreign exchange student; and Florence and Berdine’s “best friends forever” speech nearly leads to a lesbian kiss.
Buffy veteran Nicholas Brendan knows his way around a snappy one-liner, but star of the show is undoubtedly Lauren Ambrose. Switching from wide-eyed, adorable Florence to vamp it up magnificently as Ann Bowman, she even pulls off a tertiary persona in sassy, black chick Tylene. It’s a tour de force that renders this a potential cult film classic. The film is full of incidental pleasures like the opening pastiche of Attack of the 50ft Woman, former Neighbours actress Kimberly Davies impersonating Mamie Van Doren, her go-go dance showdown with the excellent Amy Adams, and a chance to hear Beth Broderick, that nice aunt from Sabrina the Teenage Witch, scream: “You mother****ing ****suckers!”
Even the romance and Florence’s traumatic past prove affecting. Which makes it all the more unfortunate that Busch and King spoil things with a faintly mean-spirited, double-twist climax. Still, it’s a rare instance where a “gotcha” ending almost redeems things, plus you can savour the killer’s crazed confession (“I was born into a family of freaks! My mother was blind, my father was deaf, my sisters were midgets!”). What would you expect from the author of the hit play “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom”?