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[whitespace] 'Psycho Beach Party'
Beach Blanket Babes: The virginal Florence (Lauren Ambrose, left) develops a dark side in 'Psycho Beach Party.'

Beach Camp

Charles Busch kicks sand at the beach party genre with the spoof 'Psycho Beach Party'

By Richard von Busack

SOME OF THE GREAT MOMENTS of native surrealism during the 1960s were seen in the five Beach Party movies made for American International Pictures: Beach Party (1963), Muscle Beach Party and Bikini Beach (both 1964), Beach Blanket Bingo (1965) and lastly, How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965). All were held together by topographical views of zaftig Annette Funicello and her surfing swain Frankie Avalon. Usually vintage horror film stars would turn up for cameos, and their gravity pulled the series into supernatural country. But don't be fooled--1966's Ghost in the Invisible Bikini is noncanonical, having neither Frankie nor Annette, though it featured Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone deep in what the poet William O. Everson described as "the residual years." By the way, the girl was invisible, not the bikini: a case of mistitling the FTC probably should have investigated.

The new film Psycho Beach Party is a camp homage to these very strange films, based on a play written by Charles Busch, the New York theatrical satirist of B-movies. The satire has the same inebriated plotting as the old-time Beach Party movies: A maniac is picking off a gang of '60s teenagers. Despite the cautions of a female LAPD detective (Busch, in drag), the ensemble sets off for Malibu. There, Florence--obviously our surviving virgin, played by Lauren Ambrose--meets a group of surfers under the guruship of a spiritually inclined, versifying beach bum called the Great Kanaka (Thomas Gibson, Greg of TV's Dharma and Greg). The homage here is to Cliff Robertson's performance as the Big Kahuna in Gidget (1959). There, Keaton, a South Pacific medicine man, changed Frankie Avalon into a pelican, Carlos Castaneda-style. But why am I telling you this? You remember this stuff, don't you? If you don't you're going to be vastly puzzled by Psycho Beach Party. Something in Kanaka triggers a schizoid split in Florence and evidence of the continued killings points towards her.

Busch mines for laughs in the gay subtext of the beach party movies, and it's there to be found. The real Muscle Beach, a block-sized stretch next to the Venice Pavillion in L.A., had the same reputation that Fire Island once had. However, promising as Psycho Beach Party sounds, it has the same problem that marred Scary Movie: when everything is permitted, nothing has any impact. The cast is meager, too; the most noteworthy face in it is Nicholas Brendon, who plays Xander on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Even though Brendon is a reliable delight on that show, here he's stiff and uncomfortable. Director Robert Lee King, a first-timer in feature films, couldn't figure out a mood for this wildly fluctuating satire--he plays it as flat as the original; the cast all but turns on you and shouts, "Isn't this naughty satire?"

Psycho Beach Party (Unrated; 95 min.) directed by Robert Lee King, written by Charles Busch (adapted from his play), photographed by Arturo Smith, and starring Charles Busch, Lauren Ambrose, Thomas Gibson and Nicholas Brendon, opens Friday in San Jose at the Towne Theater.

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From the September 21-27, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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