Friday, January 9, 2009

Psycho Beach Party (USA, 2000)

(Trailer.) It’s the early 60s in Malibu, where some unknown serial killer has begun to kill people who are less than physically perfect, and the police haven't a clue who it could be. The first murder occurs at the local drive-in where the young Florence "Chicklet” Forrest (Lauren Ambrose) and her best gal pal Berdine Barnes (Kimberley Davies) seem to be the only ones actually watching the movie. The next day while at the beach the spunky young gal is impressed by a group of surfers — including one played by Nicholas Brendon, just prior to his joining the Buffy cast — and decides she, too, wants to surf. Soon, Florence becomes "Chicklet,” the first female surfer of the beach, getting private lessons from no other than the local surf legend Kanaka (ThomasGibson) himself. But one by one her friends and acquaintances are showing up dead — could she be the killer? She herself doesn’t know for sure, for she suffers schizophrenia and some other personality always seems to take over just when a murder occurs... Could it be that her sex pot, foul-mouthed alter ego Ann Bowman is offing those she doesn’t like? Or what about the street-wise Safeway cashier that also pops up on occasion?
Based on a play by Charles Busch (a male), who also plays the character Captain Monika Stark (a female, obviously), Psycho Beach Party is one fabulously funny and fun camp persiflage of dead teenager and surfer films such as Beach Blanket Bingo (1965/trailer) and Gidget (1959) that is nicely spiced with some fun jabs at bad 1950s SciFi flicks like Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958/trailer) and iced with some wonderful surf music and dance sequences. (The credit sequence alone is true eye-candy: the shimmering, shaking babe looks true to the generation, much more a (clothed) example of a prime Bunny Yeager model than today's anorexic.)
In the original stage production Charles Busch actually played the part of the film’s lead character Florence "Chicklet” Forrest — imagine Gidget with split personalities — but by the time the film version got rolling he was too old for the part, so he wrote in the female Jack Web character so that he could still act in the project. In the film, Six Feet Under’s Lauren Ambrose truly excels as Chicklet, and going by the versatility, aplomb and tempo with which she deftly handles her part, that woman is one talented gal. But then, everyone in the film is excellent, ably assisted by some of the funniest dialogue and exchanges ever to grace a body count surfer film. OK, the dialog is often extremely juvenile — a typical line, for example, is that said by the Swedish exchange student Lars as he asks Mrs. Forrest to sew his pants: "I'm having trouble with my pants. Whenever I put my hand in the pocket, I feel a little prick." — but even when the dialog stoops low, the entire production and presentation manages to raise it from adolescent humor to true camp.
In any event, anyone mildly versed in 60's surfer culture or bad 50's films will find Psycho Beach Party a blast. Well acted and well written, aside from the fab dialog the film also has some hilariously on-the-spot characterization and an excellent set, costume and production design. As a horror comedy, it is, of course, not for those “still walking the straight and narrow-minded” (to use a line said by The Great Kanak), but the rest of us will definitely enjoy it, for seldom has there been a body count film as refreshingly cute, lighthearted and amusing as Psycho Beach Party. (In all truth, however, as much as all the native English speakers that I know that have seen the film have loved it, all the non-native speakers I’ve watched it with have hated it.)

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