Cult Movie Retrospective: Psycho Beach Party


Going to the beach is like going to another world. It’s cheap flip-flops and hopping, skipping and jumping across scalding sand. It’s the sound of radios and soda cans popping open; it’s umbrella shade and blinding sun; rainbow-colored beach towels and salty, wavy hair. It’s bikinis and board shorts and everything in between. It’s oversized sunglasses and floppy straw hats. Oh, and sometimes you have to keep an eye out for the occasional deranged killer on the loose. Or at least that’s the case for the unfortunate characters in Psycho Beach Party, the film we’ll be discussing today.

Robert Lee King helmed this wacky, campy fusion of teenaged surfer flicks and slasher sagas. Impossibly perky Florence (Lauren Ambrose) doesn’t quite fit in at her thoroughly square high school in her seaside Southern California town – that is, until she happens upon a band of ultra-hip surfer dudes. Renaming herself “Chicklet,” she tries her gosh-darnedest to be the sole girl riding the waves with the group led by suave Kanaka (Thomas Gibson).

Psycho Beach Party Thomas Gibson

Lauren Ambrose Psycho Beach Party

While adopting her surfer alter ego, Florence soon discovers that other less pleasant personalities emerge when confronted with the sight of polka dots. One called Anne Bowman is a tough, “experienced” older lady, while the other, Tylene, is a stereotypical sassy black woman. Blacking out whenever these other personalities take over, Florence becomes increasingly worried that she is responsible for a series of grizzly murders. Of course, she is far from the only suspicious character in her oceanside community — there’s B-movie star Bettina Barnes (Kimberly Davies), Swedish exchange student Lars (Matt Keeslar), and Florence’s own unnervingly-perfect mom (Beth Broderick).

Odd thought, but on a side-note, would having sex with a girl suffering from multiple personalities be considered a menage-a-trois? It doesn’t matter.

Other characters include university drop-out (and Chicklet’s love interest) Starcat (Nicholas Brendon), surfers Yo-Yo (Nick Cornish) and Provoloney (Andrew Levitas), Starcat’s girlfriend Marvel Ann (young Amy Adams), whom he ultimately humiliates when he rips off her bikini bottoms, leaving her bottomless on the beach, and the wheel-chair bound class “queen bee” Rhonda (Kathleen Robertson).

Based on the off-Broadway play of the same name written by Charles Busch, Psycho Beach Party was released in early 2000 to mixed reviews (the film currently holds a 53% on Rotten Tomatoes). It has, of course, come to be quite beloved in recent years.

The play was originally entitled Gidget Goes Psychotic, but the title was changed due to concerns about copyright. In the original 1987 production, Charles Busch himself played the role of Chicklet. He didn’t reprise his role in the film after it was concluded that he might not be believable in the role of a sixteen-year-old girl (“While I can still manage, with the aid of a sympathetic cameraman, to play a sophisticated 25, 16 would be a stretch”).

Psycho Beach Party Charles Busch

Psycho Beach Party Marvel Ann

Visually resplendent and constantly hilarious, the film has all the makings of a teen cult favorite. Combining the setting concepts of production designer Franco-Giacomo Carbone and the costuming of Camille Jumelle with the romping weirdness of an absolutely bizarre cast, Psycho Beach Party is a hilarious revelation of the pervasive neuroses welling up within the generation it represents. If you are old enough to remember the specialness of Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon or you are aware of Moondoggie, Gidget and the Big Kahuna, then Psycho Beach Party is for you.

It is a rare film that can walk the tight-rope between mocking a particular film genre (in this case, the “Beach Blanket” movies of the fifties and sixties) while still showing great affection for said genre. Psycho Beach Party does it wonderfully. Using an obviously skewed view of these pleasant, if vapid, films, PBP covers us in satirical humor and warmth, a tricky combination to pull off. If you have ever sat through a film in which a surf board was the star, check this one out… great fun.

What are you thoughts on this totally tubular gem? Let us know in the comment section below.

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