Psycho Beach Party


          Charles Busch has made a career in the New York theater scene as a
  playwright and “gender illusionist.” Over the course of the last twenty or so
  years, he has graced the stage in a number of hilarious comedies that spoof
  everything from films noir to spy movies to MGM musicals. These pastiches
  have delighted audiences and given Busch a chance to pay tribute to the iconic
  screen goddesses he so admires, everyone from Joan Crawford to Bette Davis
  to Rita Hayworth. In 1987, he tackled the beach movies of the 1960s mixed
  with a little
The Bad Seed and enjoyed a success with Psycho Beach Party.
  Now, some dozen years later, the film version of that Off-Broadway show has
  hit the big screen in an amusing and campy film that against all odds works
  surprisingly well.

          Tweaking the original plot some, Busch has combined the innocuous
  early ‘60s surfer flicks (epitomized by Frankie Avalon-Annette Funicello films
  like
Beach Blanket Bingo) with a crime melodrama abut a serial killer (think
  Agatha Christie’s
Ten Little Indians by way of Hitchcock’s Psycho) and added
  a dash of those psychological dramas about mentally unstable women (i.e.,
  
The Three Faces of Eve). Psycho Beach Party blends these disparate parts
  into a satisfying theatrical amalgam that entertains and astonishes because
  of the superb cast, Busch’s witty screenplay and the sure-handed direction of
  Robert Lee King.

          On stage Busch played the leading role of Florence “Chicklet” Forrest,
  a Gidget-like teenager who suffers from multiple personality disorders. Since
  he could not possibly pass for under twenty (even with gauze on the lens
  and lighting), he simply wrote a role for himself to play -- Captain Monica Stark,
  the first female homicide detective in the L.A. Sheriff’s Department. The pivotal
  role of Florence/Chicklet instead went to Lauren Ambrose, a baby-faced redhead
  who here emerges as a full-fledged star. Ambrose is nothing short of brilliant
  as she navigates the myriad of characters in Florence’s persona, including Ann
  Bowman, a kinky dominatrix with a taste for S&M, and Tylene, a black checkout
  clerk with attitude to spare. In one scene, she also gets to display her
  formidable singing voice. Ambrose projects a similar vivacity to that of the
  young Sally Field but without the cloying quality that Field eventually
  overcame.

          The rest of the rather large cast all do well maintaining the playful comic
  tone, which is a great tribute to director King. There is fine work from the
  underrated Thomas Gibson portraying Kanaka, the guru of surfing who enjoys
  more than a passing interest in Florence (especially when she’s in Ann Bowman
  mode) and a past with Captain Stark. Beth Broderick (of TV’s
Sabrina, the
   Teenage Witch
) gets to cut loose as Mrs. Forrest, a slightly buttoned-up
  June Cleaver-type. Matt Keeslar has fun as Lars, a Swedish exchange student
  boarding with the Forrests and the gaggle of surfer dudes played by Nicholas
  Brendon (Xander of TV’s
Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Buddy Quaid (the
  younger half-brother of Randy and Dennis), Nathan Bexton (Gregg Araki’s
 
 Nowhere) and newcomers Nick Cornish and Andrew Levitas provides
  appropriate eye candy and a couple of surprising romantic subplots. Busch
  completely pulls off the illusion of playing a female on screen, which is
  no mean feat. In most comedies wherein a man plays a woman, the actor
  in the role tends to “comment” on the part and the audience doesn’t ever
  forget they are watching a man in drag (e.g., Robin Williams in
Mrs. Doubtfire,
  Martin Lawrence in
Big Momma’s House), although there have been a few
  rare exceptions (to some extent Dustin Hoffman in
Tootsie, Adrian Pasdar
  in
Just Like a Woman). Busch succeeds because he aims for the truth.

          With its snappy, double entrendre filled dialogue, heightened reality
  and appropriately cheesy look (the actors “surf” against what is clearly a
  backdrop),
Psycho Beach Party is part send-up of, part-homage to a more
  innocent time. Except for a couple of ill-advised sidebars (like a flashback
  with Monica and Kanaka) and a somewhat convoluted solution to the “mystery”
  (which admittedly isn’t the point of the film.), it hits its targets and
  succeeds and is high camp at its best.



                          
Rating:                B
                          
Running time:      95 mins.
                          
MPAA Rating:     None                                     
© 2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.