REVIEW: "Psycho Beach Party" (Need We Say More?)
by Brandon Judell
(indieWIRE/ 8.3.2000) --"Just look at these urine stains. They'll never come out," Mrs. Forest ("Sabrina the Teenage Witch's" Beth Broderick) notes as she starts scrubbing the jockstrap of Lars (Matt Keeslar), the Swedish exchange student staying in her home. But this ultimate 1960's Mom is not really upset. She, in fact, seems exhilarated and a bit turned on by this Washing Day challenge.
Yes, it took a hundred years of filmmaking to be able to reach such heights of laundry frankness. Without such pioneers as Otto Preminger and detergents as Woolite, who knows what other subject matter Hollywood would be carrying on about today?
"Psycho Beach Party," for those of you scant on theater trivia, was a hit off-Broadway show that debuted in 1987. It was written by and starred the diva Charles Busch, one of the few actor/playwrights other than the legendary Charles Ludlam, capable of making drag into an art form. Busch, in such vehicles as "Vampire Lesbians of Sodom," "Theodora: She-Bitch of Byzantium," and "Red Scare on Sunset," was able to make you both laugh at and empathize with his outrageously seductive heroines.
Of course, "Psycho Beach Party" was rather slight material to begin with, a fact Busch himself has noted: "Why would anyone want to write a spoof of beach party movies? Well, for one thing, the original 'Gidget' movie is not bad. It's not 'Le Grand Illusion,' but it is fun and insightful, and the movie's star, Sandra Dee, I believe is a much maligned talent. Still, a parody of 1960's teen exploitation flicks would seem to be rather thin stuff. I confess, I began writing this play with a fairly crass motive." Money.
The simple plot was about Chicklet, a flat-chested girl with a multiple personality disorder who wanted to become a surfer. While her best friend Berdine read Sartre, the school slut Marvel Ann cooed continuously in search of a lay, and the guys rode the waves, someone was knocking out teens and shaving off all their hair, both in the pubic and scalp regions. Now this is a movie idea!
But what appears on the screen courtesy of Strand Releasing and directed by Robert Lee King is a total rewrite with just a few of the original lines reoccurring such as Mrs. Forest's famed puritanical speech to her daughter: "Do what? Have sexual intercourse. I know how they paint it so beautifully in the movies. A man and a woman locked in embrace, soft lighting, a pitcher of Manhattans, Rachmaninoff in the background. Well, my girl, let me tell you that is not how it is. You don't know how repugnant it is having a sweaty man's thing poking at you. (She jabs her finger into Chicklet). Do you like that?"
The hair-shaving villain has now been replaced by a serial killer who slaughters people for having such imperfections as a hair lip or one testicle. As for the Chicklet character, she's now played by a real woman (Lauren Ambrose) with less exuberant results, and Busch is relegated to a funny but much smaller part as Captain Monica Stark, the policewoman who's going to break this case. (Many folks who've not been to a big city will be leaving theaters not realizing Monica has been played by a man.)
The end result I found has a lot to do with who's in the audience with you. At the first screening I attended which was packed with mostly homosexual, bisexual, and sexually creative film critics plus their pals, there was lots of laughter, and nearly everyone left with a smiling face. I also heard that at the Seattle Film Festival screening, which was held at a drive-in, the audience went wild over the Psycho Beach antics.
However, at a sparsely attended screening I attended recently, one filled with rather staid heterosexual critics, including a major one from New Jersey, barely a laugh was heard. The film seemingly came off as poorly paced and insubstantial.
So my best advice is if you are planning to see "Psycho Beach Party," and it is definitely worth a gander, don't go with the Log Cabin Republican types, but a gaggle of frivolous gays. If you don't have any listed in your Palm Pilot, put up a notice at your gym or try calling 550-PARTY ($.50 first minute/$.20 each additional). You'll agree it was worth the added effort.
[Brandon Judell is a contributing film critic to indieWIRE.]