In the seventies, movies like Pink Flamingos and The Rocky Horror Picture Show revolutionized cult comedy by scandalizing Z-grade genre pictures. In essence, they were parodies of parodies, but they felt fresh because they piled up offenses that the movies they lampooned never dreamed of committing. A decade later, writer/actor/drag queen Charles Busch staged a play called Psycho Beach Party that he and director Robert Lee King adapted into a movie in 2000. Coming some twenty-five years after Pink Flamingos and Rocky Horror, the movies that established its brand of self-conscious camp, Psycho Beach Party ends up feeling like a parody of a parody of a parody. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though this slasher/surfer movie take-off about a schizophrenic surfer girl is a definite mixed bag of stuff. Interior scenes are nicely stylized with comic-book color and lighting, while exterior scenes rely way too much on natural light, the actors’ faces often slashed up with shadows. Since the script isn’t really that funny—at least for the first hour of the picture—a lot depends on the cast. The ability to rise to high camp isn’t in every actor’s bag-of-tricks. Some of the cast, such as Nicholas Brendon as the beach hunk and Thomas Gibson as the surfer king, don’t quite sell it. Others nail it: Lauren Ambrose as the personality-shifting surfer, Beth Broderick as her prim mom (who ends up really heisting the show), Amy Adams as the sex kitten, Kimberly Barnes as a sci-movie star, and Busch as the cop captain investigating the murders of people with disabilities.
That premise (likely pulled from the classic noir The Spiral Staircase where it wasn’t played for laughs) would be just one of many dicey elements in a John Waters movie, which loads up the outrageousness until it all ends up in a glorious wad of laughable absurdity. The problem with Psycho Beach Party is that it isn’t outrageous enough to mute the ugly nature of the killer’s crimes. Busch and Lee King dole out the offensiveness too judiciously. Their movie should have been bloodier, crazier, louder, nastier, and more vulgar. Psycho Beach Party ends up feeling like it was made by a John Waters who pulls his punches. The real John Waters would never do that.
Even though the script and tone are highly flawed, Psycho Beach Party still manages to be fairly fun because the actresses and actors seem like they’re having a lot of fun playing hooky from their day jobs on TV series such as “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch” (Broderick), “Dharma and Greg” (Gibson), “Beverly Hills, 90210” (Kathleen Robertson), “The Drew Carey Show” (Jessica Bergere), and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (Brendon—actually, he doesn’t seem like he’s having much fun). Shortly before getting her own regular small-screen stint on “Six Feet Under”, Ambrose is also having a blast doing Florence “Chicklet” Forrest’s various personalities, although her impersonation of a black woman doesn’t play well, especially in a movie of wall-to-wall white people.
The other terrific thing about Psycho Beach Party is its vibrant period sets and costumes. Those colors get a chance to pop in Strand Releasing’s new blu-ray, though detail is a bit muted. Overall, the movie looks fine and natural, but it does have the occasional blemish. Considering all the familiar faces in the cast—and the fact that Adams and Ambrose went on to major careers— some sort of current-day retrospective would have been a cool bonus. So would a bit of footage of the original stage play in which Busch played Chicklet, but there’s only a music video featuring Nashville rockers Los Straitjackets and a commentary track by Busch and Lee King, both ported over from the DVD. In the informative commentary, the filmmakers get into the movie’s casting, influence, music, and so on, though it’s a little dry for a movie as goofy as Psycho Beach Party.
Get the new Psycho Beach Party blu-ray on Amazon.com here: