“Psycho Beach Party” no day at the beach

By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
September 1, 2000

Chicklet/Florence (portrayed by Lauren Ambrose)
Kanaka (Thomas Gibson)
Starcat (Nicholas Brendon)
Lars (Matt Keeslar)

Strand Releasing presents a film directed by Robert Lee King. Written by Charles Busch. Running time: 95 minutes. No MPAA rating (language, violence). Opening today at Landmark Century.

Just when it looked like the “Scream” franchise and “Scary Movie” had pretty much had their way with spoofing the horror film genre, along comes “Psycho Beach Party” attempting to horn in on the territory. Unfortunately, it’s the little movie that can’t.

The kitschy flick is based on the 1987 Off-Broadway play by Northwestern graduate Charles Busch (who also has a co-starring role as a very masculine female police captain). I never saw the production when it ran in Chicago theaters more than a decade ago, but I suspect that its broad humor played better onstage than on the big screen.

“Psycho Beach Party” attempts to mesh three Hollywood genres–’50s thrillers, ’60s beach movies and ’70s slasher flicks. It’s not thrilling, funny or scary. And with the exception of one of the false, fairly intense endings, most of the movie has a forced, uneven feel.

Florence is a high school student who develops a crush on Starcat, a hunky Northwestern psych major who has a jones for surfing. As one of his friends notes, Florence isn’t developed enough physically to qualify as a “chick,” so he calls her “Chicklet.” But Florence is as persistent as she is spunky, so she eventually is accepted by the cool surfing clique, embraces her nickname proudly and makes goo-goo eyes at Starcat.

The problem is that she’s schizophrenic. And when she sees whirling balls, which she apparently does at alarming frequency, something kicks in her head and she morphs from Gidget-sweet to a ballsy dominatrix.

Oh, yes, she also may be a serial killer who’s offing kids who have physical abnormalities, such as having only one testicle or a harelip.

Not that the police are particularly concerned. One of the film’s better lines comes courtesy of a student after hearing an officer’s dispassionate reponse to the murders: “This is your answer to school overcrowding? Letting us get killed one by one?

In an attempt to give the movie a ’60s vibe, the filmmakers cheese up the camera work. When the kids are surfing, long shots of stunt doubles in the ocean are intercut with closeups of the non-wet actors pretending to surf on a studio set. It’s humorous the first time. After a few repeats, it just looks cheap.

As Florence/Chicklet, fresh-faced Lauren Ambrose is one of the few actors actually young enough to play a student. She is personable and gives a performance that indicates that her career will not suffer because of this film.

The rest of the cast will be familiar to TV viewers. Nicholas Brendon, best known as dorky Xander on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” plays the object of Florence’s affections. Beth Broderick, the skinny aunt on “Sabrina the Teenage Witch,” plays Florence’s mom. And Thomas Gibson takes a detour from his straight-as-an-arrow character on “Dharma & Greg” to play the eldest surfer dude who has a thing for Florence’s wild side.

But Kathleen Robertson (“Beverly Hills, 90210”) steals the show as a wheelchair-ridden girl who uses her disability as a license to make bitchy, mean-spirited comments to anyone she sees. Her fate is sealed as soon as we learn about the killers’ attraction to physical disability.

After another murder, a female cop says, “I hope decent folks someday don’t find sick humor funny.” The filmmakers had better hope she doesn’t get her wish. ‘Cause that’s the audience for which this movie is targeted.

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