Psycho Beach Party
THE NEW YORK TIMES, FRIDAY, AUGUST 4, 2000
Play That Long Wanted To Be on the Screen
By STEPHEN HOLDEN
WITH: Lauren Ambrose (Chicklet/ Florence Forest), Thomas Gibson (Kanaka), Nicholas Brendon (Starcat), Kimberley Davies (Bettina/Diane), Matt Keeslar (Lars), Charles Busch (Capt. Monica Start/Writer), Beth Broderick (Mrs. Forest), Amy Adams (Marvel Ann), Nick Cornish (Yo-Yo), Andrew Levitas (Provoloney), Kathleen Robertson (Rhonda) and Jenica Bergere (Cookie).
Mark Lipson/Strand Releasing
Beth Broderick, left, Charles Busch and Jenica Bergere.
When "Psycho Beach Party," Charles Busch's raucous theatrical spoof of "Gidget," "Beach Party" movies and teen slasher films, opened Off Broadway in 1987, it hilariously upended constricting notions of "normal" teenage American life peddled by Hollywood in the 1950's and early 60's. The only frustration was that while Mr. Busch's hilarious trivia-savvy script was obviously meant to be a movie, the fun could be enjoyed only on the stage.
Now, after 13 years, "Psycho Beach Party," the movie, has arrived. What, after all, is the homogenized pop ethos of Britney Spears, 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys other than a slicker, contemporary update of the surf-side bubble gum world of Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello and the forever-perky Gidget? Throw in some tacky pre-"Scream" horror, and you have a crude blueprint for what has come around once again.
The movie, directed by Robert Lee King, accomplishes what no stage production could. By assiduously copying the look and sound of those 60's movies - the wriggling title sequences, the twangy surf music and the gawky gee-whiz screen acting style - it definitively skewers the false innocence of American pop culture on the eve of the counter cultural deluge. Most of the play's subversive humor has arrived on the screen intact. Beneath a charade of sanitized fun, fun, fun, "Psycho Beach Party" discovers a post Freudian nightmare world of repressed violence and kinky sex bursting to get out.
The biggest difference between the play and the movie is Mr. Busch's role. In the original stage version, this sometime drag actor, who has revised the play extensively for its screen edition, played the central character, Florence Forest (a k a Chicklet), a bouncy Gidget-like teenager who is revealed to have multiple personalities. One of those personalities may or may not be a homicidal maniac. In the movie's dramatic climax, dear sweet Chicklet, under the spell of an amateur hypnotist, relives a traumatic memory borrowed directly from Alfred Hitchcock's "Marnie."
On the stage Mr. Busch's sudden metamorphoses from simpering Chicklet into her alter ego, Ann Bowman, a raging, foul-mouthed dominatrix who proclaims herself empress of the world, were virtuosic camp flourishes demonstrating the phenomenal comic range of this great drag actor. In the movie, Florence is played by Lauren Ambrose, an actress who is so true to type she could have played the original Gidget.
Because Ms. Ambrose, in her quick-change sequences, can't begin to match Mr. Busch's histrionic stretch from Gidget into a Tallulah Bankhead-like monster, something is lost. At the same time, having a woman play Florence sharpens the satire by emphasizing the tonal accuracy of its play's deadpan comic realism.
Those pining for Mr. Busch need not despair. Here he appears as Capt. Monica Start, an Eve Arden-like police investigator, who solves a series of murders on Malibu Beach that threaten to wipe out the surfer population.
Mr. Busch's screenplay is a carefully overstuffed hybrid of 60's teen movie scenarios embellished with references to grown-up films like "Mildred Pierce" and "Berserk." (Joan Crawford's ghost lurks everywhere.) Here, Beth Broderick (from "Sabrina the Teenage Witch") plays Chicklet's prim controlling mother, a character to whom Mr. Busch has given some of his choicest throw-away lines. "I thought you were going to help me pickle those beets," she tells her daughter sternly.
Mr. Busch's impeccable ear for early 60's slang takes us back to the era of "fantabulous" and the hep-cat slang of pseudobeatniks slinging terms like "daddy-o." The wittier inventions include Lars (Matt Keeslar), an excessively polite, bespectacled exchange student from Sweden who lives with the Forests and has a bogus foreign accent, Starcat (Nicholas Brendon), a psychology major from Northwestern who solemnly dispenses nuggets of watered-down Freudian psychology, and Marvel Ann (Amy Adams), a boy-crazy teenage vixen.
Malibu's cocky male surfers turn out to have Achilles heels. The local surf legend Kanaka (Thomas Gibson) discovers an appetite for humiliation, while the casual wrestling matches between the teen hunks Yo-Yo (Nick Cornish) and Provoloney (Andrew Levitas) increasingly threaten to end in romantic clinches.
And just when you're sure whodunit, the movie, whose story expands into the ozone with alarming speed, takes another ludicrous twist to foil your expectations. Even now, it's fun to be reminded that there's no such thing as "normal."