Home Video Hovel: Psycho Beach Party by Craig Schroeder
It seems odd that the 2000 film Psycho Beach Party isn’t better known, if only because of its anomalous cast. It features Amy Adams, just a few years before her appearance in Junebug and subsequent rise to superstardom; Lauren Ambrose, on the eve of her starring role in HBO’s Six Feet Under; and Nicholas Brendon at the height of his Buffy fame. Surely it would be remembered as a pop-culture footnote, at the very least. But having now seen Psycho Beach Party, it’s probably best for everyone involved that it’s not a film that can be easily called to mind.
Ostensibly, Psycho Beach Party is a “spoof” film, but seems unsure as to what it is spoofing. The plot is a parody of old surfer films with a touch of exploitation horror and a hint at a hard-boiled whodunnit flick. Mixed in are a few odd references, send-ups of cult classics (Attack of the 50 Foot Woman is the film’s most obvious allusion), and cautionary exploitation films of the 40s, but what’s left is a confused attempt at comedy wherein the purpose statement is entirely obscured.
The plot—which is incredibly convoluted for such a shockingly guileless film—revolves mostly around Florence (Ambrose), a young woman desperate to be accepted by the “cool kids”, who in this case are a group of teenage surfers led by Starcat (Brendan). Meanwhile, Florence and her friends—Rhonda, your classic dweeb (Kathleen Robertson) and Marvel Ann (Adams), an uncouth ditz—are excited to learn a movie star (Kimberley Davies) from their favorite crappy horror pictures has sought refuge out of the spotlight in their nondescript beach town. Oh, and there’s also some nonsense about a killer, a split personality, an oboe recital, a guy with a woman’s name carved into his ass (for comedic purposes, of course) and gay innuendos that pass as jokes (the word “jokes” will need a few qualifiers; more on that to come).
It’s an oddball premise that isn’t afraid to be entirely silly, and for that the film earns its only merits. In execution, all of its eccentricities, and anything with the potential to endear, collapses in on itself. The film is intentionally stagey (fitting, as it began as a stage play) but with very little artistic vision. It’s a stylistic choice, executed with so little panache that most of the film is as visually dynamic as an episode of Gilligan’s Island. Similarly, all of the performances are knowingly hammy and extremely broad, which would be fun were the script not so bad that it negates any choices the actors are making. This fully scripted film ends up looking like a beginner’s improv class.
Less than a year after Psycho Beach Party’s unceremonious 2000 release, David Wain’s Wet Hot American Summer witnessed a similarly unceremonious unveiling. The parallels continue as Wet Hot American Summer is relentlessly silly, with large characters and broad comedic arcs. But Wet Hot’s greatest success is Psycho Beach Party’s greatest folly: the jokes. There are almost no jokes in Psycho Beach Party. Most of the intended comedy comes from leaning into tired stereotypes (two characters are quite obviously closeted gay men and the film takes every opportunity to turn their innocuous interactions into homoerotic sight gags) and eventually just flat out racism (one of Florence’s personalities speaks in a voice that makes Amos ‘n’ Andy seem sensitive and socially conscious). And when the film attempts anything resembling a set-up punchline, the jokes’ caliber and sophistication are on par with street jokes printed on popsicle-sticks (“Are you incognito?”, “No, I’m German-Irish”).
Psycho Beach Party is trying something weird. Commendable, yes, but the final product is the haphazard assembly of one sorta good idea, executed with the grace and finesse of a ninth grade theater student with all the filmmaking resources he can muster between first and fourth period. It’s sloppy, unpolished, pedestrian, and ultimately just really, really dull.