Psycho Beach Party Blu-ray Review: The Lovechild of Norman Bates, Gidget, and Mrs. Vorhees

Psycho Beach Party bills itself as “a 50’s psychodrama, a 60’s beach movie, and a 70’s slasher film” [sic]. The original stage play was adapted to film by its author Charles Busch back in 2000, and now it’s seeing a high definition Blu-ray release 15 years later. It’s an eclectic mix that works in its own strange way, but I can see why it never quite reached mass appeal. Its gross take in the first six months of release was less than a fifth of what it cost to make.

You can pair up psychotics and slasher films without much trouble. We see that done almost every day — doing it well is another matter. It’s that unexpected ’60s beach movie coat of paint and quirky beatnik characters that make the campiness cringeworthy. Lauren Ambrose steals the show as Florence, aka Chicklet, aka Ann Bowman, aka a few other identities. See, she’s a “gee golly gosh” goody two-shoes with multiple personality disorder. When she changes personalities, the other people in her head black out and are unaware of what she’s been up to while mentally AWOL. It also just so happens that people tend to end up murdered while she’s on these cognitive misadventures. You never see the murders happen on the screen, only the trademark gloved hand of the killer reaching into the frame just as it’s about to happen.

Meanwhile, Chicklet wants to be one of the surfer guys, but rather than stoop to the flesh-baring, attention-craving antics of peer Marvel Ann (Amy Adams), she actually tries to learn to surf and gain social acceptance. When her interest is shunned by the guys, making it clear that it’s a boy’s sport and girls aren’t welcome, Chicklet seeks out surf master Kanaka (Thomas Gibson) for help. She manages to convince him to teach her by inadvertently leveraging his own fears and lust against him.

As Chicklet starts to gain social acceptance, her best friend Berdine (Danni Wheeler) grows more and more distant. Could Berdine be the killer, acting out of jealousy, or is it really the girl with four or five minds in her head? What about Bettina, the actress on the lam, hanging out in a nearby beach house where an entire family was murdered years ago? Could the spirits in the house be motivating her toward evil? Motives abound, and even when you think you know what’s going on, the rug gets yanked out from under you once or twice more. Busch himself takes up the role of Captain Monica Stark, the police investigator following the trail of murders and trying to crack the case before the case cracks her.

The remastered picture and sound are good, about what you’d expect from a Blu-ray. The disc is a little light on extras, sporting only a music video, some trailers, and feature commentary with director Robert Lee King and writer/actor Charles Busch.

Psycho Beach Party lacks the gore and shock value of a slasher flick, it’s missing the seriousness of a psycho thriller, and is probably a little too R-rated for the beach hippie crowd. It’s a good enough movie and nails the scenery, props, colloquialisms, gnarly behavior, greasy hairstyles, set decor, wardrobe, fear of the Soviets, and everything else to give you a distinctively ’60s vibe; it’s just that it carves out a rather niche audience in the process of telling its bizarre story across an amalgam of genres. It does a number of things well, so when asked if I’d recommend it, it’s a tough question to answer. It’s legitimately trying hard enough that I can’t lump it in with some half-effort like Sharknado, it’s more serious than Club Dread or Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, but less serious than Psycho. I could see it being a hit in college dorms and at parties. Feels like Scooby Doo for adults, or maybe in the same vein as Rocky Horror Picture Show. If any of this is ringing true with you, by all means, give it a look. It’s a lot of fun for those who appreciate what it’s doing.

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Mark Buckingham

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