The late '50s and early '60s were known for a few things: unrealistically sanitized social/familial interactions, and beach movies. Combining them all in a campy comedy horror romp is 'Psycho Beach Party.'
A series of murders occur in a sleepy beach town.
Florence (Lauren Ambrose) is a young teen who wants to hang out with the older, surfing crowd. They treat her with derision and nickname her 'chicklet.' The best surfer in the area, The Great Kanaka (Thomas Gibson) shows her how to surf and discovers that Florence has multiple personality disorder that is triggered by seeing a certain circular pattern. She temporarily becomes an aggressive, dominatrix-type and this intrigues him. Sometimes she becomes a sassy inner-city woman. Who knows why?
Meanwhile, there are many other beach bums and beach bunnies populating the shores. There is a Swedish exchange student, a B-movie actress and Flo's single mom. Don't forget about the murders. These are being investigated by Captain Monica Stark (Charles Busch).
It would be most accurate to call this a comedy-horror because the humor is emphasized far more than any scares. In fact, there isn't much of any suspense. Fortunately, that's not a problem because it isn't the point of the story. It seems to want to be a very skewed and twisted parody of 'Gidget.'
Almost all of the chuckles come from reasonably sharp dialog. It's not always successful, but when the wordplay, double entendres and verbal gags connect, they are often clever, delivered in a pseudo-noir way.
The problem arises in the form of the cheap production. Everything about this from the special effects to the sets, and the actual murders all just reek of limited resources. Sometimes that is what happens when you adapt a stage production. It might also be a conscious decision based upon the inspiration but that doesn't necessarily make it more palatable for the average viewer. The ending is one of those that somewhat invalidate and negates everything that we have just seen which is a huge pet peeve of this examiner. Thankfully, at least the filmmakers have a sense of humor about this.
Ambrose wins the prize for performances here. Having multiple personalities means more work and she is up to the task. Most of the other cast members are merely adequate, though their roles seem to be written to be one-dimensional and emotionally stunted. Another highlight is Busch. Why is there a man playing a female police officer? Who knows? It's kind of funny and handled well.
Special features include: nothing.
'Psycho Beach Party' won't be a huge hit among people who are casual movie-watchers or who don't like their genres uneasily blended. It is clearly meant to be a cult hit. While the 'hit' aspect might be a little questionable, it has as many nice qualities as flaws.
Add an extra half star to the rating.
Rated R 95 minutes 2001