Saturday, March 29, 2014

Psycho Beach Party

Oh my dears, I am so, so, so sorry that I have been remiss in keeping you up to date on my disaster relief fundraising tour. It's just been a whirlwind of concert dates, promotional events, travel, and charitable appearances with photogenic orphans and its kept me away from the laptop for some days. Of course, the whale blubber that got into the keyboard in Nome didn't help.

The Nome concert was a stunning success. Those dear Inuits are simply starved for quality entertainment and they sat there rapt and open-mouthed through the whole set. They were so blown away by my beauty and artistry that they quite forgot to applaud at the end. Several of the gentlemen in the audience did ask me to join them for what sounded like a 'Tater Dance' after the show - but I had forgotten to bring any spuds with me and the grocery wasn't open so I declined. Besides, I had to catch a plane to Detroit in order to make my next gig, a concert sponsored by the B'nai Brith at Happy Hassid Acres nursing facility in Windsor, Ontario.

As the plane lifted off from the shores of the arctic ocean, I surveyed the beach and was reminded of a beach picture I had seen on late night cable in the hotel room, Robert Lee King's version of Charles Busch's Psycho Beach PartyPsycho Beach Party has always been a favorite camp classic play of mine, and I once had the good fortune of playing Bettina Barnes in a production at the Visalia Civic Center. I was looking forward to a good giggle. Unfortunately, when they adapted this very unusual play to the literal world of film, they managed to lose most of the humor. For a comedy, it simply wasn't funny.

The play, Psycho Beach Party was written by actor/playwright Charles Busch in the late 1980s. Like most of his plays, it's a send-up of film conventions of the period 1945-1965. Here, he blended the elements of the teen beach movie (GidgetBeach Blanket Bingo) with the psychological mental illness drama (Three Faces of EveSuddenly Last Summer) and stirred in enormous amounts of camp humor. In the original (and most subsequent) productions, many of the principal female roles are played by male actors in drag to spoof gender conventions and to put more of an edge on the material.

The story follows the broad outlines of the original Gidget. Young Florence (Lauren Ambrose), is determined to learn how to surf. She's dubbed 'Chiclet' by the surfer gang which includes Starcat (Nicholas Brendon) with whom she's falling in love and Kanaka (Thomas Gibson), the great surfing guru. Chiclet, however, has some serious psychological problems and keeps popping in and out of other personalities including the dominatrix Ann Bowman (who really turns Kanaka on) and black check out girl, Tylene. Soon, surfers and their girls start turning up dead and detective Monica Stark (Busch) is on the scene. Is Chiclet responsible? What about Swedish foreign exchange student Lars? (Matt Keeslar) What about Chiclet's Donna Reed of a mother? (Beth Broderick) Or Bettina Barnes (Kimberley Davies), queen of the B monster movies?

In producing the film, Busch substantially rewrote his play to do two things to broaden his audience base. One, was to remove most of the gender bending and drag humor as the males in female roles, while hysterical on the stage, was unlikely to work under the unblinking eye of the camera. He created one new cross gender role, a female police detective, which he plays himself (he's a bit old now for Chiclet, his original part). The second was to change the psychological horror elements from their original 50s context to the more modern self referential slasher film (think Scream and its sequels). What these changes have done is to make it more palatable and accessible to a modern young person but they've robbed the piece of its guts and of its laughs.

Lauren Ambrose handles her part well but having an actual young woman play the role means that the alter-egos lose some of the menace they possessed on stage and we can't begin to believe any of them could be a murderous monster. Charles Busch, in one of his trademark red wigs and exacting make-up, gives a glimpse of what this film might have been in more daring hands. His Monica is Joan Crawford crossed with Joe Friday and he puts a spark in his scenes. Thomas Gibson apparently phoned in his performance from his Dharma and Greg trailer. The rest of the young cast is very pretty to look at in their bathing suits but unable to bring any sort of arch or satirical quality to the proceedings. As the film is deliberately shot in phony 60s style, complete with all the bad rear projection surfing, their underplayed realism comes across as vapidity.

Drive-In throat slashing. Light bulb changing. Bad Swedish accent. Rubber gloves. Police car sex. Gratuitous Balinese exorcism. Dismembered surfer. Semi-naked male wrestling. Gratuitous marabou dress-up. 

No comments:

Post a Comment