Psycho Beach Party DVD review

Don't write this one off as a standard slasher film - Jenny reckons Psycho Beach Party is a hoot. Xander from Buffy is in it, too...

Psycho Beach Party: it's worth a spin

As crazy ideas go, this one is completely nuts. Whilst the horror and serial killer genres speed off down the road of torture porn, this lot have decided to go backwards and re-visit the surfing B-movies of the 1950s and 1960s. Yes, it’s drive-ins, domineering mothers, dreadful special effects and death, all to a soundtrack that was partly written by a group called ‘Los Straightjackets’. Can you say ‘P-S-Y-C-H-O’?

The basic story is that Florence (Lauren Ambrose) suffers from multiple personality disorder, and turns into the malicious and hugely aggressive ‘Ann Bowman’. Trouble is, every time she does someone is found dead. Florence can’t remember anything, and no one else is paying enough attention to say whether she was responsible or not, so we’re left wondering whether the wannabe surfer is a homicidal maniac. To go any further would likely ruin your viewing – let’s just say that all is not what it seems, mother Ruth (Beth Broderick) is hardly stable herself, and the Swedish exchange student might not be as nice as he first appears.

I had absolutely no idea what to expect from this, although I was fairly convinced it would be a standard slasher film with lots of dark scenes, moments that confuse ‘scary’ with ‘making you jump’, unnecessary gore and a murderer with some kind of deformity (probably to his face). In fact, none of the above applies. A large amount of the story is set on the beach, with half those scenes being cheesy but real, another quarter being intentionally blatant chromakey and the last bit being the worst-shot surfing scenes you will ever see. They are brilliant. The film begins in black-and-white, which we discover is actually a film being watched at the local drive-in, and gives us just enough time to say, “Blimey, is that Annalise off Neighbours?”.

Speaking of people you might already know, Florence’s love-interest is none other than Xander from Buffy (Nicholas Brendon). Like the rest of the cast, he does a terrific job – they look like they’re having a ball, and it makes what could have been a total disaster a very watchable bit of fun. I don’t know whether they played this straight or for laughs – knowing the writer, Charles Busch, it was probably for the latter – but they all manage to hit exactly the right balance between genuine and daft. Ambrose, in particular, puts in a show-stopping performance as the ever-changing Florence; her transitions from the spunky-yet-innocent to the outrageously nasty manage to be both hilarious and shocking. Busch himself stars, as police ‘woman’ Monica Stark, and could have done with his character having a few more lines (“You can leave the cops and robbers stuff to me. What I need from you is this: what kind of sicko am I looking for?”). Mind you, given that he used to play Florence in the stage version, maybe it was time to step back…

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I warmed to this and continue to do so while I write the review. It could have been utterly dire, but a refreshing lack of cheap tricks, an encyclopaedic knowledge of its epoch (see how many films you can reference) and the great performances make it one to catch however little it appeals. There are moments where you just can’t help smiling – the dance-fight, cracking lines which unusually are shared between all the characters (“Honey, Lassie could fart out a better script”) and the horrifyingly bad surfing scenes are just a few of the places you’ll try and fail to be critical.

It wasn’t until after watching Les Vacances de M. Houlot that I found it funny, and the same thing happened here. I’ll acknowledge it’s not really ‘my bag’, but you can’t deny that what it does, it does very well, and for that I give it the mark it deserves.

4 out of 5

Rating:

4 out of 5