Dead in the water
Spoofs come in all shapes and sizes. On one hand, you have the type that mock the absurdities of their respective subject matter while keeping everything within its world – à la Austin Powers – but then again we also see spoofs that use fourth wall breaks to acknowledge their absurdity – such as the underrated Danger 5.Psycho Beach Party can never really tell what type of parody it wishes to establish itself as, and suffers as a result.
Caricaturing surf movies of the 1960’s – as well as B-horror films – Psycho Beach Party follows a group of teens in a southern California beach town as a serial killer slowly picks them off one by one. As the killer’s reign of terror continues, Florence (Lauren Ambrose) loses track of time through psychotic episodes and begins to wonder if she may have something to do with the deaths.
From its very first frame, the film establishes itself as acutely aware of its meta nature. It all plays like a combination of Scream and Wet Hot American Summer in the way it dissects – subsequently lampoons – a piece of Americana. At its best, the film has a certain absurd Mel Brooks sensibility to it, but at its worst it plays like a very poorly executed period piece. It can never decide if it’s aware of the fourth wall, and as a result we as an audience do not know how to adjust our expectations from the film.
Adapted for screen from an off-Broadway production written by Charles Busch – who also appears in the film as Captain Monica Stark – Psycho Beach Party is held together by the loosest possible narrative structure. The characters themselves do not drive the action forward, and the film’s original format becomes increasingly evident as the scenes have a stagnant quality that can cause them to feel tedious. Many plot threads and characters disappear for most of the film after their introduction or end up being dropped altogether while others come up at the last minute and make no sense. It would be too generous to attribute this to the film’s style – there are basic tenants of visual storytelling here that simply are not adhered to.
Sometimes the film uses this to get away with quite a bit, most notably the performances – of which none are spectacular. Generally speaking, the women of the cast get the most to do, as the whole film does an effective job of deconstructing antiquated notions of gender and machismo. Lauren Ambrose deserves special credit as her character’s schizophrenic episodes represent the film’s funniest moments – Norma Desmond-esque dominatrix Ann Bowman, and Safeway checkout girl Tylene, presented without context. She lends an absurd, manic energy to these moments that the overall film sadly cannot sustain. A side note – don’t be fooled by the promotional material that advertises Amy Adams’ presence in the film; she barely has any screen time.
Psycho Beach Party ultimately feels like a missed opportunity, squandering a great premise with shoddy execution. It suffers from an identity crisis that weakens the overall product as a whole. There’s undoubtedly some humor here, but it’s not consistent enough to keep the entire film afloat.