Film Reviews

King of the Beach

Psycho Beach Party is destined for cult-film fame

I had this idea that these ritual pubic-hair shavings which take place in the play could be made into murders, so I called up Charles, and we had a meeting of the minds and worked out the story of the film." This is the sort of answer you get when you ask director Robert Lee King how his absurd and amusing debut feature came to be. The "Charles" in question is the (in)famous playwright Charles Busch, whose whacked works (Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Die! Mommy! Die!) make Trey Parker look as smugly conventional as Jerry Seinfeld. King, a native of Southern California and no stranger to the sand and surf, decided that shepherding Busch's sunstroked play to the screen would be an ideal task. "He was very well versed in psychological thrillers, and I was very well versed in slasher movies and beach movies, I'm a little embarrassed to say," King explains, grinning. "So he'd bring in The Spiral Staircase and Marnie, and I'd have Friday the 13th and Gidget."

With a pedigree like this, Psycho Beach Party is the sort of movie that's destined for something simply because it's in a class almost by itself -- especially since nobody slaughtered Paul Reubens during his cover of "Surfin' Bird" in Frankie and Annette's hopeful trek Back to the Beach in 1987. But weirdness and kitsch come all too cheaply in the celluloid realm, and, although this Party wants for neither, it wields a sharp-witted sense of irony that's about as common as monster waves in Malibu. For instance, when was the last time you heard surfers defining one another's behavior thusly: "You know, this could be a subconscious reflex from an overstimulated libido."

King gladly puts this seeming incongruity into perspective. "The performances are very sophisticated. As crazy as it sounds, we always strived to evoke the emotional truth of the scenes. The closest we ever came to making it intentionally bad was when Kimberley Davies -- she's Australian, did you know that? -- pointed out that [her character] Bettina is supposed to be a bad actress. So we tried that in her first scene, where she plays a pizza waitress with three heads, and it wasn't funny, it wasn't ironic, it was just bad. At that point I realized that we'd have to talk about her character's emotional state, how she feels when one more guy runs away after seeing her three heads. The only impression I was comfortable with, even in the oddest of moments, was absolute emotional truth. That's my bias anyway, but I think it was especially necessary with this material."

This approach is the glue that holds together King's giddy movie, which also features the amazing Lauren Ambrose as a wannabe surfer girl with multiple personalities, Thomas Gibson as her rhyme-spouting mentor, and Nicholas Brendon as a confused heartthrob. "We were so fortunate to find such talented actors to pull this off. Our casting director, Laura Schiff, auditioned over 300 Chicklets [the role first filled by Busch himself, here by Ambrose]. Lauren is completely real and probably the most insane part of the whole movie."

A graduate of the University of Southern California's film school with an award-winning short (The Disco Years) to his credit, King calls his feature debut "the happiest, most satisfying collaboration" he's ever had. Psycho Beach Party seems destined for cult immortality. What's next on the slate? "I've been sifting through gay detective novels, but I'm still looking for the right one."

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Gregory Weinkauf