Screen Gems

So, can we talk about the oiled up, half naked men beach wrestling?

Psycho Beach Party

Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a re-watch.

The Camp: Psycho Beach Party

Listen up, beach babes and surfer dudes: for today’s Screen Gems, we’re riding the big wave all the way back to the groovy days when queer movies usually came via shoestring budgets direct to video.

Ok, so it wasn’t the grooviest of times for queer cinema. Still, against all odds, the occasional gem would pop up in the back corner of the video store where the curators stored all the LGBTQ-themed movies…usually on just a couple of very low shelves.

Psycho Beach Party arrived back in 2000 courtesy of queer playwright and drag queen Charles Busch, who combined his love of 60s beach party movies, “issues” melodramas and schlock cinema into a wacky and weird campfest parody. The movie follows Florence (Lauren Ambrose), a beach babe determined to surf alongside all the surfer dudes. Amid Florence’s aspirations, the local teens start turning up murdered. That sets Detective Monica Stark (screenwriter Busch, in drag) on the case. Stark begins to suspect Florence may be the killer, especially as Florence begins exhibiting the alternate personality of the violent, sexually voracious Ann Bowman. Other beach locals come into question as well, including surfing champ the Great Kanaka (Thomas Gibson), Florence’s sometime boyfriend Starcat (Nicholas Brendon) and the uber-hot Swedish exchange student Lars (Matt Keeslar).

That’s about it. Psycho Beach Party revels in nostalgia and parodies more than plot, as it rushes to reference everything from Beach Blanket Bingo to Straight Jacket. Ambrose gives a remarkable, game performance as Florence, leading a committed cast that seems to be having a great time. Ironically, the only awkward one is Busch himself–not because he gives a bad performance, or because he dons drag through the film. Rather, Busch plays the part as a drag parody rather than a character; his insincerity doesn’t mesh with the rest of the cast (including a very young Amy Adams), all of whom play their parts straight. That minor quibble aside, Busch’s script provides some very big laughs, and also picks up on the homoeroticism present in all those old-school beach movies that had the surfers wrestling each other over a girl. A cast of very good-looking, greased-up men also adds to the…human interest.

Psycho Beach Party is a relic of a time when major studios would never green-light or bankroll a film about queer characters that weren’t tragic, or that would feature good-natured gay sex. Fortunately, fringe cinema had other priorities. The tight budget of the movie shows, but that doesn’t stop the performers from having a great time. If made today, the movie would no doubt debut on some streaming service, feature an all-star cast, and a much larger scope thanks to a healthy budget. Still, Psycho Beach Party offers a very fun evening of entertainment, one that both opines for the whitebread nostalgia of the early 60s, and one that understands the absurdity of it all.

Streams on Amazon, YouTube & VUDU.

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