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A New 'Party' Place

Theater writer-actor Charles Busch's campy 'Psycho Beach Party' surfs to the big screen.

August 24, 2000|ANNE BERGMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In "Psycho Beach Party," Chicklet, a tomboyish surfer girl with multiple personalities, finds herself at the center of a serial murder mystery. Set on the Malibu beach circa 1962, the film is a veritable Sally Field hommage, combining elements from both "Gidget" and "Sybil" into a candy-colored psychological thriller-slasher movie spoof.

"All we needed was for Chicklet to be a union organizer," says Charles Busch, who wrote the screenplay as well as the play on which it is based. An off-Broadway cult favorite, "Psycho Beach Party" was one of a series of movie-inspired plays Busch wrote and starred in during the late 1980s, including "Vampire Lesbians of Sodom" and "Red Scare on Sunset."

The movie version of "Psycho Beach Party" debuted at this year's Sundance Film Festival and received a standing ovation at the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Film Festival in June. The film, which is already playing in New York, opens Friday in Los Angeles, eventually bowing in additional markets this fall.

Busch says he originally thought it was a "terrible idea" to turn "Psycho Beach Party" into a feature film. "I'm so glad nobody listened to me," Busch admits by telephone from his home in Manhattan. "I never thought it was a movie; there wasn't much plot to it."

Busch's manager, Jeff Melnick, however, persisted in pushing the idea, eventually finding a receptive audience when Melnick began managing director Robert Lee King, who had a relationship with Strand/New Oz, the production arm of Strand Releasing. Searching for a project after the success of King's short "Disco Years," which Strand released as part of its compilation "Boys Life," Melnick suggested King take on as his feature film debut "Psycho Beach Party," which King had seen performed during a run in Los Angeles.

While the play's plot points revolved around a series of ritual body shavings, King thought if he changed the shavings into murders, "Psycho Beach Party" could work as a movie. "So I phoned Charles and pitched him this notion of mine," King recalls. "Luckily, he loved the idea, and by the end of the conversation we were finishing each other's sentences and worked out a story that didn't change throughout the drafts."

Strand agreed to develop the film, eventually joining forces with Red Horse Films to make "Psycho Beach Party" on location in Malibu and at a drive-in movie theater in Azusa.

Inspired by the 1946 version of the thriller "The Spiral Staircase," in which a killer stalks women with "afflictions," Busch and King began to rewrite the play. They eventually added a new character for Busch--who, in drag, had originated the role of Chicklet--along with the murder mystery plot and the drive-in movie setting.

"You never know when you're working with a writer--especially one who's written something 12 years ago that's been performed successfully all over the world--if he's going to be stuck to his old ideas, or holding on to things that won't work on film," King says. "Of course I was a little concerned, but that was definitely not the case with Charles. He had tons of new ideas. I went to New York and we worked on an outline together, watching 'The Spiral Staircase,' 'Marnie,' 'Friday the 13th' and 'Gidget' to figure out what we ,wanted to lampoon that day."

Campiness Meant for Sophisticated Audience

King notes that the film's deliberate campiness is meant to appeal to a sophisticated audience well versed in the genres satirized in "Psycho Beach Party." Meanwhile, Busch concedes that he "can't sit through those Frankie and Annette beach party" movies, although he did agree with King that the film should resemble the genre stylistically.

"Mostly I wanted to emulate the look of those movies," King says. "If you look at any single frame of 'Psycho Beach Party,' it looks like a frame out of a '60s beach movie."

Indeed, myriad beach party movie elements are in place, from the luau musical number to the beachside Tiki hut inhabited by surf guru the Great Kanaka (played by Thomas Gibson, Greg of ABC's "Dharma & Greg").

There was one element that King wanted to look worse than the originals--the obligatory surf shots, which always looked fake in the Frankie and Annette films. King intentionally framed his surf shots to look absurd, shooting them on a soundstage against a green screen, with the ocean backdrops eventually added in post-production.

"They're really on surfboards and air mattresses, with guys holding the mattresses to not only catch the actors, but also to bump the mattresses so they wiggle a little," he explains.

The biggest challenge, however, in adapting the play to the screen was casting a woman to play Chicklet. "I always assumed the movie would be more realistic than the play, and it would be a very stylized movie if I played Chicklet this time around," Busch says.

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