Hello, true believers, and welcome to You Aughta Know, a column dedicated to the decade that is now two full decades behind us. That’s right, it’s time to take a look back at one of the most overlooked decades of horror. Follow along as I do my best to explore the horror titles that made up the 2000s.
It’s January in the first year of the new millennium. Christina Aguilera’s “What A Girl Wants” cements her as a pop star icon, and weirdo sci-fi rom-com Happy Accidents is in theaters. And in Utah, the film adaptation of a cult classic off-Broadway play is screening for the first time, with Psycho Beach Party coming to life at Sundance.
The history of Psycho Beach Party exists over a decade before the film even hit the chilly nights of Sundance, the play having premiered in 1987 at The Players Theatre in New York City. Charles Busch is the playwright, and eventual screenwriter, who had made his career in plays that often satirized and parodied other genres while also infusing them with joyful bouts of camp. After finding small success with Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Busch would move on and write Psycho Beach Party, which is equal parts Gidget, 60’s beach movie and drive-in culture.
Psycho Beach Party would only spend a year in circuit before being optioned for film nearly a decade later. Directed by Robert Lee King and written by Busch, the film version saw a number of retoolings from the play in its original format. Seeing that Busch had originated the role of Florence, the “Gidget”-esque character who wants to learn how to surf, the studio wanted Busch involved in the film but weren’t willing to lean into camp quite so much as to have a forty year old man play a young teenage girl.
Robert King would work with Busch to tweak the script and add in a slasher element that is absent from the play, and creating entirely new characters. Busch is a decades long drag star, often considered “royalty” in certain circles, and the studio and Busch himself wanted a role carved out for him. After suggesting the role of Florence’s mother, Busch passed on it, citing his design for the character to be given to a more androgynous beauty. Instead, Busch created the role of police captain Monica Stark, a Susan Hayward-inspired detective, and took it on in stride.
Psycho Beach Party is a wonky little mash-up of the charming fifties era science fiction from the atomic age that pokes fun at the era with a very large wink at the camera. Toxic masculinity and gender roles are prodded at and exist in a way that is so over-the-top it’s very apparent that Busch is teasing the era while still paying homage to the time. A slew of staggeringly different plot threads exist within the film, and bits of 80’s slashers merge with hardened noir and groovy surf vibes; and while it’s not always a harmonious blend, it is mostly a bright bit of cheeky fun.
The cast is delightfully nineties, fresh out of that decade, with Dharma & Greg’s male lead Thomas Gibson starring as one half of our hunky heartthrobs, the other being Buffy’s very own Xander, Nicholas Brendon as Starcat. Our lead Florence Forrest, who gets nicknamed Chiclet in a nod to her point of origin, is played by Lauren Ambrose, who had already made her stamp in romantic comedies for her turns in In & Out and Can’t Hardly Wait, and we even have Sabrina Spellman’s Aunt Zelda, Beth Broderick, as Ruth Forrest. What’s even more fun is we get to see a young Amy Adams as Marvel Ann, the girl the boys all pine after.
Psycho Beach Party isn’t a home run in any category that it dips its toes in. The comedy doesn’t always land, the horror doesn’t strike hard enough and the noir blends with science fiction in an enjoyable but often distracting manner. Yet, in spite of the hiccups, it’s still this super fun ride that’s teasing at four different decades. It’s great to see Busch play around in all these eras and take tropes and mechanics of yesteryear and give them a much needed retooling, putting himself in drag and also introducing a rare gay couple that’s not played for yucks at the turn of the millennium. It’s not a surefire hit, but at least it’s some guaranteed fun.