The Horror of Party Beach (1964) ***
Director: Del Tenny
Runtime: 1h 18m
The beach party movie is film genre that I haven’t had much cause to explore. A film where a bunch of twits sing and dance is never my idea of a good time, even less so where the twits doing the singing and dancing are chosen primarily for their ability to fill out a bikini. However, some context is going to be necessary if today’s film is going to make any sense historically. Throughout the 1950s American International Pictures (AIP) had discovered they could bilk teens for their weekly allowances by making horror and sci-fi movies that catered to them. Films like I was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957) and I was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) exemplified this trend. AIP wasn’t married to these genres though, the bosses didn’t really care what movies they made so long as they turned a profit. So, as horror and sci-fi’s popularity began to dip in the 1960s the studio diversified, but still kept a special focus on the lucrative teen market. One of their new moneymakers came in the form of the eponymous Beach Party (1963) and it’s descendants. These films focused on teens (usually clad in skimpy bathing suits) singing and dancing on picturesque beaches. Adults are either non-existent, or present only as goofy antagonists. There are no Aesopian moral lessons in these films, just purposeless fun. Naturally, the pressing issues of the day are not mentioned anywhere, even though some of the male teens must have been worried about being drafted into the Vietnam War. By later standards the films would be virtually sexless, though they are loaded to the brim with playful innuendoes and suffused with the implication that off-camera these revelers are having consequence free sex with one another.
Horror of Party Beach is an attempt to crossbreed the popular new genre with the horror movies of the previous decade. The result predicable undercuts what was the beach party movie’s chief selling point: the romanticized, playful sexuality. Regardless of your intentions, showing happy playful teenagers being butchered by rampaging sea-creatures is bound to put a damper on the party atmosphere. It’s going to go off particularly bad if you insist on having the monsters target only women in mildly-sexual situations for the first three quarters of the film as this film insists on doing. The film critics that insist that 1970s and 80s slasher monsters are a product of a cultural desire to punish women who misbehave sexually would have a stronger argument if they were talking about Horror of Party Beach instead.
The film begins with a surprisingly well-edited opening credits sequence of a young couple, Hank and Tina, driving to the beach. Nothing really happens, but the rapid cuts between the couple, the accelerator, the tire, etc, make it look compelling all the same. When the pair arrives at the beach they engage in a highly amusing bit of over-wrote verbal sparring. Seriously listen to this shit:
“Lay off the booze Tina, you’ve had enough.”
“Today Tina and alcohol are gonna have a great cocktail.”
“Booze is all you want, but you better lay off me. You better stand on your feet, because if you fall on your face I’m not gonna pick you up.”
“When have you ever needed to carry me home? I’ve always been able to stand on my own two feet. I’ve never needed you, and I never will. Say whatever happened to the campus big-shot who’d do anything for kicks?”
“The campus big-shot’s grown up, times have changed, we’re not a bunch of kids anymore… You can do all the partying you want, you’d just better stay out of my way.”
“Stop preaching, I know about your plans, your experiments in that laboratory. Well let me tell you something, I have a few experiments of my own I’m just itching to try, and they don’t have one thing to do with test-tubes and Bunsen burners.”
And so on. One thing is for sure, these two are about as far from a happy couple as you can get. At this point I assumed that Hank was a mad scientist who was gonna head back to his laboratory to cobble together some sort of monster and put an end to all this fun he so plainly despises. Unfortunately, this is not going to be the case; instead Hank is going to serve as our leading man. It’s a shame, a reformed party animal out to end everyone’s fun via biological engineering would make a great antagonist for a Beach Party movie.
In addition to being a Beach Party movie and a Gill-Man movie, Horror at Party Beach is also an early predecessor to the 70s Eco-Horror movies. Just off the coast, a barge loaded with nuclear waste (and helpfully labeled as such) is dumping it into the bay. Naturally, this does not result in an epidemic of leukemia cases among the town’s children or a mass of dead fish washing up onshore. Instead, when the radioactive waste combines with human remains (there is a 18th century shipwreck in the bay) and aquatic life to produce a gigantic, goofy-looking gill-man. It has a pair of big googly eyes and a month full of what I assume are suppose to be tentacles or tongues but look more like hotdogs. It’s hard to believe this thing is really amphibious, and when it has to swim it can only manage an awkward dog paddle. Needless to say, those expecting a graceful monster capable of feats like the way the original Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) floated below his prey, shadowing her movements, will be sorely disappointed.
Back on land, the teens at the beach are engaged in a seemingly endless song and dance number (a tiresome staple of the beach party genre). The revelries are mercifully disrupted when Hank sees Tina dancing suggestively with the leader of a local biker gang. A typically lackluster fistfight breaks out, highlighted only by the biker gang’s unusual tactic of employing their leader as a human battering ram against Hank. With a bit of help from the dancers, Hank eventually comes out on top, but having defended Tina’s honor he’s not too interested in seeing her anymore. Tina is still sick of the old sourpuss anyway, so she slips off into the ocean, making her way for a small outcropping of rocks to sunbath and frolic more privately. It’s here that the monster makes his move and claims his first victim. From the actual footage we see, it looks like all the monster does is cover her with chocolate syrup, but we are helpfully informed later on that the creature drank her blood.
The police are quick to enlist the help of Dr. Gavin, Hank’s mentor, to help them figure out just what happened to Tina. They deliver a sample from the crime scene to him, which he wants to “run some carbon-14 tests on.” As my readers will know, Carbon-14 tests are generally used to determine how old a biological specimen is. Naturally the old man is just blowing smoke out his ass, and he has about as much an idea what is going on as his housekeeper who insists that it is all the work of voodoo.
Needless to say, the authorities are helpless to stop the gill-man as it continues to attack vulnerable women. First on the list is a slumber party of girls who I can only assume are somewhere in their mid-twenties. Next up is a trio of girls with thick New Jersey accents making their way to New York City. They get lost, and wind up in the woods with a flat tire. It isn’t long before the monsters close in around them. After that, the monsters attack some men for a change, eating a couple of drunks after they get in a car accident after an ill-advised attempt to drive home from the bar. All along the monsters are growing in numbers, presumably because they’ve either found a way to reproduce, or because they are dragging more human remains back to the radioactive waste.
The authorities get a lucky break when they discover a severed hand of one of the monsters at a crime scene. After a couple of experiments Gavin and Hank discover that the monsters are vulnerable to the element sodium, just one drop of it and they’ll go up like kindling. Now armed with the knowledge to defeat the monsters, you’d think that it’s high time the authorities leap into action. You’d be wrong; instead they sit about twiddling their thumbs not even building up an adequate supply of sodium to fight the creatures. When an untold amount of time has passed, and an untold number of innocents have been slaughtered, they finally manage to track the monsters back to their hideout in a nearby quarry. Even then, it’s a race against time to get enough sodium to fight them.
As a beach party movie, Horror of Party Beach is a complete failure. The whole point of these films is to distract young people from their concerns for an hour and half with a bit of music and some consequence-free sexuality. You just can’t do this while at the same time having beautiful young women stalked and murdered by a walking fish monster. As a horror movie, Horror of Party Beach is markedly more successful. The monsters are admittedly about as goofy looking creatures as I’ve ever seen, but they are often employed to great effect. Seeing them slowly emerge from darkness during the slumber party massacre (a film series I will eventually review on it’s own merits), is quite arresting stuff. The ambient, atonal music that plays whenever the creatures are on screen could be grating, but it’s just subdued enough to convey real discomfort.
Aside from the technical merits, there is plenty of absurdity present to keep viewers of the right mindset entertained. The “girl” in her late-twenties saying she’s sick of going to slumber parties is a hoot. As is her father’s admonishment that Tina’s death is no excuse for being discourteous. Even funnier is the bands reaction to the first killing some weeks later when it becomes apparent that an epidemic of monster deaths has sapped the town of its will to party. “Pretty dead tonight, huh?” Hank says when he sees the band sitting around doing not much of anything. “Yeah, ever since Tina got killed… no action.” There’s a lot to enjoy here, though granted not much of it is intentional.