An above-average frolic in the usually dire terrain of intentional camp, “Psycho Beach Party” kicks some good-natured sand in the face of two early-’60s genres: teenage surfer sagas and Robert Bloch-esque “psycho” thrillers. Drawn from Off Broadway veteran Charles Busch’s popular 1987 play, pic smoothly integrates both parody targets — perhaps a little too smoothly, resulting in steady amusement rather than big laughs. Amiable but overlong, comedy lacks the stylistic oomph and bolder ideas that have earned John Waters’ likewise campy satires broader exposure. But it’s a good bet for specialized urban release, with possible shelf life as a midnight fave.
Tomboyish, unstoppably perky protag Florence (Lauren Ambrose) doesn’t quite fit in the honeys-vs.-ho-daddies gender mold of fellow high schoolers in her oceanside Southern California town, but she’s trying her best. Less concerned about peer popularity is bookish best friend Berdine (Danni Wheeler). But latter is quite put out when Flo does find a niche — dubbed “Chicklet” (a la Gidget), she overcomes cootie biases to become the lone female in a surfer-dude clan presided over by adult hipster Kanaka (Thomas Gibson).
When not learning to ride the back-projected waves, however, Chicklet lives in fear of other new personality wrinkles that aren’t half so voluntary or pleasant. The sight of polka dots or any other circular object sends her into a trance, from which emerge two schizzy personae: Anne Bowman, an aggressively “experienced” older woman, and stereotypically “sassy” black mama Tylene. Blacking out whenever these multiples take over, Chicklet worries she might be responsible for a series of slayings that are fast reducing the surfside populace.
She’s not the only suspect, however. In fact, almost everybody looks suspicious, from visiting B-movie star Bettina Barnes (Kimberly Davies) to Chicklet’s own perfect homemaker mom (Beth Broderick) and their Swedish exchange student, Lars (Matt Keeslar). Suspense mounts — in theory — as the big luau nears, with police led by Kanaka’s ex-squeeze Monica (author Busch) closing in on the villain.
Even for a parodic thriller, “Psycho Beach Party” is low on urgency. Debuting feature director Robert Lee King (of well-traveled gay short “The Disco Years”) handles individual segs well enough but doesn’t develop much pacing variety or cumulative interest. Nor does the staging lend the campy atmosphere as much zing as it might, despite requisite Day-Glo coloration in Arturo Smith’s lensing, Franco-Giacomo Carbone’s production design (his last project, “Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss,” had just the right late-’50s widescreen look one misses here) and Camille Jumelle’s delightfully over-the-top costumes.
But King does coax perfs from a cast of rising thesps that are pleasingly cartoony without turning shrill. Their evident fun in delivering Busch’s skewed “period” dialogue keeps “Party” ingratiating. Ambrose (“Can’t Hardly Wait”) nails her snub-nosed, ponytail-bouncing Sandra Dee act cold; her transformations into bossier personae are game, if more perspiration than inspiration. Gibson (“Dharma and Greg”) has his moments in a less amusingly defined role. The surfer himbos — Nicholas Brendon (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”), Buddy Quaid and Nathan Bexton, plus Nick Cornish and Andrew Levitas as two hunks pec-deep in mutual, unconscious homophilia — are aptly more decorative than anything else. Most deftly funny turns, however, come from Broderick, Busch and Davies as principal adult femmes. Their timing sparkles throughout.
Soundtrack is papered with tracks by nouveau surf-rock bands, and composer Ben Vaughn’s anthem “P-S-Y-C-H-O End Title” is a standout. Curiously, pic passes on the opportunity to break things up via musical numbers, as in the original Frankie-and-Annette surf pics. Closest it comes is a cheerfully choreographed luau frug-off between Bettina and her blond-mantrap rival Marvel Ann (Amy Adams).
Though slightly flat pace makes feature seem longer than its 95 minutes, “Psycho Beach Party” still scores a hang-10 alongside “Back to the Beach,” a late-’80s comic wipeout starring the genre’s aging icons Avalon and Funicello. Tech package is modest but OK.