Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Horror of Party Beach (Iselin-Tenney Productions, 20th Century-Fox, 1964)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Afterwards I trotted out the most recent Mystery Science Theatre 3000 tape, The Horror of Party Beach, a movie from either 1958 or 1964 (I’d thought it was the earlier date but the Medved brothers’ book The Golden Turkey Awards gives the later one; since it’s such an anachronistic film it’s hard to credit it as late as 1964 but there were a few cars in it that looked later than 1958) featuring a spectacularly untalented rock group called the Del-Aires (doing their big non-hit, “The Zombie Stomp”) and a large group of nubile teens of both genders (there was more cheesecake than beefcake in this movie, alas, but there were still a few hot-looking guys with nice baskets) who were getting killed and eaten alive by monsters created when an unscrupulous garbage disposal company dumped barrels of radioactive waste on the ocean floor and the waste came into contact with the bodies of sailors who had drowned in a shipwreck off the shore of Stamford, Connecticut (where the whole film was shot).

Besides the mild (very mild) environmentalist political commentary here, The Horror of Party Beach might actually have been frightening (as the similarly plotted Night of the Living Dead, made either four or 10 years later, was despite its own set of crudities) except for the ridiculous appearance of the monsters, with finned, sea-horse heads; mouths with multiple tongues that look like they’re about to swallow a 10-pack of frankfurters whole; eyes that look like golf balls with pupils painted on (and which roll around in their sockets in one deliciously absurd scene, suggesting that the monster might actually rape the woman he’s about to kill except his hunger momentarily outstrips his lust) and bodies covered with triangular objects that seem intended to represent scales but actually look more like leaves.

It doesn’t help that there’s the usual expert scientist, who we know is an expert because he smokes an impossibly long pipe and bears a surprising resemblance to Alan Greenspan; his daughter, whose distaste for what the other teenagers in the movie call “fun” (at least we’re supposed to take it on faith that she’s a teenager, even though the actress playing her looks in her early 30’s) leads her to avoid going to a slumber party whose 20 attendees are murdered en masse by the Horrors of Party Beach (yes, there are more than one of them!); and the scientist’s assistant (played by John Saxon, the closest thing this movie has to a “star”), a hunky young teenager whose sluttish girlfriend leaves him to get eaten by a monster and who, naturally, ends up with the boss’s daughter (she may be skinny and her eyes are like water, but she looks way too shopworn to be a virgin, with apologies to Oscar Hammerstein).

There’s also a Black maid named Eulabelle — which, at least according to the credits, also happens to be the first name of the woman playing her — who thinks it’s all voodoo and who inadvertently lets all the other “brains” around know how to kill the monsters when she upsets a beaker full of sodium over a tissue sample of one of the beasts, thereby incinerating it. Now, there are a lot of questions you may be asking here — like what sodium was doing in a beaker when, in its pure elemental form, it’s a metal (albeit a highly unstable metal that has to be kept in oil because it catches fire spontaneously in either water or air); or how the monsters can survive in sea water when sea water is full of sodium chloride (a.k.a. salt); or how, in the climactic scene (in which John Saxon and the rest of the intrepid band of lab researchers throw sodium at the monsters with the kind of motion they would use if they were pitching baseballs at them so the monsters could take batting practice), they can safely handle the sodium (which Saxon brought back from New York, since nobody in Connecticut sells it, in a garbage can in the passenger seat of his MGA sports car) without any sign of using gloves or any other protective material — but the answer to all of them is that this is a fundamentally absurd movie that the MST3K crew didn’t need to work hard to lampoon … — 9/8/97


When Charles finally arrived home from work at 9 p.m. he brought over the 28th disc in the series of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 downloads, from which I selected The Horror of Party Beach. We’d seen this film in MST3K form before — one day we took the tape over to Cat Ortiz’s place and ran it for her — and it’s one of those delightfully inept movies that were just right for the MST3K “treatment.” It was directed by one Del Tenney and shot at the Gutzon Borglum Studios in Stamford, Connecticut (why a movie studio should have been named after the guy who got the idea to carve the faces of the Presidents into Mount Rushmore is one of the odder little mysteries of this film), and its plot attempted to combine the horror and teen-musical genres. The fact that a film so lame could still be made in 1964 — when American International was already making the beach-party movies, which had their own set of problems but were at least fully professional productions (and in color!) — and that Tenney could get a distribution deal for it with a major studio (20th Century-Fox) and have a major hit from it is even more of a mystery.

Basically, it’s a lot of teenagers doing a lot of dancing on the titular “party beach” (and showing a lot of eye candy for all genders and orientations, though the many undulating shots of bikini-clad women’s butts indicate that horny young straight guys was Tenney’s target audience and anything of interest to the Queer boys in the audience — or the straight girls, for that matter — was purely incidental: there was one nice shot of a guy in a white swimsuit that revealed a most impressive basket, but almost as soon as it registered a girl got her backside into the frame and covered him). Overlaid over all of this is a plotline by which sloppy people hired to dump radioactive waste from the local nuclear power plant (the MST3K crew joked that they were obviously working for Exxon) threw the drums labeled “CAUTION: RADIOACTIVE WASTE” overboard over the skeletons of drowned sailors, and in the one scene in the movie that at least approached a genuinely impressive special effect, the waste and the sailors’ remains combine and form a radioactive sea monster.

Unfortunately, once the monsters finally emerge from this process they’re people encased in monster suits of such transparent phoniness the Ultra-Man people would have been embarrassed by them: the monsters have sea-horse heads and gaping mouths with about 10 hot dogs stuck in each one (I joked later that a sympathetic French critic would probably have analyzed these as a phallic symbol and tied it in with the monsters’ urge to annihilate women), and first they kill a black-haired girl who’s just jilted the movie’s male lead, Hank Green (John Scott); then they kill over 20 girls at a slumber party the film’s female lead, Elaine Gavin (Alice Lyon), had the good sense to duck out of. (The scene is a parody of a Greenwich Village folk get-together, with a bad Joan Baez wanna-be singing a traditional ballad about the miserable state of women’s lives just before the monsters come in and confirm it.) Elaine is the daughter of Dr. Gavin (Allan Laurel, who in his dorky self-absorbed scientist way is almost as funny as his namesake, Stan), who’s charged with figuring out what the monsters are, where they come from and how — if at all — they can be killed. There’s this utterly hilarious and looney-tunes exchange during that process:

“Dr. Gavin: Of course! This creature needs the ordinary necessities of human life — proteins, fats, sugars and so forth. But since his organs are so decomposed it needs the only food which can keep it alive.

“Hank Green: Blood?

“Dr. Gavin: Human blood. If a human body — a drowned person — were attacked by tiny sea plants which became parasites and completely infiltrated that human body before it had a chance to decompose, would the body be considered dead or alive?

“Hank Green: Dead?

“Dr. Gavin: No — it’s still alive. But it’s changed into a — well, is it a plant or an animal?

“Hank Green: It’s both?

“Dr. Gavin: It’s a giant protozoa!”

— but in the end it’s Eulabelle (Eulabelle Moore), Dr. Gavin’s Black mammy maid (who, like Hattie McDaniel’s role in Gone With the Wind — which The Horror of Party Beach in no other way resembles — is pretty obviously the smartest person in the fiim), who figures out the solution by accidentally spilling a beaker of sodium over the severed hand of the monster (which Dr. Gavin and Hank had been analyzing in the above-quoted scene), whereupon it bursts into flame. This is the biggest scientific howler in a script (by Richard Hilliard, with “additional dialogue” by Ronald Gianettino and Lou Binder) that has more than its share of them, from the use of radiocarbon-14 dating to establish the genetic makeup of a sample to the intimation that the dead sailors on whose chassis the monsters were built hadn’t yet decomposed when we’ve seen them starting out as skeletons. Pure sodium is an unstable metal that spontaneously combusts when exposed to water (the writers had that right) but also when exposed to air — which is why it’s shipped in a suspension of oil or gasoline, certainly not as loose metal lumps in a steel drum, which is how Hank purchases it from a New York chemical supply house.

It’s hard to decide which part of this film is sillier — the endless dancing by the hordes of teenagers at Party Beach, the lameness of the music they’re dancing to (wimp-rock by a four-piece band called the Del-Aires who are repeatedly shown on screen with no apparent source of power for their amplified instruments — their only distinction is a lead singer who obviously thought that wearing Buddy Holly’s style of glasses would give him the same talent: it didn’t), or the sheer tackiness of the monsters and the plot lines involving them, particularly the final scene, in which Harry Medved and Randy Dreyfuss, the authors of The Fifty Worst Films of All Time, described the actions of Hank and the other good guys in hurling sodium pellets at the monsters as if they were attending a mass wedding and throwing rice on all the happy new monster couples. Funny: it looked to me more like they were pitching the sodium as a way of enabling the monsters to take batting practice. The Horror of Party Beach is a delightfully bad movie which the MST3K interjections only manage to make even more fun. — 10/30/08