The Beach Girls and the Monster/Monster from the Surf/Surf Terror (1965/1966) -**½
Way back in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, WDCA 20 in Washington DC used to join virtually every other low-rent UHF station in the country in playing tacky old monster movies late on Friday or Saturday nights. Channel 20’s variation on this venerable theme was called “Creature Feature with Count Gore DeVol,” and while it was on the air, it was something of a family tradition at my house. Every Friday (or Saturday) night (more or less) my usual bedtime was suspended, and I’d get to stay up with my parents, watching the likes of The Little Shop of Horrors and Curse of the Demon. One night, “Creature Feature” aired this cheap, clunky gill-man movie, and either I didn’t catch the title or I just didn’t much care at the time what the thing had been called. Of course, we all know how this works— I might not have cared then, but in the ensuing years, I’ve periodically driven myself nuts trying to figure out what in the hell movie it was. I couldn’t remember a goddamned thing about the story, the cast, or the setting outside of the fact that a beach was involved, so I couldn’t even go around bothering my fellow schlock-junkies to see if they could remember having seen anything like it. The one thing I’ve got on my side in these matters, however, is the fact that, no matter how cloudy my memory may become on plot or character, I never forget a monster. So the first time The Beach Girls and the Monster’s curiously leafy gill-man shambled out onto the screen, I knew immediately that I had solved my years-old mystery at last.
What we’re looking at here is an early offering from AIP-TV, the same powerhouse of crap that gave us Mars Needs Women and Space Probe Taurus. In light of this fact, we should prepare ourselves for two things: 1). the movie’s going to be more heavily padded than an out-of-shape sumo wrestler; and 2). when it’s not busy boring us, the movie’s going to try to make our brains explode from the effort of trying to keep up with its insanity.
I’ll say this for The Beach Girls and the Monster, though— it comes out swinging. Six young people of indeterminate age (they act like they’re supposed to be teenagers, but certain details of the script make sense only if at least one of them is well into his twenties) are hanging out at the beach. The guys are out riding the waves (oh— did I forget to mention that this is a surfsploitation movie?) while their girlfriends are wriggling semi-rhythmically (one hesitates to call it “dancing”) on the dunes to the strains of some rather tepid generic surf-rock written by the one and only Frank Sinatra Jr. Sure does simplify matters when the characters’ transistor radios are tuned in to the movie’s own incidental music, huh? Anyway, after the boys return to the land, a girl named Bunny (Gloria Neil) goes running off behind one of the larger dunes for no particularly good reason. Standing conveniently between a crevice in a nearby rock-face and the mouth of a big-ass drainage pipe, Bunny is ideally placed for attack by, say, a gill-man, and when one of those happens along a few moments later, she is defenseless against its leisurely lumbering might. The gill-man strangles Bunny, scratches up her face a bit (everyone knows facial lacerations are fatal in cheap horror movies), and crawls away down the pipe. Her friends are suitably horrified to discover her body shortly thereafter. The cops who answer the kids’ summons (Reed Morgan, from The Car and Blood Beach, and Clyde Alder) are only slightly less useless than usual.
The one thing the police do right is take plaster casts of the footprints they find near Bunny’s corpse— footprints that lead, after picking up at the far end of the pipe, straight into the ocean. It’s pretty obvious even to dullards like them that the prints aren’t human, and they bring one of their casts of the odd tracks to the laboratory of Dr. Otto Lindsay (Jon Hall, from Cobra Woman and White Goddess), a biologist who just happens to be the father of one of the surfers from the first scene. In fact, Otto’s son, Richard (Walker Edmiston, who has provided voices for every cartoon from “The Flintstones” to “Jem”), also works at his lab, albeit none too willingly. You know— it’s that whole “Dad wants Sonny-Boy to follow in his footsteps regardless of whether or not the kid shares his ambitions” thing. Dr. Lindsay’s examination of the cast confirms our suspicions that this is to be an uncommonly stupid movie; he identifies the footprint as belonging to (and I hope you’re sitting down) a rare South American fish. I’m going to pause here a moment and let that sink in. Ready to go on yet? Alright...
Back home at the Lindsay place, we are introduced to the third member of the family, Otto’s compulsively unfaithful, way-too-young-for-him trophy wife, Vicky (Elaine DuPont, from The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow and I Was a Teenage Werewolf), who will be playing the Wicked Stepmother to Richard’s Cinderella. There’s also an auxiliary fourth member of the household, a longtime friend of Richard’s named Mark (Arnold Lessing), who has lived with the Lindsays ever since one of his legs was gimpified in a car wreck Richard caused. Vicky thinks Mark is just a freeloader, and maybe she’s right. Then again, it’s awfully hard to tell just what the woman’s game really is, because Mark visibly has the hots for her, and she visibly encourages his virtually incestuous lust. Mark is also a sculptor of some ability; Vicky’s modeling sessions with him are the primary means by which she keeps the boy’s fires stoked. (There’s also a scene in which Mark presents Richard with a sculpture to give to Bunny’s parents as a sympathy gift. This strikes me as just the slightest bit creepy in context because the statuette depicts the dead girl as a voluptuous, nude mermaid.)
Now with all this intrigue going on within and around the Lindsay family, I think you might be close to figuring out what’s most wrong with The Beach Girls and the Monster. In keeping with the maxim that Talk Is Cheap, but Action Costs Money (a slogan that really should have been printed across the top of AIP-TV’s letterhead), the murderous gill-man is kept so far offscreen that he practically disappears from the movie altogether. Most of the running time is devoted to the Lindsay family soap opera, Richard’s dealings with his girlfriend, Janie (Sue Casey), and a whole fucking lot of surfing footage shot by Dale Davis, who also plays Richard’s mostly superfluous friend, Tom. (That surfing footage, incidentally, is in color in the 1965 prints of the movie, but was switched to black and white in ‘66 when The Beach Girls and the Monster was reissued as Monster from the Surf.) And with so much attention devoted to Dr. Lindsay’s disgruntlement with his lack of control over the various aspects of his life, do you get the feeling the filmmakers are setting up some sort of sinister relationship between him and the creature? After all, every one of the victims ends up being somebody who has crossed him directly or is one of the “no good” surfer friends he blames for luring Richard away from the lab. In fact, this is all looking suspiciously like the setup for a “Scooby Doo” ending...
No matter what else I may say about The Beach Girls and the Monster, I have to give it this— of all the AIP-TV originals I’ve seen, this one could most easily be mistaken for an actual movie. It’s fantastically stupid and is padded to an almost inexcusable degree with dull surfing footage, but at least it’s filmed well and has good sound quality. For that matter, the acting is halfway decent and the monster suit isn’t all that bad, either— it certainly holds up well in comparison to the creatures Paul Blaisdell built for AIP back in the 50’s, and there’s something endearing about the fact that our gill-man’s body is entirely covered with seaweed. Nobody’s ever going to set The Beach Girls and the Monster up on a pedestal anywhere near the one currently occupied by Creature from the Black Lagoon, but it’s a hell of a lot more fun than either of that movie’s sequels, even with all the overwrought drama, the directionless surfing sequences, and a couple of intrusive musical interludes courtesy of Walker Edmiston and a guy with a hand puppet.