The Horror of Party Beach (1964) The Horror of Party Beach / Invasion of the Zombies (1964) -***˝

     It’s easy to forget how many of the American International Pictures beach party movies featured fantastical elements— Martians, mermaids, ghosts, and so on. One thing Frankie and Annette never had to deal with, though, was a no-two-ways-about-it, Paul-Blaisdel-in-a-rubber-suit monster. I suppose the reason why was that AIP had both been there and done that with the cycle of teens-and-monsters flicks initiated by I Was a Teenage Werewolf in 1957. But regardless of the motive behind AIP’s dereliction, it mostly fell to others to exploit that obvious angle on the beach party craze, and nobody did so more notoriously than Connecticut-based junk auteur Del Tenney. We’ve encountered Tenney before around here, via his belatedly released zombie opus, I Eat Your Skin. As wild and cheap and transgressive and strange as that film was, however, it doesn’t hold a candle in any of those departments to The Horror of Party Beach.

     You may recall that throughout the AIP beach party cycle, there was always a subplot concerning the struggle for social dominance between Frankie and Annette’s nauseatingly wholesome circle and the hapless and culturally obsolete biker gang led by Eric Von Zipper. The Horror of Party Beach begins by establishing a similar conflict, but plays it for danger rather than laughs. And although Tenny’s ersatz Frankie Avalon is even more straitlaced than the real thing, his Annette isn’t nearly so squeaky clean. That would be Tina (Marilyn Clarke), a post-collegiate party girl who’s had just about all she can stand of following the rules and living up to expectations. Her boyfriend, science tech Hank Green (John Scott), doesn’t get Tina’s drive to run wild at all, and consequently the girl’s had just about all she can stand of him, too. At the Painter’s Point beach party that inevitably serves to establish the baseline for what normality looks like in The Horror of Party Beach, Hank catches Tina dancing lewdly with Mike (Agustin Mayor, who appeared in Another Day, Another Man under the name Tony Gregory), a biker who was supposed to be this movie’s Von Zipper analogue before an injury on the set sharply curtailed his role. Hank provokes a fist-fight with Mike (Tina’s reaction suggests that the eruption of violence is a positive turn-on for her), and manages to hold his own pretty well before the rest of the bikers get involved. That escalates the punch-up into a full-fledged brawl, bringing the lifeguards running to break it up before it gets any uglier. Once that’s settled, Mike rather unexpectedly offers Hank a gentlemanly handshake. The latter lad is less ready to make peace with Tina, however, and the girl storms off to go swimming by herself.

     That’s a really bad idea— but I bet you already knew that, right? This is a college town, and the university’s science department is sufficiently well-funded to have its own low-power nuclear reactor for research purposes, right there on the campus. The school is shockingly lax about disposing of the waste coolant, though. They just bottle it up in 55-gallon drums and hire a garbage scow to dump the stuff off Western Island. Not long ago, one of those drums sprang a leak upon hitting bottom, and the current carried the toxic sludge into the wreck of a fishing vessel. At least some of that boat’s crew died when it went down untold years back, and when the atomic waste hit the dead men’s bodies, it had the rather unexpected effect of reanimating them as blood-drinking gill-men! The creatures followed the current too, and the vanguard arrives off Painter’s Point just in time to catch Tina sullenly sunbathing on one of the jetties. The girl’s anguished screams are drowned out by the curiously old-fashioned rock & roll combo playing on the Painter’s Point bandstand, so nobody notices her plight until her horribly mauled body washes ashore.

     More monster attacks follow in short order. A well-attended slumber party is nearly exterminated. A trio of girls from out of town (Carol Grubman, Dina Harris, and Emily Laurel) are waylaid when their car blows a tire in the woods around Fingle’s Quarry. Two drunks (Wayne Tippit and Daniel Walker) stumble out of the local bar one night, but only one of them makes it home. And a pair of hitchhikers (Sharon Murphy and Diane Prizio) enjoy the narrowest of escapes when a passing motorist picks them up mere moments before one of the gill-men would have. The latter creature is forced to settle for petty vandalism instead, wrecking a display window stocked with female mannequins, and losing most of an arm to a razor-sharp shard of plate glass in the process.

     The authorities are remarkably quick to accept the premise of monsters on the loose. Lieutenant Wells (Dugmore Kebroyd), the detective assigned to the case immediately after Tina’s death, points out almost at once that evidence on and around the bloodstained jetty is most consistent with an attacker emerging from the sea, and the announcer for the local TV news (The Lonely Sex’s Wade Munroe) reads the story of the slumber party massacre without batting an eye. Wells decides to enlist Dr. Gavin (Allan Laurel), one of the university scientists, in the effort to locate and destroy the invaders from the sea. That brings Hank Green back into the picture, because he works as an assistant to Dr. Gavin. It also involves Gavin’s daughter, Elaine (Alice Lyon), who has the hots for the newly single Hank. And most usefully, in a roundabout way, it involves Eulabelle (Eulabelle Moore), Dr. Gavin’s superstitious, easily frightened, mouthy black housekeeper. Everybody scoffs when Eulabelle blames voodoo for the town’s monster troubles, but she’s at least half-right when she counterintuitively identifies the sea monsters as zombies. Furthermore, Eulabelle is the one who almost literally stumbles upon the secret to destroying the things. That severed monster arm from the department store eventually winds up in Gavin’s lab, and the housekeeper’s shrill antics when she sees it for the first time result in a jar of elemental sodium being overturned onto the inhuman limb. The sodium reacts violently with the seawater in the creature’s flesh, shriveling the arm to a stinking crisp in seconds. There are just two problems now. First, elemental sodium isn’t the kind of thing you can simply buy in bulk at Herve’s Farm Store. And second, Gavin still has no idea where the monsters’ lair is, and there’s a whole lot of water in these parts to search.

     I suppose we should tackle first things first, so let’s begin with The Horror of Party Beach’s awesomely misbegotten monsters. While studying the severed arm, Gavin keeps almost offering an explanation of their physiology that makes sense enough for cheap science fiction. What he seems to be trying to say is that microscopic algae, mutated by the radioactive waste, have infiltrated the cells of the dead sailors aboard the wreck, creating a new kind of cross-kingdom symbiotic organism— a bit like lichens, come to think of it, although Gavin himself never mentions those. Screenwriter Richard Hilliard apparently lacked the scientific background to say so directly, however, so Gavin keeps wandering off on contradictory tangents about protozoa, genetics, and carbon 14. Still, what effects maestro Robert Verberkmoes initially devised to represent that— sort of a cross between a melting man and a blood-soaked sea sponge— was effective enough. Sure, it was cheap, crappy, and visually confusing, but after Gavin’s spiel, it would have snapped into place what you were supposed to be looking at, and young or highly imaginative viewers might even have gotten just the slightest chill out of it. Tenney wouldn’t leave well enough alone, though. Midway through production, he sent Verberkmoes back to the drawing board, and what emerged from the redesign was… not an improvement. It isn’t just that the revised monster concept makes no sense as the endpoint of the process described by Gavin to account for the creatures’ origin, although that certainly doesn’t help. The real trouble is the monsters’ new faces. Their eyes google. Their gills stick out like a child’s idea of bat wings. Their heads seem ever ready to topple from their shoulders due to the contortions necessary for the men in the suits to see through the poorly placed eyeholes. But above all, there’s simply no looking at the monsters’ mouths without having to battle down a gale of laughter. The only sensible interpretation I’ve ever heard offered is that Verberkmoes was trying to suggest a lamprey-like sucker mouth to match the creatures’ vampiric diet. What it really looks like, though, is that they’re perpetually attempting to eat an entire ten-pack of quarter-pound hotdogs in one go. Disbelieve all you want; one day you’ll watch The Horror of Party Beach for yourself, and you’ll see that I’m telling the truth. I have no idea what moved Tenney to order the redesign, but it didn’t completely erase the superior (albeit less endearing) prototype suit from the film. Coverage for the slumber party scene had already been shot by then, so the monsters’ appearance toggles back and forth throughout the sequence. The arm in Gavin’s lab came from the Mk I suit as well, although the creature we see losing it earlier is a Mk II. And finally, the original suits are just barely visible at the darkened margins of any shot that requires more than two creatures to be in the frame at once. Even so, the substitution is much harder to catch than comparable tricks in some other movies I could name (The Eye Creatures, anyone?), enough so that I was initially confused by Wade Munroe’s ass-covering statement that “a survivor described these monsters differently from those which terrorized the beach only a few days ago.”

     Hiding the change in the monster suits was by no means the only thing to which Tenney devoted an unexpected amount of care, either. The poor condition of most circulating prints has tended to obscure this, while the crummy acting and worse dialogue distract from it even when The Horror of Party Beach is shown pristine and uncut, but Tenney had some decent all-around directorial chops. Check out the scene of the monsters’ creation, for example. Right up until the transformation from crab-picked skeleton to sausage-snabbling gill-man is complete (which rather spoils the effect), that sequence is genuinely eerie and atmospheric. Its juxtaposition against the party at Painter’s Point, meanwhile, efficiently and effectively foreshadows the coming carnage. The same goes for the lead-up to the slaughter at the slumber party, which switches adroitly between the mundane goings-on at the girls’ dormitory and the silent advance of the bloodthirsty monsters. And speaking of carnage and slaughter, The Horror of Party Beach was well ahead of its time on that front. Again, you wouldn’t know it from the heavily edited TV prints that accounted for virtually all of this movie’s exposure until recent years, but in the theatrical cut, the monsters’ violence is pretty strong stuff for 1964. Even the attack on the storefront mannequins has a nasty vibe of sexual frustration about it. Tenney was ahead of his time, too, in attributing the creatures’ origin to the mishandling of nuclear waste, rather than making them the byproduct of an atomic weapons test or the deliberate work of a mad scientist. Finally, and most importantly, The Horror of Party Beach hits the ground running, and maintains an extraordinarily swift pace for a mid-century monster flick. It suffers a bit from a lack of purpose in the creatures’ behavior and a corresponding lack of escalation in the threat posed by them, but there’s very little of the endlessly spooling downtime that so often characterizes movies in this genre. No matter what else might be going wrong, Tenney always knows when to feed another pack of losers we’ve never seen before to the monsters, and that’s surely worth something.

 

 

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