Beach Party is well within the threshold of awesome.
America, when you come right down to it, is a strange, strange place, not that you’d know it to look at the movies our entertainment industry churns out on a weekly basis. Pressured to recoup huge production costs and make movies that will play in both Peoria and Manhattan, Hollywood conforms to a certain set of expectations — and, in effect, to the lowest common denominator.
Beach Party at the Threshold of Hell, on the other hand, doesn’t conform to the lowest common denominator. It doesn’t conform to much of anything. It barely conforms to the dictates of narrative and of sense. It’s also the next great cult classic and the single coolest thing I’ve seen since Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter.
I saw Beach Party at a midnight showing at the Brattle. There may have been two other people watching. The ultimate independent movie, it has been criminally under-promoted and will probably reach most of its viewers on video through word-of-mouth and casual Blockbuster browsing. Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim (the program that rescued Family Guy from obscurity) would be the movie’s ideal venue, sandwiched between Squidbillies and Trigun.
I’m at a complete loss for how to briefly describe this movie, but here it goes: it’s a futuristic historical documentary and a post-apocalyptic comedy that tells the story of the founding fathers of New America. Streamlining the plot significantly, two decades after the “liquidation of Old America” by nuclear destruction (in 2074), a new generation emerges from their underground bunkers to establish New America. Of course, several groups are competing for power in this brave new world.
Our protagonist, Tex Kennedy, leads one of these factions, accompanied by two robot bodyguards and his girlfriend, Cannibal Sue. He travels to “The Threshold of Hell” — formerly known as Pensacola, Florida, and the future capital of New America — to find the anointed successor to the King of America, Benjamin Remington, and broadcast his ascendancy from a super-sized gamma-ray radio transmitter that reaches from sea to irradiated sea. Hijinks ensue.
On paper, the premise looks far too wacky to ever pull off. It’s true that there’s very little about this movie that’s calm, restrained, or subtle. If you want weighty Oscar-fare prestige pictures, go see one of the many mediocre progressive features competing for the little gold man’s favors. The only thing Beach Party takes seriously about itself is its nonconformity and unrestrained creativity.
That wild creativity, wholly unaffected by studio control, means that film does not get any more independent than Beach Party at the Threshold of Hell. The co-director and originator of this whole project, Kevin Wheatley, plays Tex Kennedy. The producer, Jamie Bullock, plays Cannibal Sue. Most of the participants are film school students. The movie was completed without a distributor. The whole affair has the party atmosphere of a study hall where the teacher forgot to show up.
The events of the movie are an odd mix of comedy and gore. Tex Kennedy spends the whole movie getting his ass kicked. A frat boy rips out people’s spinal cords. A sad-faced mystery man from the “Republic of Arizona” rips out various internal organs. The Son of Lucifer makes an appearance. The main character’s love interest eats people. Quentin Tarantino wishes he had made this movie: it’s everything Grindhouse should have been but wasn’t.
It should be obvious by now that Beach Party follows no known template for success. Instead, it has a very organic feel, much like Animal House. It’s easy to see why National Lampoon picked up Beach Party for distribution. The last big movie with “National Lampoon” in the title, Van Wilder, was nothing more than a calculated Animal House rip-off, with none of the charm of the original. By contrast, Beach Party has the same loose, faintly silly feel, as if the actors are making it all up on the fly — and without bald attempts at copycatting.
Because they made the movie in Pensacola in July under one hundred-degree heat with with actors largely from the North Carolina School of the Arts and with a director hailing from Gulf Breeze, Florida, the whole movie has, on top of everything else, a strangely Southern vibe. Accents abound, and the soundtrack goes heavy on the Dixieland jazz and old-timey banjo.
In fact, the premise of the nation-wide radio broadcast is oddly reminiscent of the first family of country music and original Southern media superstars, the Carter family, whose Depression-era show came to America’s radios from Mexico, which, thanks to the absence of the FCC, had much stronger signals than we do today.
Even visually the movie has a very Gulf Coast cast to it; as they spend most of the movie on the beach, the actors are very rarely out of the hot, nuclear glare of the Florida sun, and just the sight of Tex trudging over the sun in his battered suit is hilarious. He looks like a cross between a pre-air conditioning Southern politician and a seventies country-rock star in the mold of Waylon Jennings. Stick him with the last name Kennedy, and the character is so incongruous that he’s perfectly absurd.
I could go on and on about how funny and brilliant this movie is. I haven’t even mentioned the colony of immortal, sadistic spring-breakers, or Daniel Baldwin’s turn as used-car-salesman-turned-King-of-America, or Jane Seymour as the last President of the United States. Instead, I’ll just urge you to watch this movie as soon as it comes to a theater anywhere near you or you see the DVD lying around. To paraphrase Tex Kennedy, your world’s about to get a whole shitload funnier.
Kelly Faircloth (fairclot@fas) is Jack Burden to all pre-air conditioning Southern politicians.