Unless otherwise noted in the post title, these are not
reviews, per se. They are articles for people who have already seen the film or read the book in question--meaning that there will be spoilers. If you're already familiar with the material being covered, or don't mind the plot being spoiled, please read on and leave a comment.

Friday, January 9, 2015

[Aquaphobia] The Horror Of Party Beach (1964)

Some unscrupulous fellows ditch a barrel of radioactive waste into the ocean, and literally the second it strikes the bottom, it begins to leak its contents. The waste drifts over to a mysterious human skull forgotten on the ocean floor, and the skull begins to regenerate flesh—once again, immediately. No time to waste here, folks! The regeneration process is a painstakingly slow one, though, and looks like a scene from some French surrealist film.

The Horror of Party Beach - Theatrical Poster
Theatrical Poster
What eventually emerges is a humanoid monster derived of mutant water plants and decomposed human tissue (or something like that), and where there's one, there's another...and another...and another...
They proceed to attack a bevy of pretty young ladies and terrorize the town. The police are baffled, and they recruit civilian scientist Dr. Gavin to assist in the investigation, who in turn recruits his comely young daughter Elaine, and his assistant Hank—whose girlfriend Tina was the first victims of these spongy slimeballs.

Their investigation leads them a whole lot of nowhere until one of these monsters, enraged that his prey escaped him, punches through a storefront window, severing his arm at the elbow. When the arm is found and taken back to Dr. Gavin's lab for analysis, he determines that the monsters are giant protozoa, and that they must consume human blood to survive. The team accidentally stumbles upon the monsters' weakness when Dr. Gavin's superstitious maid Eulabelle clumsily knocks a beaker of sodium over onto the appendage, and it goes up in smoke.

Knowing how to defeat them is one thing, but knowing where to find them is another. Luckily another breakthrough comes with the discovery that the beasts emanate radioactivity, and thus a good old fashioned Geiger counter hunt leads Elaine right into their stomping grounds. The damsel in distress is saved at the last second by the timely intervention of her father, Hank, and a plethora of sodium bombs in a scene that reminded me more of a snowball fight than anything else.

When we are introduced to Tina and Hank at the onset of the film, it's obvious that their relationship is already in turmoil. It's likely that when they first began seeing each other, they were both wild and reckless kids, but in the years since, Hank has grown up considerably. Tina is still the same volatile brat that she always was, though, cruising through life in search of kicks. They have an argument on the way to the beach ("Life isn't just all fun and games", he tells her, likely something that she has heard enough at home), and when a group of bikers crash the beach party, she openly flirts with their leader and leads him to the "dance floor", just to make Hank jealous.

It apparently works, and despite my urging of him to "Just let the bitch go!", he and the biker get into a ridiculous fist fight whose choreography seems ripped from the pages of an X-Men comic book. The bikers use one of their members as a human battering ram, and in retaliation, the beach kids throw one of their own at the leather-clad baddies (prompting the timeless MST3K jibe "Here, let me throw a gay man at you!"). When the fight has breached the absurdity threshold, it suddenly stops, Hank and the gang leader shake hands, and the bikers walk away, never to be seen again. Their presence makes no impact whatsoever on any of the rest of the film, and they seem shoehorned in here just because Eric Von Zipper and the rest of the Ratz were not available.

It's shortly after the fight that Tina swims out to an outcropping of rocks and is murdered by one of the monsters. Considering that he had just partaken in an epic beach brawl for Tina's hand, he doesn't seem all that distraught after her death. There's talk of a funeral, though we never get to see it, and even if he wept off camera, he's still pretty quick to hook up with the boss's daughter, now that he's a free man. No worries, he and Elaine make a much better couple, anyway.

What is rather disappointing is the racial stereotyping in the character of Eulabelle. It's not so much that she's cast in the subservient position of a housekeeper, or that she's incredibly superstitious (she is beyond convinced that this is the work of voodoo), or that she's terrified of everything, or that she speaks in that stereotyped rural black patois. It's that all of these things are combined together into one potentially-offensive mass, like the roles of Mantan Moreland some 20 years prior. But, like the great Mantan Moreland, she does her best with the material offered to her and rises above it with an always-amusing performance. It may be of some comfort that she was the only person who acted rationally in the entire cast—in the world of a horror film, it is rational to believe that there isn't a rational explanation, and it is rational to be afraid of monsters.

The Horror of Party Beach - Sausage-Toothed Monster
Sausage-Toothed Monster
The monsters themselves were designed by theater set designer Bob Verbekmoes, and look like what you would expect from somebody low on budget but high on heart: they appear vaguely aquatic with three fins framing their heads, and have large protruding eyes. There were actually two different monster designs, one slightly less defined than the other. The more famous design threatens you not with sharpened fangs, but rather with blunt and wobbly toothy appendages that are frequently cited as being hot dogs or sausages. It was an interesting, but ultimately silly, choice, and they look only slightly more menacing than something you might meet on Sesame Street. Still, they manage to do a good deal of bloodletting, even if it was in black-and-white (which never would have flown if this were a genuine beach movie).

As is to be expected, there are plenty of characters who are introduced just so that they can be killed off. You have to have a decent body count in these movies, but you don't want to upset the audience by killing one of the leads, so instead, we get a parade of paper thin extras. One example of this: three brassy big city broads are driving through town, and although they have heard about the rash of attacks and have the good sense to not stick around any longer than they need to, they do have to stop at a gas station to fuel up. So brazen are these women that when the driver tells the attendant (played by filmmaker Del Tenney) "Fill me up, huh?", you get the distinct impression that she is not just talking about her fuel tank. On the way out of town, they get a flat tire and are quickly eliminated by the monsters.

The greatest slaughter scene, though, takes place at a slumber party. While the buxom young ladies engage in pillow fights and other sexy things that men envision women do when they're alone, the creatures burst through multiple doors, a coordinated attack that shows they are not mindless beasts, but capable of planning and forethought. Unfortunately, these characteristics are not fully exploited later, though that would have brought an interesting twist to the proceedings.

I had already seen the similarly-themed THE BEACH GIRLS AND THE MONSTER, whose mix of teen beach antics and monster mayhem was not quite what it could have been, when I read elsewhere that THE HORROR OF PARTY BEACH was likely closer to what I was looking for. I went in with high hopes and fingers crossed, praying for a Frankie and Annette Meet the Creature from the Black Lagoon vibe. This was, perhaps, a step closer in that direction...but still a far cry.

Even when Frankie and Annette were at a soda shop or a friend's house or any other location, it still felt like a beach movie. THE HORROR OF PARTY BEACH, unfortunately, only feels like a beach movie when they're (surprise, surprise) on the beach. The rest of the time it feels like some bizarre police procedural as drummed up by Ed Wood—not that that's necessarily a bad thing.

The beach scenes are pretty dead on, honestly, and a lot of goofy fun. As the Del-Aires play such tunes as the timeless "Zombie Stomp", classic cuties in retro bikinis shake their impressive derrières for the zoom lens, while beefcakes whose briefs are even briefer than those of their female companions strut around like peacocks. There are cutaways to random bits of pop-in humor ("Do you believe kissing is unhealthy?", "I don't know, I've never been...", "You've never been kissed!?", "No, I've never been sick!"), and then a little more music and a little more dancing.

The Horror of Party Beach - The Del-Aires: Zombie Stomp
The Del-Aires: Zombie Stomp
The Del-Aires were a real garage band from Paterson, NJ, who were performing in area clubs when the filmmakers were in search of a group that could supply groovy energetic music for very little pay. The band had already recorded the single "So Far So Long/Someplace" for the small label Block Records (named for music manager/Block Linoleum owner Archie Block), but quickly signed on to the film for increased exposure. They performed six songs in the film—three of their own ("Drag", "Just Wigglin' 'N' Wobblin'", and "Elaine") and three written by the film's musical department of Wilford L. Holcombe and Zebedy Colt ("Joy Ride", "The Zombie Stomp", and "You Are Not A Summer Love").

After filming, the Del-Aires left Block Records and signed with Coral, a subsidiary of Decca, where they released a small handful of 45 singles—though “The Zombie Stomp” was not among them. They broke up in 1964, citing in-fighting and changing musical interests as the cause, without ever achieving national fame. In 2012, boutique label Norton released the LP Zombie Stomp, featuring the band's singles, B-sides, demos and live recordings. The title track, which had previously never been released, is unfortunately pulled directly from the film—meaning sound effects and background chatter can still be heard, though creative editing has eliminated the interrupting dialogue.

There are a number of collectors who insist that "Zombie Stomp" by the Del-Aires was indeed released on 45 back in the 1960s, and yet nobody has managed to find a copy. The reason for this confusion likely stems from the fact that another song titled "Zombie Stomp" was released on 45 in 1964, the instrumental version of which was used in another horror-beach-musical hybrid film from Ray Dennis Steckler called THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE CREATURES WHO STOPPED LIVING AND BECAME MIXED-UP ZOMBIES, which was also released the same year.

It's too bad that the Del-Aire's song wasn't released on 45, as that seems like the natural promotional
The Horror Of Party Beach - The Fumetti of Party Beach
The Fumetti Of Party Beach
choice. The filmmakers went with something a little more off kilter, instead. Teaming up with Warren Publications, they released a fumetti adaptation—a comic book-like magazine with stills from the film and cartoon word balloons. A few of the images have been noticeably tampered with, though, as the sausage-mouth monsters are now sporting a full set of fangs. The issue started out with a 35¢ price tag, but a high grade copy these days can run you just under a hundred bucks.

This is frequently thought of as Del Tenney's film—he did, after all, produce and direct it, as well as contribute a good deal to the script with his wife…though, both their screenwriting is uncredited. However the whole thing was the idea of his co-producer, Alan Iselin. Iselin's family owned more than a dozen drive-ins in the Albany area, and he wanted to get into the movie business because he believed he knew what kind of pictures drew crowds. As double-features were the standard at the time, Iselin put up half of the hundred thousand dollar budget and came up with two titles that he knew would sell tickets: THE CURSE OF THE LIVING CORPSE and INVASION OF THE ZOMBIES (this film's original title). It was up to Tenney to put up the other half of the money, and figure out how to turn those titles into full-length films, which he did in record time. They were shot back-to-back in Stamford, Connecticut at the Gotzun Borglum studios, then owned by Tenney's father-in-law—Borglum being the artist famous for sculpting the heads of Mount Rushmore. Once completed, Tenney secured distribution for both films from Twentieth Century Fox, and the double-feature premiered in June 1964, doing twice the business of the big-budget double-feature that played on the other screen. By no means a blockbuster, it was still quite a success.

Part of that success may have had something to do with the marketing gimmick they used, stolen right from the playbook of ballyhoo maestro William Castle. Because the likelihood that an audience member might die of fright while watching the double feature was supposedly so great, patrons of certain theaters had to sign a "fright release" that would absolve the theater of all responsibility when they purchased their tickets. If only advertising executives today were so creative.

The original theatrical trailer makes mention of this gimmick, and it also claims that THE HORROR OF PARTY BEACH was "The First Horror Monster Musical"...though the aforementioned THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE CREATURES WHO STOPPED LIVING AND BECAME MIXED-UP ZOMBIES actually beat it to the theaters by a few months. Poor Tenney was just one step behind Steckler the entire way.

The Horror Of Party Beach - Curse of the Living Corpse Double Feature
From The Reading Eagle, 04.22.1964
Del Tenney had previously produced the horror film VIOLENT MIDNIGHT (1963), and followed up his famous double-feature with I EAT YOUR SKIN (1964), which he wrote, produced, and directed. I EAT YOUR SKIN sat on a shelf, unreleased, for six years until Jerry Gross picked it up for an even more infamous double-feature when it was released with I DRINK YOUR BLOOD (1970). He helped to produce the drug trade drama POPPIES ARE ALSO FLOWERS (1966), and then left moviemaking behind for theater work and a career in real estate. Many years later, he returned to film when he formed Del Mar Productions with his wife Margot Hartman and their associate Kermit Christman. Together they produced the William Katt drama CLEAN AND NARROW (1999); the Joey Lawrence horror film DO YOU WANNA KNOW A SECRET? (2001); and the thriller DESCENDANT (2003), also featuring William Katt. Tenney passed away in 2013 at the age of 82. Although his later films never garnered a lot of attention, his earlier works earn him an eternal spot in the annals of drive-in cinema.

Tenney's partner on this film, Alan Iselin, only managed to produce two more features, the titles of which should tell you all you need to know—FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE SPACE MONSTER (1965) and COME SPY WITH ME (1967).

Screenwriter Richard Hilliard had only a brief career, as well. On various sides of the business, he worked on the low-budget exploitation film THE LONELY SEX (1959); the falling-for-a-stripper drama WILD IS MY LOVE (1963); Tenney's VIOLENT MIDNIGHT (1963); THE PLAYGROUND (1965); I, MARQUIS DE SADE (1967); and THE SECRET FILES OF DETECTIVE X (1968).

As for the cast, they appeared in few, if any, other films. It should be noted, though, that the motorcycle gang at the beginning of the film was played by real members of the Charter Oak MC. Though there was a motorcycle accident that delayed shooting for a few weeks, and the club later spent a night with a nervous Tenney, watching their footage over and over again, at least the film shoot didn't turn into an Altamont situation.

Alice Lyon (Elaine) found some degree of fame, I'm sure, when she married into (sort of) the closest thing that America had to royalty—the Kennedy's Camelot. She and Hugh D. Auchincloss III, Jackie Kennedy's stepbrother, were wed in 1958, but she divorced him four years later on grounds of "mental cruelty". Her father was a U.S. Ambassador, and according to the New York Times notice published after her death in 2003, she had worked for the CIA. It appears that THE HORROR OF PARTY BEACH may have been the least-interesting thing to happen in her life.

Back in 2010, William Katt was developing a remake of the movie that would play up the inherent environmental angle more so than the original did. Screenwriter Mark Litton was said to have been composing a draft of the script, and they were hoping to begin filming in 2011. The remake has yet to appear, and the project appears to be dead in the water.

Pardon the pun.


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