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Back to the Beach is a strange entry in the "Beach Party" genre. It is not, strictly speaking, a continuation or sequel to the original Beach Party canon. Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello are not playing the same Frankie and Dee-Dee characters we've seen in five previous films. No, this time out, they're playing a former teen idol/surfer and current used-car dealer and his wife, a former Mousketeer, named "The Big Kahuna" and Annette, who travel out to California with their teenage son to visit their college-age daughter. While there they sing songs with some popular personalities of the time, run into several 60s television sitcom actors, all set against some particularly garish 80s costuming. The intent is to spoof the Beach Party films, but this iteration lacks all the charm of the originals. It's as if the producers of those horrible "[ADJECTIVE] Movie" films that come out every year managed to get the cast of the film they're allegedly parodying to appear in the film. In fact, those garish 80s costumes are very appropriate, as the film exploitive nature and cynical pandering are a pretty good approximation of the 80s. There are really only two redeeming features to the film at all: Annette sings a cover of "Jamaica Ska" with Fishbone, and a spiritual successor to Eric Von Zipper manifests in the person of Zed, an 80s movie caricature of a surf punk. The role is played with the right dash of comedy and charsima by Joe Holland, in what was sadly his only film role.
Psycho Beach Party, 2000
A far better parody/tribute to the Beach Party films is Charles Busch's drag dramedy. It blends the surf antics of the original films with a giallo-esque approach to a thriller, black-gloved killer and all. The film is very knowing, with nods to psycho-analysis, women's lib, postmodern film theory and homoeroticism that would have been out of place in a period film, but are played straight here, without any faux-ironic winks to the audience. We as the audience are in on the joke, but the characters aren't. It's not a flawless film; it suffers quite a bit from "adaptation-itis" and it's roots as a stage production come through from time to time. It also helps, heavily, if you're already clued in to the genres being poked at and some of the nuances of drag comedy and contemporary camp. Plus, it has Matt Keeslar in it:
A Brief Guide To What Passes For Beach Party Continuity
Beach Party, 1963
In the first film in the series, Frankie takes his girl-friend Dolores to what he thinks is a romantic get-away at the beach for summer vacation. Dolores, however, got a case of cold feet and decided to invite all of her and Frankie's friends in order to prevent him from catching her alone with her guard down. As Dolores puts it, she's close to being a woman, and she's "not getting any closer until I'm a wife." Unknown to the gang, anthropologist Professor Robert Sutwell is conducting a study of the mating habits of American teenagers, suspecting some connection between them and the primitive cultures he's used to studying. Which, surprisingly, comes off very politically correct for 1963. Frankie, unable to get anywhere with Dolores, decides to make her jealous by flirting with Eva, the voluptuous waitress at Big Daddy's. While there, the gang runs into both Eric Von Zipper and his gang the Rats, who is prevented from manhandling Dolores by the timely intervention of Professor Sutwell, who incapacitates Von Zipper with the Himalayan Time Suspension Technique. Dolores decides to get back at Frankie for flirting with Eva by letting him think she's interested in "Bob", much to the annoyance of Bob's assistant Marianne, who has long carried a torch for him. A series of comic misunderstands leads to Marianne ending up with Robert, Dolores ending up with Frankie, and the gang saving the Professor from a rumble with the Rats. Eva ends up with Von Zipper.
Frankie's side-kick, played by John Ashley, is named Ken.
Dolore's pal, played by Valora Noland, is named Rhonda.
Candy Johnson shows up and shimmys frequently.
Mike Nader appears as a surfer boy, but isn't given any lines.
Morey Amsterdam appears as Cappy, owner of Big Daddy's, and unofficial patron for the surf-kids
Muscle Beach Party, 1964
The gang returns to the beach, only to discover that their shack is now next door to a gang of muscle-headed body-builders straight out of an issue of Physique Pictorial. And no, the fact that the body-builders are wearing pink shorts and capes when they're introduced isn't the slightest bit gay-baiting, not at all... The body-builders are coached by Jack Fanny, played by Don Rickles, and Peter Lupus, fresh off a stint of Italian gladiator films, plays the pride of Jack's stable, Flex Martian. Julie, a beautiful and wealthy widow, has sailed her yacht to Malibu, and is conspiring with her business manager, S.Z. Matts, played by Buddy Hackett, to buy Flex out from Jack. However, after seeing Frankie engage in a bit of night surfing and singing, Julie falls in love with him instead, and makes plans to wisk Frankie away as her latest play-thing with the bribe of a recording contract. After pissing off his friends, who think he's getting a swelled head, and Dee-Dee, who hates seeing him with another woman, Frankie realizes that Julie is just using him, and the whole story winds up with a rumble in Cappy's recently rebuilt restaurant between the surfers and the body-builders.
Dolores is now Dee-Dee.
Ken is now Johnny.
Rhonda is now Animal, and she's been given a personality trait. It is "boy crazy."
Candy's ability to cause disasters to befall other people by shaking her hips at them is established.
Mike Nader still doesn't have any lines.
Donna Loren first appears as a hanger-on to the surf crowd. Dr. Pepper ads show up occasionally during musical numbers.
Bikini Beach, 1964
A new vacation starts, and the beach gang find themselves squeezed between hostile forces. On the one hand, there's the Beatle-esque British rocker Potato Bug, setting up camp at the beach and making a play for Dee-Dee. On the other, there's Harvey Huntingdon Hunnywagon the Third, owner of the local retirement home, using a trained chimpanzee to attempt to turn the public against the surfers by proving that mentally they're on the same level as a primate, thus allowing him to buy the beach cheaply to expand his retirement community. And then there's the return of Eric Von Zipper and his Rats and Mice, eager to help HHH3 in his quest to discredit the surfers, and given an opportunity to do so when Frankie challenges the Potato Bug to a drag race, allowing Von Zipper and company to sabotage the Bug's dragster and frame Frankie for it. Luckily, 3H3 gets his mind turned around by the timely intervention of local pro-surfer school teacher Vivian Clements and Von Zipper accidentally sabotages Frankie's dragster, leading to a rumble between the surfers and the bikers at the recently rebuilt Cappy's place.
Jack Fanny has retired from managing body-builders and now runs Cappy's and the drag strip under the name Big Drag.
Animal is now played by Meredith MacRae. It's implied that she's now Johnny's girl-friend.
Frankie Avalon plays both Frankie and Potato Bug, a portrayal that never quite feels like it's meant to be a nice parody of the Beatles. As is one of the rules of comedy, the fact that Frankie and Potato look exactly alike is never commented on, even when Frankie disguises himself as Potato.
Mike Nader still doesn't have any lines.
Von Zipper's sociopathic henchman South Dakota Slim puts in his first appearance and plays pool with Von Zipper. Really. That's pretty much it. Also, Von Zipper hangs out with a were-wolf. I told you he was the greatest villain ever.
Beach Blanket Bingo, 1965
The gang's vacation is interrupted when a lady sky-diver lands just off-shore. Frankie swims out to rescue her, not realizing that the lady in question is a pro, and this is all a publicity stunt cooked up by Bullets, the manager of pop singer Sugar Kane, who substituted for the sky-diver, Bonnie, shortly after landing. Frankie being Frankie, he's all too happy to play along with Bullets and his publicity scheme, even though Von Zipper, Sugar Kane's biggest fan, is incensed that she's hanging out with the beach bums. The gang all get it into their head that sky-diving is much more fun than surfing, so they head out to Jack Fanny's latest enterprise, a sky-diving school he runs under the name big drop, where they meet Bonnie and her possessive, jealous boyfriend, the curiously familiar looking Steve. Naturally, a love quadrangle develops between Steve, Bonnie, Frankie and Dee-Dee, as in the pair Frankie has run into a woman more scheming than him and a man more jealous than Dee-Dee. Deadh-I mean, "Bonehead" has too much sense to go sky-diving, so he stays at the beach, where he nearly drowns after hitting his head in a wipe-out. Luckily he's saved by Lorelei, a mermaid. Yes. No one believes him, though, as they all saw Sugar Kane pulling him out of the water. And then things get weird. Frankie is falsely accused of rape by Bonnie. Bonehead is suspected of killing Lorelei when the gang spots him burying the clothes she wore to attend a party with Bonehead on land. And Sugar Kane, thinking it's another of Bullets publicity stunts, gets kidnapped by Von Zipper, only to end up tied up to a log about to be shredded by South Dakota Slim. Everything works out in the end, though in the form of a chase scene between surfers and bikers rather than a rumble.
This time around, Animal is played by Donna Michelle. She still doesn't get to do much other than keep Dee-Dee from talking to herself.
Deadhead is now Bonehead.
Mike Nader finally gets a speaking part, promoted to Frankie's new side-kick, Butch.
John Ashley plays sky-diving instructor Steve. No one notices that Steve looks exactly like their friend Johnny, who is curiously absent. It's really quite creepy.
That whole "Frankie is accused of rape/Bonehead is suspected of murder" thing is really way out of tone with the rest of the films.
Von Zipper's Mice finally get names. Puss and 'N Boots. Yes, really.
How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, 1965
Frankie is off on a tropical island, doing a stint with the Coast Guard Reserves. While he's there, he's busy making time with a native girl, but he wants to be sure that Dee-Dee isn't doing the exact thing he's doing while she's alone back home. The local witch doctor whips up a spirit, Cassandra, to keep the boys occupied, but unfortunately she shows up at the beach at the same time as a couple of ad executives, "Peachy" Keene and his junior associate Ricky, played by Dobie Gillis himself, Dwayne Hickman, looking for the perfect girl to be part of their new ad campaign to improve the image of motorcycle riders. Ricky is far more interested in Dee-Dee, relishing the challenge she represents, as opposed to Cassandra who rather throws herself at him. Von Zipper gets involved, due to his crush on Cassandra, and he employs his newest henchman North Dakota Pete, first to try to get Ricky out of the picture and then to cheat in a motorcycle race to determine whether the Von Zipper/Cassandra team or the Ricky/Dee-Dee team will represent the ideal "couple next door" image of motorcyclists. In the end, Frankie gets Dee-Dee back and everyone else ends up with, well, nothing.
It's formally established that Dee-Dee is short for Delores. Because "Delores" has two Ds in it, I guess.
Marianne Gaba is our Animal this time around. That makes four Animals in five films.
Johnny, Butch and Bonehead don't get to do much this time around than lip-sync to songs.
It should seem surprising that a series of forty year old, cheaply made teen sex exploitation comedies should easily rank as amongst my favorite films of all time. I'm not one to romanticise the sixties; for any one who wasn't a straight white heterosexual male Protestant of middle class or better they were a pretty lousy time to try and get by, and the social changes that made improvements for anyone who didn't fit that description couldn't get there fast enough, but the pop culture, and even the fringe culture, of the early half of that decade have an unselfconscious, unironic naivete that's very appealing. There's also a certain sly subversion that bubbles up here and there. The physique magazines claimed to be about healthy exercise, but if you're in on the gag, you know better. The same is true of pop songs of the era, which sound innocent enough, so long as you don't actually think about the lyrics. And then there's the exploitation films of American International pictures. Oh, sure, it looks like these are just movies about the romantic hi jinx of all-American kids having fun at the beach...and then you notice that the plot of each film is essentially Frankie trying to get into Dee-Dee's pants.
There's more to recommend the films, to be certain. There's plenty of eye candy for horny teen boys, in the shape of all those pretty girls in bikinis running around. Not to mention the frequent appearance of Candy Johnson and her perpetually shimmying dresses...
For myself, there's the not inconsiderable male eye-candy as well. Chiefly, there's Jody McCrea, but the other fit young men populating the beach movies aren't too bad to look at either. Frankie's okay, and no one can smarm his way through a film quite like him, but there's something faintly unconvincing about his casting as Alpha Male of the surf pack. I can't quite explain the appeal of McCrea. In most of the films that loosely make up the Beach Party series he's given the thankless task of playing the comic relief, Frankie's dopey girl-crazy side-kick that's perpetually unaware of just how stupid he is. But he's infinitely more engaging as an actor than John Ashley, as Frankie's other side-kick whose name the producers could never quite settle on, or Mike Nader as "extra who occasionally gets to say a line", the only other male actors to regularly put in appearances as surfers in the films. To go back to my earlier statements, it's the unironic performance, coupled with a genuine charisma, that makes it work.
There's the pop music, of course. While the films, by necessity, tend to focus on early surf music, notably with the appearance of Dick Dale in the first few films, a significant amount of branching out occurs. There's Donna Loren, of course, belting out a number from time to time, a Dr. Pepper bottle usually conspicuous somewhere in the shot, and Little Stevie Wonder puts in some time as well. There's also, of course, almost obligatory songs from Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello.
Ah, Annette. The first, last and only Mousketeer to ever have anything remotely like talent. She occupies a strange place in the Beach Party films. Simultaneously the object of lust and the enforcer of strict social norms. It's Annette's Dee-Dee character who utters the frequent mantra of no sex before marriage, turning each entry in the series into essentially what Jay Presson Allen once referred to as a "delayed fuck" film. But she really is the heart and soul of the films. She's that sweet, innocent core, that bedrock foundation of "traditional values" that allows the debauchery to go on. Without Annette there to remind us of what a good girl looks, acts and sounds like, we might stop and realize that those teenagers are...*gasp-shock-horror* BALLING!
Plus, she sings kind of purty.
But it's not all horny teenagers. The cameo and recurring comedy bits are added value. If nothing else, the producers of the Beach Party films deserve credit for keeping food on Buster Keaton's table. Oh, sure, you've got your Vincent Price, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre walk-ons, and the featured appearances of Don Rickles, Morey Amsterdam, Buddy Hackett and Paul Lynde. But you've also got the greatest comedy villain of all time. Harvey Lembeck as the low-rent Marlon Brando, Eric Von Zipper.
Only missing out on one of the Beach Party films, Eric Von Zipper sets the standard for incompetent menace. From ambitious plots to kidnap pop princesses, to the far more mundane goals of simply, finally, getting one over on those surf-bums for once, Von Zipper is the villain that can never quite catch a break, more of a risk to himself than anyone else, and in deadly danger from getting poked in the forehead with a finger. The Beach Party films just wouldn't be the same without the misplaced optimism of his mantra, "I am my ideal." A few decades later, that phrase would reek of pop psychology bluster, but here it's a mark of just how disconnected from reality Von Zipper is.
All these details add up. The films, as a whole, work on a variety of levels; time capsule, subversive cinema, unintentional social commentary, and slightly naughty yet ultimately wholesome fun. In that light, it's pretty much a necessity that a Beach Party Week exists.