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Psycho Beach Party

Published: Monday, Jan. 8 2001 4:45 p.m. MST

"Psycho Beach Party" desperately wants to be the "Rocky Horror Picture Show" of the surf-and-sand movie set.

Based on the campy stage play by Charles Busch (who co-stars as the butch cop Capt. Monica Stark), it mushes the Frankie and Annette beach parties with slasher films and psychological thrillers and stirs it all up with an undercurrent of sexual repression and homoerotic lust. It's a promising recipe for comedy that goes flat in the execution.

Lauren Ambrose plays Chicklet, a spunky, schizophrenic Gidget with two alternate personalities: a trash-talking homegirl and a lusty dominatrix. Chaste cutie Chicklet, clueless to the dating scene, joins the local surf clan led by Kanaka (Thomas Gibson) and falls for college psych major dropout Starcat (Nicholas Brendon) while Kanaka flirts with her dark side.

Meanwhile, a blond, bubble-headed B-movie starlet moves into the haunted beach house and has a coed slumber party, and a mysterious slasher turns the teenage population into shish kebabs. With more hormonal urges and frustrated desire oozing out from the lacquer of social conformity than a season of "Dawson's Creek," anyone in this community could be the killer, and Chicklet's tart-tongued alter ego leads the list.

Bright and spirited, with a terrific surf-rock guitar score by Ben Vaughan, wild go-go dancing credits, and cheesy B&W mock drive-in movie clips, the film overflows with quotes from "Attack of the 50-Foot Woman" to "Marnie" while ringing every teen movie clich this side of the '60s.

So why isn't it funnier? Director Robert Lee King never gets his young cast beyond their self-consciously gee-whiz spoofing. From a Scandinavian exchange student with an accent this side of the Swedish chef from "The Muppet Show" to a pair of hunky surfers whose Greco-Roman gropes and cross-dressing horseplay belie their heterosexual pose, the one-note parodies wear thin by the time the film is through with them.

The exception is Busch himself, who channels Eve Arden doing Dirty Harry to give the best drag gag performance since Divine. He doesn't overplay the part or wink at the audience, and he's hilarious.

The overbaked performances and campy melodrama flail in a flat and functional sitcom style where dialogue comes in sputters and pauses, as if waiting for the laugh track to kick in. King misses a prime opportunity to pump up the parody and really shoot this send-up into orbit.

For all its energy and inspired moments of giddy goofiness, "Psycho Beach Party" gets stuck in the sand.

"Psycho Beach Party" is not rated but would probably receive an R for campy horror movie violence, scattered strong profanity, gore, crude sexual humor, simulated sex and flashes of male and female nudity. Running time: 95 minutes.