Killer Waves: Beach Girls and the Monster
In his review of Muscle Beach Party in the New York Times on May 28, 1964, Bosley Crowther, the granddaddy of mid-century film criticism, succinctly describes one of the central features of the new genre of “beach party film”: “a tangle of vigorous young people with beautiful bodies and empty heads.” In the era of Vietnam and the civil rights movement, these films stood out for their vapidity, and embodied the increasingly evident generational gap between the 1950’s post-war parents and their long-haired, free-loving offspring. At the time, in everything from mass media to governmental legislation, it seemed like the conservative era was giving way to youth culture, generating outcries concerning the new deviant lifestyles of America’s kids. Chief among these moral dangers was, of all things, surfing. From 1962 to 1968 titles like Beach Party (1963), Bikini Beach (1964), Beach Blanket Bingo (1965), and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965) graced marquees on a weekly basis. Of these, Beach Girls and the Monster (1965) combines some of the campiest elements of the genre into one 70-minute horror-filled romp: dance numbers, campfire sing-alongs, bikinis, cool cars, and an extremely rubbery sea monster. While other beach party movies have gone on to greater cult fame, Beach Girls and the Monster’s combination of carefree partying and untimely death reveal the complexities of the place of teenagers in American culture in the 1960s.
As Nicholas Ford and Jerry Brown write in Surfing and Social Theory: Experience, Embodiment and Narrative of the Dream Glide, surfers in the 1950s and 1960s were labelled “beach bums” and “dropouts” because of their dedication to nonconformity and counterculture. Though the surfing lifestyle was appealing to young people, and was soon depicted on the big screen, real surfers’ grungy version of fun and sun didn’t play into puritanical ideas about sex and leisure. As a result, in the mainstream beach movies of the period surfers were presented as clean-cut and unthreatening to American social values. Scrubbed clean and sun kissed, when surf culture made it to the silver screen, its less savoury aspects were largely erased.
Some of the most famous surfing films were the Gidget features of the late 1950s and early 1960s, starring the All-American Sandra Dee as the titular girl surfer. But by the 1960s, the surf film had given way to the beach party movie. The original beach party film formula, perfected by American International Pictures (AIP) and replicated again and again throughout the decade, was intended to celebrate an imagined teenage utopia of the Southern California surf scene. In the classic beach party films, Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello, and their pals did the Watusi, hung ten, and kissed under the boardwalk. The mantra of these films were: no parents, no problems, but certainly no sex. Any conflict in the films usually came from disputes over beach territory and
romantic jealousies, which were resolved with a song by the end of each film. Unlike many of their real-world counterparts, the kids in beach party movies could ignore the Kennedy assassination, the burgeoning war in Vietnam, the budding feminist movement, and civil rights protests across the country, because they were too busy living in a perfect (white, chaste) world.
Sex on the Beach
In contrast to Frankie and Annette’s beach movies, the beach party horror films represent a darker take on the non-stop fun of Southern California life. Alongside other horror movies about youth gone astray, including The Horror at Party Beach (1964), The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1964), and The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966), Beach Girls and the Monster is a story about the dangers of teenage naiveté, and the consequences of living a carefree life. The film has an evil sea creature rise from the waves and kill the teenagers who populate the beaches of Santa Monica. The movie’s protagonist, Richard Lindsay (Arnold Lessing), is a scientist who yearns for a more fulfilling life outside of the lab, choosing surfing as his new passion. His scientist father, Otto (Jon Hall, who also directed), disapproves of his son’s new pursuits. When teens turn up dead on the beach, Richard and his friend Mark (Walker Edmiston) try to track down the killer. For much of Beach Girls and the Monster, Otto is the only “real” adult we see who has any stake in the lives of the beach partiers. He has a job, a young, beautiful second wife Vicky (Sue Casey), and a modern home near the beach. His only misstep is that his son is more interested in surfing and singing than in serious science, which he sees both as a waste of time and as a bad reflection of his parenting:
Richard: I want to find out about the other things in life. I want to play a little.
Otto: There’s more to life than play… What have you found? That you can swim in the ocean on a board? Do you think those beach tramps are going to help your career? You can’t expect me to finance your playtime forever.
No one around Otto seems to agree with his fears, least of all Vicky. A vampy caricature of a man-eater, Vicky barely qualifies as an adult in the eyes of her husband and stepson. She goes on dates with men who are not her husband, spends all day lounging by the pool, and makes no attempt to hide her dissatisfaction with her life. She bridges the gap between the adults and the kids in the movie, and she’s punished for her decisions—the monster kills her after she admits to but doesn’t apologize for infidelity.
Tragedy also strikes the other women in the film, most of whom have no lines or fully developed roles. The numerous beach girls who populate the film are content to laugh and dance together without a care in the world. That is, until they wander too far from the group and get caught by the monster in a dark and sinister cave on the beach. The girls express their sexuality through dancing, bikinis, and making out in the sand, and the audience sees them punished for it.
The beach girls cast in Beach Girls and the Monster were dancers from Whisky a Go Go, a club in Los Angeles famous for rock bands and the dancers’ uniform of fringe and white leather. The Whisky a Go Go girls exist in the film solely for the camera’s pleasure, as it pans across their bare stomachs and wiggling butts. There is no attempt to separate their onscreen personas from their real-life jobs as dancers, which suggests that the audience can gaze at their bodies without shame or fear of repercussion for lewd behaviour. This overt invitation to watch resists the trappings of mainstream beach movies that shy away from sexually explicit imagery in favour of quirky romantic stories.
The deaths of teenage girls in Beach Girls and the Monster, as in other beach horror films, can be understood as a moral panic narrative. In his book Folk Devils and Moral Panics, sociologist Stanley Cohen explains that a moral panic is a situation where “a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges as to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests.” For Cohen, and for other sociologists, moral panics are most often associated with youth culture. Cohen writes that society labels deviant any group that breaks the unspoken rules of decorum; these deviant groups are then made into moral examples or cautionary tales in media and the law. In Beach Girls and the Monster, the moral panic of surf culture is played out in a battle between leisure and responsibility, and punishment is doled out to those who don’t conform.
The only girl who doesn’t die and who gets more than a few lines is Sue—but her life isn’t free from punishment either. After she spends a beach party cavorting with Richard in the waves, the monster kills her boyfriend Tom. But even as she screams and cries over Tom’s death, the police officers on the beach quickly shut it down (“The doctors at the hospital will give her a sedative”) and she joins Richard in chasing the monster through the winding highways above the beach. Here, her sedation (and her conformity) is rewarded, and she gets to live.
Like poor Tom, the young men in Beach Girls and the Monster are also punished for their commitment to leisure, seemingly at the expense of their responsibilities and encroaching adulthood. The battle between work and play is embodied in Richard’s friend Mark, an artist, who walks with a limp after a car accident with Richard and faces ridicule and rejection from those around him. Due to his injury, he can’t participate in the dancing and beach fun, sadly watching from a distance as the Whisky a Go Go girls groove on the sand. Even his romantic pursuits with Vicky end in disappointment after she rejects him:
Vicky: Did you think I’d make love to a cripple? Be thankful for small favours, Mark.
Mark and Vicky are simultaneously punished for their irresponsibility and youthful pursuits. Mark’s joyriding with Richard leaves him with a disability, seemingly unable to participate in anymore beach antics. Vicky, meanwhile, is punished for her infidelity to Otto, refusing to participate in monogamous adulthood.
Despite its intermittent moments of moral retribution, the end of the film is inconclusive. Is the monster representative of the perils of adulthood? Or is its terrifying monstrosity the only thing that can stop wayward youth from falling further and further into lives of lethargy? Is this a parable for teenage apathy? It’s hard to know whether the terror of the monster will instigate Richard’s fearful retreat from a life of surfing, or if it will inspire him to become more defiant than ever, to enjoy the waves at all cost. Unlike the problems of mainstream beach parties, which never challenged the status quo, in Beach Girls and the Monster, the stakes seem higher, more anxiety-ridden, sometimes too real for the campy genre it inhabits. For, with every twist, strum, and kiss along the Santa Monica boardwalk, there are mortal consequences for those who dare to party.