03 September 2013

BEACH PARTIES: BIKINI PARTY IN A HAUNTED HOUSE

Frankie Avalon wanted to play roles that befitted a man in his mid-to-late 20s, and new mom Annette Funicello wanted to spend time with her family, but by God, American International Pictures was American International Pictures, and they were going to make another beach party movie before all was said and done. That movie was The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, first announced (in the end credits of Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine) as The Ghost in the Glass Bikini, and first put into production as a film that had, in fact, no ghost, and no invisible bikini for her to wear. It was only after AIP honchos James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff found the first cut of the movie to be ridiculous and stupid nonsense even according to the generous grading curve afforded to the beach movies, that they demanded a new subplot and frame story be introduced, in which carnival magnate Hiram Stokely (Boris Karloff) wakes up to find himself dead this past week, with the voluptuous ghost of his 30-years-deceased wife Cecily (Susan Hart) greeting him to inform him that he has 24 hours to commit a good deed. Having thus counterbalanced a life of miserable bastardy, he will be admitted into Heaven and given eternal youth, the better to frolic about sexily with his wife among the angels. Cecily, in life, was the Girl in the Invisible Bikini, a trapeze artist whose outfit gave the illusion of a hole right through her body; it does not mean, as AIP surely wanted the teen boys out there to think, that her outfit itself was translucent and you could see all her bits and pieces, as if that was ever going to happen in a cheesy teen comedy from 1966, anyway.

This is all known; this is all fairly easy to tell even from the finished product, in which Karloff is kept firmly segregated from the rest of the cast with a limp "you can't leave the crypt, because", and Hart exists in the main film only as a blue-screen effect who often as not pauses the forward flow of time to pull faces at the camera (which is here meant to be Hiram's crystal ball). Plainly, they're foreign objects inserted - clumsily - into the main film. But that leaves the befogging question of what the holy fuck The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini could possibly have looked like in its original incarnation. The version that got released barely has a cogent plot as it is, and most of that is due to the added-in frame. Take that away, and what's left would barely pass muster as a collection of bizarre non-sequiturs, scenes of random chaos thrown in just for the hell of it. Small wonder that Nicholson and Arkoff threw a fit at the cut that director Don Weis first presented to them: if it was really just a Karloff- and Hart-free version of the same movie, it must have been the most damn inane thing imaginable.

In the final version, what happens is thus: Stokely decides that his one good deed will be to make sure that his venal lawyer, Reginald Ripper (Basil Rathbone) doesn't cheat the three other heirs to his estate out of their fair share: these being Chuck Phillips (Tommy Kirk), Lili Morton (Deborah Walley), and Myrtle Forbush (Patsy Kelly), the last of whom is a former lover of the deceased, the first two whose relationship to him is revealed only in a single line, not even one given particular prominence, deep into the movie. It doesn't really matter, of course; the point was solely to get the requisite Frankie & Annette knock-offs into a parody of the "old dark house" genre that hadn't been culturally relevant nearly recently enough in '66 to justify the treatment it receives here. Meanwhile, Myrtle's nephew Bobby (Aron Kincaid) takes up her invitation to bring his friends along for a pool party in the sprawling Stokely mansion, which gives us the necessary injection of beach party shenanigans into the horror-comedy. Ripper, for his part, has invited a different set of guests: J. Sinister Hulk (Jesse White), his trusty goon, along with Princess Yolanda (Bobbi Shaw) and Chicken Feather (Benny Rubin), a pair of traveling assassins carting along a caged gorilla named Monstro (George Barrows). Following them is hapless biker Eric Von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck), and his marginally less hapless gang the Rat Pack, hunting down Yolanda, with whom the boss fell in love the moment she pulled him from a waterlogged bike accident.

That's just the set-up; and it leaves us without a clear protagonist or even a conflict: between Chuck and Ripper? Not till the end. Between Bobby and Ripper's nearly-blind daughter, Sinistra (Quinn O'Hara)? No, that's clearly a B-plot. Is it about the inevitable romance between Chuck and Lili? Again, not really until the end. Basically, it feels like Weis and screenwriters Louis M. Heyward and Elwood Ullman were just throwing insanity at the screen and hoping that it was enough of a cartoon freakshow to carry itself over that way. It's not, of course; Weis was no William Asher, whose smutty sense of humor and warped creativity made the bulk of the beach movies entertainingly fizzy instead of just daft. If anything, The Ghost in the Invisibile Bikini proves even less inspired than Weis's Pajama Party, which at least had Funicello's acerbic performance to lend it some kind of anything. This movie mostly just flares out, with the comedy feeling intensely strained and methodical, like somebody trying to do manic farce by studying it really, really hard, instead of intuitively grasping how to raise that kind of energy and playfulness. The only time the film builds up any momentum at all is in the third act, and there it's the wrong kind - it's that dreadful '60s-style wacky chase comedy that has aged worse than just about anything else form that decade of cinema.

Helping matters out not at all are the actors, limp and pathetic almost to a man: Kirk was such a pathetically whitebread lead, even compared to somebody as antiseptic as Frankie Avalon, and he's far from the blandest member of the cast, to say nothing of the worst (that's surely Hart, Nicholson's wife, whom he kept trying to make a star to no avail). Rubin is maybe the most depressing, playing a cod-Indian role that was meant to be a cod-Indian role for Buster Keaton, who fortunately died in time to avoid taking the part; it's an obvious lift from Pajama Party, and it makes it clear just how much Keaton actually was able to bring to such a thankless part. His status as silent icon is filled by Francis X. Bushman, the great leading man of the 1910s, making his last screen appearance in a part so slight I couldn't even stuff it into a plot synopsis; meanwhile, the role of "gives a better performance than the part deserves" falls to Karloff, who seems entirely unfazed by the shit he's asked to do and say, after so long in the AIP trenches, and the amount of class that he brings to bear makes it even worse that he's so clearly part of a different movie.

The whole thing is just so shitty. Shitty and boring. It's comedy made by director with no facility for it, and a tendency to underline, rather than disguise, the cheapness of the production. Audiences responded in kind: the beach movies would surely not have lasted much longer anyway (surfing was dead as a fad in America at large, and AIP was looking to drop comedy for horror and a brief run of biker films), but this film's meager box-office performance sealed the deal. Nicholson and Arkoff were brilliant businessmen, after all; the second the realised that people no longer liked something, they stopped making it, and The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini is very much worthy of being disliked by the largest possible number of people.

Reviews in this series
Beach Party (Asher, 1963)
Muscle Beach Party (Asher, 1964)
Bikini Beach (Asher, 1964)
Pajama Party (Weis, 1964)
Beach Blanket Bingo (Asher, 1965)
Ski Party (Rafkin, 1965)
How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (Asher, 1965)
The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (Weis, 1966)

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