Monday, October 10, 2011
Oddball Film Report: THE GHOST IN THE INVISIBLE BIKINI (1966)
The fad for beach-themed teen comedies following the success of 1963's BEACH PARTY was intense, but short lived. While American International Pictures was making a fortune on the 'Beach' series, it was also quite evident that these good natured cornball musicals wouldn't continue to bring in the kind of money they were making in an era of increasing cynicism and rougher drive-in fare. The same year that Nancy Sinatra made today's subject, she also made THE WILD ANGELS for the same studio, and it was the biker flick that made the most money. Overnight, THE WILD ANGELS did to AIP and the teen exploitation market what BEACH PARTY had done earlier. The Beach films quickly fell out of date, yet for many, those films defined the 1960's with their innocence and sheer fun. A stray Beach movie would occasionally pop up again before the decade finally gasped its last. There were plenty of Beach movies to pick from, made by various studios (BEACH BALL, IT'S A BIKINI WORLD, THE FAT SPY, my personal favorite probably being THE GIRLS ON THE BEACH), though the AIP films remained the yardstick by which the others were measured.
AIP was really coming into its own by 1963. No more black and white quickie double features. The studio had entered the big time with its color Roger Corman/Vincent Price/Edgar Allen Poe films. That slate of films would help define the studio as much as their playful teen Beach movies (both were spoofed in AIP's comical spy epic DR. GOLDFOOT AND THE BIKINI MACHINE). With these horror films, AIP developed a reputation for lavish spectacle and major stars (even if they tended to be, with all due respect, a tad past their prime, or on their way up to bigger and better things). Yes, by the mid 1960's, AIP had become one of the majors. While still thrifty in the extreme, AIP was spending a fair chunk of change to make their movies more lavish. Just look at the cast for BEACH PARTY: Bob Cummings, Dorothy Malone, Morey Amsterdam, Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello, Harvey Lembeck, John Ashley, Jody McCrea, etc. The following films in the series would include such noted performers as Mickey Rooney, Paul Lynde, Keenen Wynn, Donna Loren, Buster Keaton, Jesse White, Don Rickles, Peter Lorre, Brain Donlevy, Earl Wilson, Buddy Hackett, Linda Evans, and more!
While always considered cartoonish camp, the films still have a very earnest appeal. While continually badmouthed by critics, the fact remains that people love the Beach movies. Calling Avalon and Funicello America's sweetheart couple of the 60's isn't much of an exaggeration. The bulk of the Beach movies would follow their "teenage" romance through various trials and tribulations, often in the form of some groovy chick who set her sights on Frankie at about the same time that he and Annette had had a tiff, or vise versa. (Aside from returning characters, the films really had little connection to each other, for the most part.)
By 1966, though, the relationship of Frankie and DeeDee (Avalon and Funicello) had been milked for about all it was going to give. Not that there hadn't been some experimentation within the series. The first three films in the cycle (BEACH PARTY, MUSCLE BEACH PARTY, and BIKINI BEACH) form a nice trilogy that connect to each other quite nicely, in theme and in continuity. The remaining films in the series would continue to recall these films, forming a loose connection. The fourth film of the set, PAJAMA PARTY, took things in a new direction. Rather than focus on Frankie and Annette, we meet a whole new cast of characters. Funicello now plays Connie, and her steady is Big Lunk (Jody McCrea, "Deadhead" of the other films) until she meets George, a Martian played by Tommy Kirk. While one of the best films in the series, audiences must not have been too thrilled with this new direction, for the very next film, BEACH BLANKET BINGO returns things to normal with Frankie and DeeDee and the gang. BEACH BLANKET BINGO is the one everybody remembers, the one with the mermaid that falls in love with Jody McCrea, and is in many ways the ultimate Beach Party movie. (Interestingly, THE FAT SPY, made the same year, also features a subplot involving that film's Jody McCrea analog -played by singer Johnny Tillotson- falling in love with a mermaid. I'd be interested to see which script was written first.)
Somewhere along the line, money concerns or contract disputes lead to trouble (as the story goes), forcing Avalon and Annette to seek greener pastures. And it seems they took most everybody else important to the series with them. Most of the familiar faces of the previous films are absent from GHOST IN THE INVISIBLE BIKINI, although we're still served up a fine cast. Despite a nice effort, the film ultimately suffers from a lack of Avalon, Funicello, McCrea, Donna Loren, or John Ashley. Also missing is series director William Asher, replaced by Don Weis, the director of the earlier PAJAMA PARTY. It seems that, if Asher had his stock characters, Weis had his too. The characters here are either returning from PAJAMA PARTY, or bear a strong resemblance to them. Thus, a little recap of PAJAMA PARTY is called for.
As mentioned earlier, Connie was dating Big Lunk, the numskull nephew of Aunt Wendy (Elsa Lanchester!). Big Lunk had the previous year dated Vickie (singing sensation Donna Loren, who played 'Donna' in the other films, where she didn't do a lot of acting but would belt out some incredible tunes). Wendy had a fortune hidden somewhere in her house, and it was being sought by notorious conman J. Sinister Hunk (Jesse White) -subtlety was out of the question, obviously- and his cronies that included Chief Rotten Eagle (Buster Keaton!) and a Swede bombshell named Bobbi (Bobbi Shaw, who will probably be forever remembered as the blonde in the fur-lined bikini who could only enthusiastically exclaim "Yah! Yah!").
Weirdly, Harvey Lembeck's Eric Von Zipper and his motorcycle gang, the Rats, are in both continuities. Even stranger is that the Rats and Mice are the only characters in the series to have a continuity that remains the same in all the films! Through Von Zipper and his gang, mention of the earlier trilogy is carried over into PAJAMA PARTY. Likewise, they carry references from PAJAMA PARTY back into the regular continuity! (For instance, at one point in GHOST IN THE INVISIBLE BIKINI, Von Zipper is asked if he plans to give another character "the Finger." This is a running gag going all the way back to BEACH PARTY, where a professor played by Bob Cummings demonstrates Himalayan Time Suspension by pressing his finger against Von Zipper's temple. This would freeze Von Zipper like a statue. Forever afterwards, Von Zipper would threaten to place people into "Himalayan Suspenders" if they crossed him. Unfortunately for him, Von Zipper would often inadvertently demonstrate on himself and be out of action for a while. The various ways Von Zipper would give himself "the Finger" became a running gag of the series.)
Here, we have eccentric Aunt Millie (Patsy Kelly) and her numskull nephew GooGoo (Aron Kincaid), who is dating another Vickie (Nancy Sinatra!). J. Sinister Hulk is back (still played by Jesse White) as is Cheif Chicken Feather (the name exposed to be the true moniker of Cheif Rotten Eagle in the earlier film), no longer played by Buster Keaton, but by Benny Rubin. You undoubtedly remember Rubin from his patented Chinaman routine which he did on nearly every sitcom and variety series of the early 60's (he's the owner of the Chinese laundry who gives Herman Munster a job, for instance). Bobbi Shaw is also back (yay!) only this time they've decided to let her speak fluent English. This obviously isn't the same character as before (who had fallen in love with Big Lunk), as she's now Princess, a ruthless cutthroat dressed as a harem girl, and owner of a huge gorilla named Monstro (George Barrows!). She and Chicken Feather apparently work in a traveling carnival these days. The most glaring change is the replacing of series leads Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello with Tommy Kirk and Deborah Walley. The pair had earlier played the leads in an Allied Artists' attempt to copy the beach films, IT'S A BIKINI WORLD. Both were vets of the series (Kirk in PAJAMA PARTY, Walley in BEACH BLANKET BINGO), and both are fine here. You can just tell the parts were written for Avalon and Funicello, though, and you keep imagining the earlier actors in the parts.
We open with a send up of the popular Poe films AIP was famous for (the studio was never slow to poke fun at itself) with a spooky title sequence seen over a field of shifting fog before we open on a cloaked figure walking through a foggy cemetery during an electrical storm. The figure enters the crypt and reveals itself to be a beautiful platinum blonde (Susan Hart! Another carry over from PAJAMA PARTY), a ghost of a circus performer who had died in an accident 30 years earlier. She was an acrobat, famous as The Girl in the Invisible Bikini*, and died in a fall during her performance. This is Ceciley, and she's come to call on the recently deceased Hiram Stokley (Boris Karloff!). Hiram is a bit disappointed to find he's no longer among the living, but Ceciley tells him he still has a shot at the pearly gates if he can arrange a good deed within a set number of hours.
(*From what we learn here, Ceciley died in 1936, already famous as "the Girl in the Invisible Bikini." It probably seems silly to raise issue here, but the term "bikini" didn't enter the lexicon until 1946, when a new, skimpier cut of two-piece bathing suit was named after the atomic bomb test on the Bikini atoll. So, this makes no sense, given there's no indication that all this is supposed to be happening 30 years into the future.)
Hiram can't leave the crypt, so Ceciley will have to do the field work. The two will keep in touch with a crystal ball. Hiram's good deed will be to make sure his fortune goes to his rightful heirs (children of fellow carnies that Stokely had bilked out of their fortunes) and not his crooked attorney, Reginald Ripper (Basil Raithbone!). Ripper has contracted Hulk and his associates to bump off the other heirs, which include Aunt Millie, Chuck Phillips (Kirk), and.... That's funny, I can't remember the name of Deborah Walley's character! And I've seen this flick several times!
Anyway, the parties start arriving and Millie suggests a seance (wouldn't want to skip a haunted house cliche, would we?). During this, Hulk fakes a few scares, including a knife that shoots into the back of Walley's chair. Ceciley watches all this from the chandelier, which breaks under her weight and crashes to the table. This thoroughly convinces Walley to leave, until Kirk reminds her that she'll be forfitting her share of the money. About then, GooGoo arrives with a literal busload of teenagers who quickly set up out by the pool and shimmy and twist as Nancy Sinatra offers a tune titled "Geronimo!" (Interestingly, the 1959 film GHOST OF DRAGSTRIP HOLLOW, which could be considered a sort of dry run for the Beach formula, also features a song titled "Geronimo!" Both films have been packaged on a double feature DVD my Metro Goldwyn Mayor.)
With all the noise, Millie states there's no use in further trying to communicate with the departed Hiram Stokely. The will to be read at midnight, Ripper sets in motion another scheme to cut down on the number of potential heirs by sicking his daughter Sinestra (Quinn O' Hara!) on GooGoo. O' Hara quite nearly steals the whole show as the seductive, and quite murderous, femme fatal of the piece. Meanwhile, Von Zipper and his gang* have spotted Princess and Chicken Feather driving out to the Stokley place. Upon seeing her, Von Zipper falls in love with Princess and follows her to the mansion. There, the gang sees Princess and the other villains pass through a secret passage in the garden wall. The film's best laugh probably comes from Von Zipper eyeing Ripper and noting "that one guy looks like Sherlock Holmes."
(* Eric Von Zipper goes through an interesting evolution over the series. The first couple of times we see him, he's a rotten thug and proud of it. By the time we get to BEACH BLANKET BINGO, however, Von Zipper sees himself as a social crusader, and believes that "them beach bums" are the true stain on society. This idea emerges in Von Zipper's second appearance in BIKINI BEACH (the character is absent from MUSCLE BEACH PARTY, making it the odd duck of the series -although it is one of the best entries, despite that fact), but by BEACH BLANKET BINGO the character sees himself as heroic. He starts the song "Follow Your Leader" with the line "If there's a battle to fought, then to the battle go we ought!" By this film, there's still some talk of him as being rotten when we're introduced to the gang "bustin' up billboards" out in the countryside. Despite this vandalous "game" however, Von Zipper notes how safe it is. He also attempts to save what he thinks is a girl in trouble twice. First, he attempts to save Princess from drowning, although he can't swim and she ends up saving him. Later, he sees a mechanical depiction of a girl being tortured and he steps in to save her. By now, he's more of a Lou Costello-type. He's just a kid who doesn't know he isn't smart.)
After Sinestra tries to kill GooGoo a couple more times (but fails due to Ceciley's intervention and Sinestra's own nearsightedness) midnight arrives and its time to read the will. To let you know how much times have changes, Stokley's fortune is $1 Million, not including the house and grounds. Now, its true that a million bucks was some major wampum in 1966. In an era where a film like this would cost upwards of $70 million, though, this bit has lost a lot of its punch. At any rate, the money is hidden somewhere on the grounds. Von Zipper overhears Princess and the other killers discussing how they will steal all the money for themselves. This cools Von Zipper's affections for Princess, and he decides the thing to do is to find the money first and keep it, that'll show those crooks. Hulk and his crew try to scare the others out by dressing as monsters (including a costume renovated from THE EYE CREATURES), while Monstro breaks loose during the storm and roams the halls of the house. Monstro makes off with Walley, the others give chase, and everyone converges in Hiram Stokley's basement mechanized chamber of horrors (doesn't every carny have one?), complete with working buzzsaw!
While THE GHOST IN THE INVISIBLE BIKINI is certainly entertaining (I wouldn't let October go by without a viewing), it also remains true that this is the low point of the Beach series. This, as noted, is due almost entirely to the lack of the regular players. Things tend to pick up when Von Zipper is on the screen, but its due to his presence that the film really fails to stand on its own. Rather than a playful spoof of AIP's Poe series, the film feels like a tacked on entry to a series that can't really accept it into the fold. Terrific fun, yes, but it almost feels forced at times.
Frankie and Annette would return to the genre with BACK TO THE BEACH, which tried to bring the formula into the 80's. The lack of further sequels would seem to indicate the time hadn't come. (Some have speculated though, that Disney's "High School Musical" franchise is the modern equivalent, and the Mouse seems to be cleaning up with those, last I heard.)