Swinging 60s Summer Shenanigans: Beach Party (1963) & The Spirit Is Willing (1967)

beach party

Like most folks, I’m a creature of habit. As it turns out, I’ve got a pretty set habit of watching certain kinds of movies at certain times. Horror movies in the fall give way to Christmas movies which eventually give way to action movies and the occasional drama and then, when spring and summer hit, I want to watch a combination of 80s comedies, all-time favorites and — the latest entry in the equation — fun flicks from the 60s. Last year I watched a good deal of the Frankie and Annette beach movies including Bikini Beach, Dr. Goldfoot And The Bikini Machine, Pajama Party and Ski Party. I also watched Beach Party, but never got around to watching it, so in the spirit of the season and as a way of paying tribute to Annette Funicello who recently passed away, I figured I’d give it another view. 

This is actually the very first in a series of teen beach films put out by a company called AIP that all featured teens usually during summer vacation operating in remote locations on their own with little-to-know parental or adult supervision. While never overtly so, the films play with and talk about sexuality in tongue in cheek ways. Beach Party finds Annette and Frankie (Avalon) heading to the beach to spend the summer in a beach house. Turns out, though, that Annette wasn’t super excited about spending all that time with just Frankie, so she invited their whole crew along.

As dudes in movies did back then — and still do in real life today — Frankie takes his anger at this situation and directs it in a negative fashion by flirting with other girls. That makes Annette angry, so she winds up fancying an older anthropologist who’s in the area to study the mating habits of the modern American teenager who he often compares to tribes from other continents.

Most of the elements found in the latter AIP films can be found here. There’s the rocky relationship (that’s not really that rocky) between Frankie and Annette, lots of surfing, spontaneous dance scenes complete with hot musical acts (this one has Dick Dale and the Del Tones), a biker gang lead by Eric Von Zipper, a few cool adults and healthy doses of innuendo. I like this movie for the same reason I liked all the others: in addition to being a fun and entertaining movie on its own, it also acts as interesting time capsule from an era where teenagers were becoming a whole new demographic, one that was looking to live a completely different way than their parents before them, something that hadn’t really happened much up til that time. Sure, this is a Hollywood cash grab to try and co-opt that, but at the same time, these movies must have had a huge influence on the kids and young adults they were marketed to. It’s like when I was a kid watching Saved By The Bell, that was an interpretation and sanitization of youth as seen by TV execs and writers who were much older than their subjects. And yet, kids like me watched that and internalized it into reality. Fun stuff to think about!

the Spirit is willing

After watching Beach Party, Netflix suggested I watch The Spirit Is Willing. I was completely unfamiliar with this film but become wildly intrigued the more I looked into it. First off, it’s directed by William Castle who directed an all-time favorite of mine The House On Haunted Hill. He also did 13 Ghosts and The Tingler, movies that all took advantage of gimmicks to give theatergoers extra thrills. What intrigued me was the fact that this guy who was so known for straight up horror movies decided to try his hand at comedies. This particular comedy stars legendary comic Sid Caesar and Vera Miles of Psycho fame as the parents of Barry Gordon (the original voice of Donatello on TMNT!). Sid and Vera have decided to rent a house in New England seems nice, but is actually haunted by a psychotic woman who killed her new husband on their honeymoon as well as the maid she found him kissing. She wound up dying too in the craziness.

What you get with the film is a young man who seems to rub his parents the wrong way at every turn in the unfortunate situation of trying to convince his parents that the house his haunted. Things get more complicated from there as the rich uncle comes to visit and gets involved, the dad starts to believe after talking to the town’s local librarian, the mom thinks that dad is having an affair, the uncle thinks the boy is a crossdresser because he’s buying all these different items for an older woman in an effort to get one of the ghosts to show up at a naval themed costume party. Catch all that?

What’s great about this film is that it works on several different levels. Even though I marked it as a horror film over in the categories, it’s about 95% a comedy and 5% a horror film (if that). In fact, the only reason I’m giving it that large of a percentage is that it plays on one of my big fears: knowing that something strange and possibly deadly is going on but not being able to convince anyone else. Plus, you’ve got giant knives of various kinds flying around at people, the near hanging of one of the characters and plenty of ghostly shenanigans that practically destroy the house and this family (the ghosts here have no trouble interacting with the physical world, but can’t talk to the living). As a comedy, it works on several levels. You’ve got the cartoonish slapstick that comes from the ghosts trying to constantly kill each other and anyone they come across. At the same time, the script has plenty of hilarious bits from Caesar (as you’d expect) and young Master Gordon who mixes snotty 60s teenager with Borscht Belt stand-up.

I feel like there’s also other levels that the movie works on. There’s a larger metaphor going on here about how younger and older generations have trouble dealing with one another. That’s the central conflict at the heart of the movie, but I’m not sure if it’s trying to say much more than what it says or if there’s a deeper meaning. It doesn’t really matter if there is or not, though, if you can read into it, it’s there in some way. Anyway, this is less of a focus, but I get the idea that there’s an aspect of “normal life is the real hell” because of how Caesar’s character suffers through the film. There’s a very real and heartfelt moment early on after the kid’s first interaction with a ghost and Sid says something like, “We’re living with a stranger.” As the movie progresses, you can tell he’s got a really heavy heart because of the loss of relationship with his son. We also eventually learn that Casear — an editor — is in danger of losing his job. For some reason he also seems wildly distracted to the point that he dodges the obvious advances of his Vera Miles which is the hardest thing to believe in this ghost tale.

As I said above, the end of the movie gets somewhat complicated as all kinds of subplots come home to roost, but I was impressed and surprised with how the film ended as it was a cross of happy and sad-but-still-kinda-happy. So, let’s call this SPOILER TERRITORY for a nearly 50 year old movie, but there you go. At the end of the film, the snooty, jerky uncle winds up getting straight up murdered by the jilted lady ghost. This allows her to haunt him for all eternity and supposedly leave her husband and the maid to chase after each other on their own. This not only ends her reign of terror, but, unbeknownst to them, alleviates Sid and Vera’s money woes because they’re his only relative and they’ll get all his cash. It was cool implying this at the end of the movie without directly stating it. I also enjoyed that the parents decided to take it a little easier on their kid, even if he was kind of a snotty jerk before the ghosts started wrecking havoc with his life.

While these films aren’t really all that related aside from being comedies from the same decade, I still give each of them a big ol’ thumbs up and recommend anyone check them out.

I Hate To Admit It, But I Didn’t Love The Searchers (1956)

For whatever reason, I’ve never gotten into westerns. When I was a kid, I’d instantly turn off Gunsmoke reruns on Nick at Night and never found myself watching a John Wayne or Clint Eastwood cowboy movie on Saturdays with my dad. Maybe it’s because Ohio is so far away from the west or the genre had mostly died out by the 80s when I was starting to watch and understand movies, but I just neither cared for nor was exposed to westerns.

But, between reading Preacher–which features the ghost of John Wayne prominently as well as plenty of references to his movies including The Searchers— and enjoying A Fistful Of Dollars which I should have blogged about and the Rat Pack western Sergeants 3, I thought it was about time to sit down and watch one of the most well-regarded westerns of all time: The Searchers. Not only does this one star The Duke, but it’s directed by John Ford, the king of the 50s western. Oh, it’s also considered one of the best films of all time, ranking pretty high on lots of lists. We’re talking all movies, not just westerns. But, unfortunately, I didn’t fall in love with it.

I dug the story about John Wayne and his young friend tracking down the Indians who killed their family/friends and trying to find any of the womenfolk who were abducted in the raid. It’s a long and tiring story, not just for the viewer, but for the characters as their journey spans many years and includes everything from accidental marriage to throw downs with enemies of all kinds. Don’t get me wrong, I love John Wayne, his character and attitude throughout the movie, but after watching it I didn’t think to myself “Damn, that’s one of the greatest movies of all time.” When I watched Citizen Kane for the first time in my college film class I wasn’t all that thrilled, but then the professor explained that it revolutionized film from both a storytelling and filming standpoint. Am I just not getting Searchers? Please, if you’re a fan of The Searchers, tell me why in the comments section. I usually don’t mind not liking a well-regarded flick, but I always like talking about movies and am curious to see if anyone’s got some information or a take on the movie that I might have missed. It seemed like your basic revenge story (a good one, mind you) but it didn’t feel elevated to that upper echelon of films in my head. So, hit me up and let me know why you dig the movie (or feel free to agree with me, I’m cool with that too).