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The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini

The world inhabited by the BEACH PARTY films never existed. It represents a doe-eyed innocence that could have never been the case. Although no doubt there was a more carefree time in which teenagers listened to Beach Boys and The Drifters and thought about taking Susie to the homecoming dance, the BEACH PARTY flicks take all the harmless notions of that era and amplify them tenfold. It's a world in which life is a nonstop party, where people break out into song backed by skiffle groups conveniently nearby, where old has-been celebs have nothing better to do than play second fiddle to a group of spastic kids with names straight from the Fisher-Price factory. This is a world that took the sweetest and most commercial aspects of young life and filtered it through a tried and true formula that was then beat to death.

That's okay. The John Hughes films of my childhood were nothing like real life (although in our most naive and embarrassing moments, we felt a real connection to THE BREAKFAST CLUB). There's no way those Hillary Duff films can be deemed realistic today. Even before the BEACH PARTY craze, I'm sure many youngsters loved JAILHOUSE ROCK, but I also bet few truly related to it. But like I said, it's a pointless argument. There is no real message here, no overall subtext. Life is a spontaneous and perpetual party and the films follow the same law of "fun for fun's sake."

It of course could not last. THE GHOST IN THE INVISIBLE BIKINI was last wheezing death rattle in the BEACH PARTY cycle. While the first few films may have gotten people's minds off such issues as the civil rights struggle or the JFK assassination, eventually people began to tune out. The BEACH PARTY films did not have much place in an era as turbulent as the mid-1960s. Music continued to evolve and these films were a long way from Jimi Hendrix or The Doors. Mind-expanding and potentially brain-killing drugs began flooding the streets. Politics took center stage.and our own neighborhoods became cultural and idealogical battlefields. Just one year after the release of this last, eighth BEACH PARTY film, children would be shipped off to Vietnam to die in a war that even today no one can find a motive for. Sound familiar?

THE GHOST IN THE INVISIBLE BIKINI is also the first and only time the series experimented with the supernatural (the DR. GOLDFOOT films are not technically part of the canon). Not that one second of this film is meant to scare anyone. The tongue is firmly in cheek and there is no confusing this for anything but a comedy.

The first person we see is Boris Karloff. It was nearing the end of Karloff's career and his billing as "the Corpse" seems a bit cruel, particularly since the film actually does give his character a name, Hiram Stokely. The ghost of his wife, Cicily (Susan Hart - va-va-va-voom!) wakes him up to inform him that he's dead (Gee, maybe she should have let him rest then). He's not too broken up about this, but he is a bit alarmed to realize that he has only a small chance of getting into Heaven. If he can do one truly good deed, he gets into the pearly gates. Better still, the powers above say they'll get rid of his old age and restore his youthful body for the eternity of his afterlife. Actually, he's much more excited about this second part than getting into Heaven. Way to be vain, Boris.

Stokely tells Cicily that he knows just what to do. He needs to wrestle control of his estate away from his greedy lawyer and his henchmen. Personally, I don't know why he would hire a lawyer named Reginald Ripper (Basil Rathbone in one of his last roles) in the first place. Maybe it looked really good on a business card. Stokely doesn't know any of his heirs too well, only that they aren't too bright, but all around swell kids. Stokely knows that Ripper will do anything to get his hands on Stokely's fortune, even resort to murder. He intends to protect all the kids until the money is safely in their swimming trunks.

There's one problem, Stokely can't leave his tomb. He can only watch helplessly through a crystal ball as the action unfolds. The good news is Cicily can help and can relay any info or do any deed Stokely requires. As a literal bus load of kids arrives at the Stokely mansion for the reading of the will (and a lengthy pool party, of course), Ripper readies his henchmen for the kill. Cicily pops up in a bikini and helps move things in the kids favor, usually distracting the bad guys or making chandeliers fall.

Now we get to the kids. Frankly, if anything signaled how out of touch AIP was getting with the youth of this country, it's the poor saps that play the kids. First of all, there's the suave and cool heartthrob named Chuck. Chuck is played by Tommy Kirk. who is neither suave, cool, or a heartthrob. His career started promising enough. Like former BEACH regular Annette Funicello, he had a good think going with the folks at Disney. He starred in several Disney kinda-classics like THE SHAGGY DOG, THE ABSENT-MINDED PROFESSOR and THE MISADVENTURES OF MERLIN JONES. Then he was cast in some of AIP's most notorious films, each one prolonging the inevitable. It was cute for a while, but Tommy Kirk was never sexy and he was never leading man material. Kirk's friends include several people of no real personality, except for one who does a cowardly schtick. The film doesn't ask us to propose many questions of their cast. If they did, I would be the first to ask how healthy it is for a grown man to go by the name "Goo-Goo?"

Another tired character given one last chance is that of Eric Von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck) and his Rat Pack. Von Zipper was conceived as a spoof of Marlon Brando's character in THE WILD ONE. He's a teen biker rebel who is woefully stupid and clumsy. He's always getting himself hurt and slapping his cronies around when they foul up even worse than he does. Zipper gets some of the good lines. When he sees Rathbone gathered with his conspirators, one of Zipper's gang asks who they are. "I don't know, but one of them looks like Sherlock Holmes," Zipper says.

It's a character that could be a lot of fun except for one thing - age. Brando was in his twenties when he rolled into town, and let's face it, he was Brando. By the time THE GHOST IN THE INVISIBLE BIKINI was filming, Lembeck was pushing 43. Is anyone going to buy this guy as a young rebel? It's a charming but tired bit that may have worked in the first two BEACH PARTY flicks, but here it's just so awful. The ongoing joke, "bikers are stupid," seems especially suspicious in hindsight. After all, AIP would fill the void left by the BEACH PARTY films with a successful line of drug and biker flicks.

Also a product of the time are the villains. It's one of those fun bits of the film where you point to it, knowing its dated. But still, you've gotta crack a smile at what passed for villainy. There's a lug of a henchmen named J. Sinister Hulk (again, the names didn't tip you off?), a nearsighted black widow named Sinistra and a gorilla appropriately named Monstro. Actually, we don't know why we need a gorilla, but they threw one in for good measure (the Seduction Cinema titles did this for a while too). Not doing so well is Benny Rubin as Chicken Feather, a blatant and offensive Native American stereotype. It's hard to believe that entire race could be so continually insulted in mainstream entertainment, but this is a sad reminder of how even the proudest people can be reduced to clownish pratfalls through the actions of ignorant writers and over the hill comics.

But look at some of the other great people in there. It's Nancy Sinatra! I have to admit I'm a big Nancy Sinatra fan. Who doesn't love the background strumming in "Boots?" She even sang my favorite all-time song, "Some Velvet Morning" with the incomparable Lee Hazelwood. She only has a bit part here, but still manages to exude more vulnerability and personality than most of the others. She is also given a musical number, "Geronimo." She doesn't look very comfortable and the backup band is painful to the eyes, but the song is catchy enough. The rest of the songs in the film, all by other artists are pretty awful, and this is coming from someone who loves rock 'n roll. I don't know who the hell Piccola Pupa was, but if her "Stand Up and Fight," is any indication, I know why her career didn't take off. And a song as lame as "Make the Music Pretty" by the Bobby Fuller Four makes me so glad that "Purple Haze" swept in and kicked everybody's ass.

Susan Hart and Boris Karloff also go a long way. To tell the truth, their parts almost seem added as an afterthought. The film could have gone on just fine without either of them participating, but it wouldn't have been as good. It is already obvious that their footage was shot very quickly and separate from everyone else. Karloff stays in his tomb and stares into a crystal ball for the entire running time. Hart is merely superimposed over the action. But Karloff is always a class act. And Hart just seems to have so much fun playing the mischievous one. She's pretty easy on the eyes too, if I do say so myself.

In the end, THE GHOST IN THE INVISIBLE BIKINI embodies much of what worked in the BEACH PARTY films and much of what was just plain awful. There was a sense of fun and whimsy that even a liberal like myself has a certain fondness for. The colors are beautiful and there is a vibrant and optimistic energy.But the execution itself was just so tired at this point. The jokes fall flat, most of the music stinks and the filmmakers are shockingly out of touch with their audience. It's a fun and innocent myth that was waving one final goodbye until it's cotton candy goodness imploded in on itself.

- Scott W. Davis





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