It’s the beginning of the end.
Or, perhaps, the end of the end. This would be the last Beach Party film to feature Frankie Avalaon and Annette Funicello, and it would be the last directed by William Asher (although all three would work on other teen-friendly AIP projects, including the franchise-adjacent Fireball 500). Despite a resurgence of creative energy with Beach Blanket Bingo, the trio seem deflated and uninterested here, bored with a franchise that delivered one film too many.
It probably didn’t help that Avalon was relegated to a mostly off-screen side plot that finds him on a Pacific island as part of Naval Reserve duty for the bulk of the picture (depending on which legend you prefer, Avalon was either too busy filming Sergeant Dead Head to do full time duty here, or he was being punished by AIP honchos after asking for a raise), while Funicello was pregnant and had to spend most of the time hiding her torso behind tables, boulders, and buckets of fried chicken. Both wind up phoning it in.
Meanwhile, Asher sleepwalks through the direction. Gone is the visual verve and zippy anarchy of the earlier films, replaced with a drab pace and a tired approach to the music, as if the camera knew the songs weren’t worth filming.
Like everything else, the songs by Guy Hemric and Jerry Styner are depressingly forgettable. The beach tunes sound like first drafts, or maybe abandoned half-scraps, with John Ashley grunting icky, undercooked “we sure like ’em chesty!” lyrics. The only musical guest they could scrape up is The Kingsmen (who don’t even have the courtesy to sing “Louie Louie” and churn out a floppy B-side instead). To top it off, Asher and Leo Townsend’s script, running dry of ideas, tosses in a reprise of Bingo’s “Follow Your Leader,” plus two more song for Harvey Lembeck to warble. That’s right, even Eric Von Zipper is wearing thin. Oddly, Hemric and Styner seem to have assumed “Leader” was the breakout hit of Bingo (cute it was, but breakout hit it wasn’t) and styled half the film’s songs after it, including a dreadful How to Succeed in Business rip-off where Brian Donlevy and Mickey Rooney trot out jokey Madison Avenue-inspired lyrics. (Because kids love middle-aged guys in suits singing about advertising, amirite?)
(Oh, and since I’m parenthetically asiding, let’s take a moment to discuss the movie’s worst musical moment: while we’re berated with a lengthy bit of visual padding with frolicking girls riding on boys’ shoulders, Les Baxter plays out a copyright-avoiding sound-alike cut of “Baby Elephant Walk” for what feels like several hours. The series has gone from Dick Dale and Little Stevie Wonder to “hey, can you make this sound like that Mancini thing from that John Wayne movie?” Oof.)
The biggest sign of entropy comes near the film’s end, when the tradition of a quirky cameo from an AIP superstar – Vincent Price! Boris Karloff! Peter Lorre! – is dumped in favor of a one-joke appearance by Elizabeth Montgomery (conveniently, Asher’s then-wife) twitching her nose at the camera. It’s all they could be bothered with this time around.
Of course, the movie’s problems exist beyond apathy. By separating Frankie and Annette but keeping them faithful (she sings about not caring how ugly, dumb, or horrible a guy is, as long as he’s monogamous), there’s not much for either to do. Frankie’s slice of the story has him getting updates from a local witch doctor (Buster Keaton, one of the movie’s few bright spots) who can spy long-distance on Annette to make sure she’s staying true. Meanwhile, Annette finds herself halfheartedly brushing off advances from Dwayne Hickman, who tries his hardest to charm but ends up as dead weight. Nobody’s engaged much anywhere here, no matter how hard Asher tries to make their side story fit into the main plot.
Which – surprise! – is even worse. The witch doctor created a buxom babe (Beverly Adams) who was supposed to distract all the boys who’d be seducing Annette, but mishaps ensue as she instead ends up chased by an ad man (Rooney) hoping to turn her into the next supermodel. This somehow leads to a motorcycle race, and Von Zipper blah blah blah, Dwayne Hickman blah blah blah, etc. etc. etc. The big race at the end is a slog, completely devoid of the comic zing Asher gave to the bedlam in previous finales; watching Von Zipper’s gang try to sabotage the game is like listening to a half-asleep child try to explain a Monkees romp, only to leave out the funny parts.
Indeed, that’s the whole movie in a nutshell – a vague, groggy imitation of a Beach Party movie, full of half-remembered gags and unfinished songs. The franchise might be far from over, but it sure feels dead right here.