AIP released “Beach Party,” the first Frankie and Annette sun and surf romp in July of 1964. It was such a hit that it didn’t take long for other studios to attempt to copy it’s success. One of the first was the film we’re looking at today. Released in January of 1964, “Surf Party” has many of the elements that would become staples of the emerging beach party genre, but there is one thing that makes this entry unusual. It is one of the few films of the genre made in black and white.
The film focuses on three girls, Terry (Patricia Morrow), Sylvia (Lory Patrick), and Junior (Jackie DeShannon) who come to Malibu Beach, California to become a part of the surf scene. There they plan to surprise Terry’s brother, Skeet (Jerry Summers), who happens to be the leader of the top surf gang. He even lives in a fancy house right on the beach. But when the girls arrive, he’s nowhere to be found. All they can do is set up their trailer (yup, they’re pullin’ a camper) and set right up on the beach. This quickly gets them in trouble with police Sgt. Neal (Rocky Jones Space Ranger himself Richard Crane) who has a particular disdain for the surfers in his town.
The girls soon make a fast friend in Len (Bobby Vinton), a young man who runs a surf shop. He offers to teach the girls how to surf, and quickly starts to become quite close with Terry. Len is also not the biggest fan of Skeet and his surfers, especially since they force new recruits to their gang to “run the pier.” This means they must surf between the wooden supports of the beach’s pier to prove themselves worthy of membership. When Len catches an eager young surfer named Milo (Kenny Miller) attempting the feat, he quickly paddles out to stop him. Despite the fact that he’s a bit awkward, Junior soon starts to fall for Milo.
When Skeet finally gets back, he meets up with his sister and her friends. Big spoiler here…Skeet soon starts to get close with Sylvia. I know, shocker! Everything seems to be going well for all our young surfing sweethearts…except for the fact that Milo is still not a member of Skeet’s gang. Determined to change this, he once again tries to run the pier. Unfortunately, it lands him in the hospital. Len is so angered by all this that a fight almost breaks out between him and Skeet right in the middle of a party. Things get even worse for Skeet when it is revealed that his beautiful beach house isn’t actually his. He is essentially a kept man, living off the riches of a wealthy older woman…and she quickly dumps Skeet when she catches him in her bedroom with Sylvia.
“Surf Party” may very well have been the first attempt by another studio to copy AIP’s “Beach Party” success. It’s clear, however, that the makers of this film just didn’t quite get the formula. It’s just not as playful as what we get from Frankie and Annette. Let me say it like this…in the AIP films there a few wink wink moments when it comes to sex, but it’s not really something that’s dealt with. The boys all stay together in their surf shack, the girls have pajama parties night after night at Annette’s place…it’s all very innocent. In this film, Sylvia spends the night at Skeet’s, and when her girlfriends try to tell her to be careful, she basically tells them to mind their own business. Not to mention the fact that Skeet is some rich lady’s boy toy to start with. Combine that with the fighting and crashing into piers…you get a much darker beach party flick.
There are still several attempts at the more playful feel, however. Like most beach party movies, the film does contain a few musical guests. The two featured bands are The Routers and The Astronauts, a band which Wikipedia calls a “Boulder, Colorado-based surf band.” Now, I live in Colorado, and I can tell ya there ain’t a lot of surfin’ goin on here. Both groups contribute some fun tunes, but neither one is destined to end up on the ballot for the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame anytime soon. There are also several songs performed by the members of the cast that are more like numbers from a musical. You know, the type where someone just bursts into song in the course of everyday life. These songs are a bit goofy, but watching Bobby Vinton sing a love song to a surfboard is good for a few laughs.
“Surf Party” is not without it’s fun moments, but it is a far cry from the AIP series. It is clear that it was quickly made and done without a clear understanding of what made it’s predecessor work.