Welcome to the Spring Breakers Nightmare, Big ’80s Style.
DIRECTED BY HARRY KIRKPATRICK/1988
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: OCTOBER 1, 2019/KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
Some movies, in their artifice and need to entertain, are simply about what they’re about. And then there are others that take such no-frills simplicity to peak levels of vapid trendiness and blunt-object storytelling. The 1988 horror cheapie Nightmare Beach is just such a piece.
It’s Spring Break in Palm Beach, which only means one thing: Par-Tay!!!! Woooooo!!!! With no shortage of sun, sand, and ambiguously teenaged half-naked revelers, what could possibly go wrong? Don’t answer that- every stick-in-the-mud adult character (which is to say, every adult character) will answer that for us several times over. And that’s before the murders…!
These days let’s not kid ourselves- Nightmare Beach has a single, very obvious if irresistible (to some) selling point: its hopelessly, terminal retro VHS-iness. Indeed, it’s as though the entire movie is cosplaying a thirteen-year-old Stranger Things fan’s idea of what the 1980s looked and sounded like. Except, this is the real deal, made and manufactured in good old 1988. Which just happens to be ‘80s Prime: enormously teased hair, primary colors galore, denim, earnest badassery, virtuous beefcakes, physical fitness run amok, and rock songs right out of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. You know, those hopelessly unidentifiable generic sound-alikes that youth movies on a budget used to love to indiscriminately clutter their soundscapes.
This movie very amusingly immediately takes us right back to a time when swimsuits rode high on the hips and all lingo sounded cool even though it was all trying and terrible. Ronald Reagan had done just about everything he would ever do as President, and every adult authority figure in movies was in danger on clinching their teeth down to powder. It’s the big ‘80’s, man! (A not-so-hidden Easter egg: So, so many ‘80’s movies have dangerous, marauding leather-and-metal biker gangs. This one’s obligatory gang of switchblade-wielding thugs is called The Demons. And check it out!… they actually wear the logo of Lamberto Bava’s Demons on their jackets!)
Though this is ostensibly a cross between those old-school horny beach shenanigans cheapies and what Siskel & Ebert called “dead teenager movies”, you’d never know it based on the prolonged first scene. In it, a surly, Manson-like inmate called Diablo is escorted into the electric chair. What follows is a languidly paced step-by-step tutorial on the ceremonial process of capital punishment. The last rites, the official phone check, the manning of the straps, the mutual donning of insulated black hoods, the “audience” through the glass, and the use of a curtained partition- it’s the kind of meticulous attention to detail that screams “Research!!” The guy catches his death of fatally high voltage soon enough. For Gail (Sarah Buxton), the surviving sister of a murder female victim that Diablo denies having killed, any catharsis will be all too short lived.
Cut to: “Nightmare Beach”- the title graphic! Everyone’s having fun in the sun- the kind that‘s repeatedly alluded to but never shown in this ninety-minute-long completely failed attempt at hedonistic debauchery. By contrast, Nightmare Beach is so chaste that on the rare occasion that someone drops the f-bomb or declares someone an “asshole”, it seems legitimately shocking. A bunch of condoms are poured out but never used; beer is talked about but hardly consumed. If not for a few quick insert shots of nudity, this could almost pass for a made-for-TV movie. In his feeble attempt to snag that R-rating, director Harry Kirkpatrick only proves he has no idea how to film a wet t-shirt contest. (He covers it primarily from behind. So no, Harmony Korine is absolutely nowhere to be found). Brazen stuff to be sure, but nothing a few murders won’t shake up.
Despite the headlining names of John Saxon and Michael Parks, there are really only two actors worthy of their profession in Nightmare Beach. They are the young attractive leads, the afore-mentioned Sarah Buxton as Gail, the angry bartender looking to avenge her sister, and Nicolas De Toth as well-intentioned block of wood and college football pariah, Skip. Although he was dragged to Spring Break to get away from it all, everywhere he goes, Skip is reminded that he bungled the Orange Bowl. And that’s, you know, such a drag. Between his self-pity and Gail’s seething rage at being in this movie, it’s easy to forget that there’s a supposedly festive atmosphere being slowing murdered all around them.
So what about all these murders, anyway? They are, in lieu of everything else on screen, truly shocking. There’s a mystery motorcycle man riding around killing random people, and the bodycount is starting to really scare the revelers and really getting to irritate the perpetually pissed-off mayor (Fred Buch) and the jerky local police detective (John Saxon, thinking he’s slumming it). How are the murders committed? As Captain America once deducted, it has something to do with electricity. And, he’s not wrong. The biker’s bike is tricked out with all sorts of high voltage doodads, great killing when he’s on the run at seventy-five miles per hour or stalking a victim on foot. Like all great slasher killers, he stays quiet and has a tendency of silently appearing whenever his target is alone. Unlike all great slasher killers, he’s got no name. Hence, he must be referred to as “the biker” or “motorcycle man”. He’s brought it upon himself.
Actually, director Harry Kirkpatrick brought it upon him. Which brings us to the most shocking shockable shock of all the Nightmare Beach shocks: Harry Kirkpatrick is the film’s writer, only ushered into the director’s chair once the far more accomplished Italian horror maestro Umberto Lenzi (Paranoia, Seven Blood-Stained Orchids) quit just prior to production. Legend is that Lenzi was persuaded to hang around in an advisory capacity while Kirkpatrick muddled through under the guise of James Justice. Then, there’s the version where Lenzi actual directed this film under the pseudonym of Harry Kirkpatrick. What? Would the real Harry Kirkpatrick please stand up…?
Kino Lorber Studio Classics’ new Blu-ray of Nightmare Beach performs the unasked-for, under-appreciated task of presenting this film with a ship-shape high definition transfer and soundtrack. Additionally, and admirably, this disc also contains the film’s Italian language track, available separately. There’s a nice, informative recent video interview with the film’s composer, Claudio Simonetti, a key member of the Italian horror-scoring giant, Goblin (Argento’s Deep Red, Suspiria, Inferno). Simonetti is forthright and energetic in his sharing of how the Italian film industry has uniquely functioned in terms of scoring. He also details how things have changed since the advent of digital technology in the field. As far as Nightmare Beach goes, it’s almost as though he remembers having worked on it. He claims to have never seen or heard from Umberto Lenzi, for whatever that’s worth.
Film historian Samm Deighan provides a fantastically researched and well-delivered audio commentary, speaking on Nightmare Beach in the context of later-era Italian giallo films (though she maintains it isn’t one) and Umberto Lenzi, whom she aims to finally give him his due. She dives into his admittedly nihilistic cinema, detailing it as a competently diverse filmography with a fatalistic through line. She definitely lands on the side of crediting Lenzi for this one.
But never mind who directed (or rather, was supposed to have directed) this movie. We’re supposed to be spending the movie wondering who it is under the biker helmet, committing all these crispy killings. Is it the anger-issues hotel manager? Is it the mayor, at the end of his rope? Is it the repressive preacher, who thinks he’s John Lithgow in Footloose? Or is Diablo himself, who the authorities decide might’ve survived the electric chair? Believe it or not, that last possibility (Diablo) is the only favored one by characters. Then again, rampant moronic stupidity in a fun/bad movie such as Nightmare Beach might be the least shocking thing about this sandy shocker.