The spirit of Russ Meyer lives on in “Monster from Bikini Beach,” but Meyer’s unique wit and exuberance are apparently inimitable. Meyer, for those unfamiliar, was the master of the trashy B-production. His formula (small budgets and big breasts) added up to some of the ultimate guilty pleasures, including 1965’s iconic “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” and the infamous studio production “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.” Critics often forget that Meyer’s crass sense of humor and sublimely outrageous dialogue masked a sly commentary on 1960s excess, and the master’s most famous disciples, including Quentin Tarantino, John Waters, and Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman, have only copied some of his more obvious aesthetic qualities while ignoring his more impressive accomplishments. “Monster” director Darin Wood fits right in on that list as he seems to think that a surf guitar soundtrack and gorgeous, go-go dancing girls are all he needs to pay fitting tribute. The self-consciously goofy monster movie plot could have served a more powerful comic voice than Wood, but in this case, it only elicits a few minor chuckles.
All the expected B-movie character types are present and accounted for in “Monster.” Dirty cop Sammy Payday (Stephen Vargo) ignores the giant bloody monster footprints at crime scenes, while the skittering photojournalist Archie (Galen Howard) tries to convince TV reporter Raquel (Stephanie Hyden) that some supernatural force is behind the recent string of killings. Shapely women are turning up dead in Camaroville, some with missing limbs, and the “weird” characters (the ones who turn out to be right) suspect a giant, prehistoric catfish of committing the crimes. The monster, whose avocado green skin and swinging tail suggest a giant, mutated popcorn shrimp, hungers for the flesh of attractive girls. Conveniently, a go-go dancing contest is scheduled for the end of the week that will almost certainly attract the monster. Thus we have the ticking clock plot point around which the increasingly tiresome characters go-go dance incessantly.
I almost feel out-of-line about applying any serious criticism to “Monster” because it makes no pretense to quality. The bad dubbing and the ridiculous monster effects are part of the fun in movies like this. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t even live up to the modest standard it sets for itself. The actors seem game in tackling the material, but only a few throwaway lines (“This damn creepy place gives me the damn creeps!”) resonate. Sammy is an unreadable character, switching between hard-boiled film noir hero and sleazy drug pusher constantly. Besides, what kind of tough cop wears loud Hawaiian shirts? Jimmy Buffett, P.I.?
The gore effects, almost always a film’s saving grace, are uninspired here. Beheadings, dismemberments, and disembowelments can only accomplish so much. Even the film’s most clever gag, a girl writhing desperately in the sand while the monster drags her back into the water by her own entrails, fizzles out. A master trash filmmaker could have played the scene for laughs, but in Wood’s hands, it’s a humorless little moment.
I can’t say I hated “Monster.” The women are certainly easy on the eyes, and the production values are a non-issue. Still, a B-movie is an art form, as much as we tend to forget, and it has its benchmarks and expectations like any other genre. I doubt that Darin Wood or production company Trash Film Orgy care what I think, and I respect that. I just wish they had taken a few cues from the master.