In the waning days of the mid-'60s surf fad, and the short-lived but intense burst of beach party movies that tagged eagerly along, the brains at American International Pictures came up with many new ways to prolong the life of that cash cow which they had largely invented, each more weird and strange than the last: beach movies plus sci-fi, plus Bondian spy thrillers, plus ghost stories, plus racing thrillers. Not the first, not the last, and not the weirdest - though by Christ, it is very weird indeed - was the beach movie plus winter, introduced in the functionally-named Ski Party. Which, in a fit of puckishness, was released in June of 1965.

This was AIP's sole experiment in this direction, though it was apparently some kind of hit, because a couple of knock-off beach/ski hybrids were made by AIP's competitors. I will confess that this turn of events surprises me somewhat, because Ski Party is sort of bad. The entire genre of beach movies was sort of bad, of course, but the best ones compensated for it with a bouncy energy and who-the-fuck-cares creativity that made them imaginative pop culture curios anyway. Ski Party bounces about as well as a lead tennis ball, and instead of who-the-fuck-cares, the overriding tone is closer to we-don't-fucking-care. It's a flat-footed farce whose gestures in the direction of imaginative absurdity are too bland and mean-spirited to land as comedy. The best example is the film's routine habit of breaking the third wall, with co-leads Frankie Avalon and Dwayne Hickman frequently addressing the camera to acknowledge that they understand the conventions of the genre as much as the audience does. Instead of being bracing and punchy, the feeling is more of exasperation - a sort of "God almighty, can you believe how relentlessly shitty the things we're saying and doing are? Really, can you? Do you know how many of these damned things we've made in the last two years?" Particularly with Hickman giving such a uniformly sour, petulant performance at every turn.

It's tempting to blame the creative team: the best AIP beach movies were all directed and mostly co-written by William Asher, typically with Leo Townsend sharing script duties, and AIP honchos Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson on-hand as producers. Ski Party keeps Arkoff and Nicholson removed to executive producer status, replaced in their immediate duties by Gene Corman, Roger's less interesting and successful younger brother. Directing was handed off to Alan Rafkin, a sitcom director making the first of a small number of features (he was still active on TV until shortly before his death, into his 70s), and the screenplay was by Robert Kaufman, also a sitcom veteran making his first movie, though he'd stick around the movies quite a bit more successfully. The point being though, is that there was a smallness to the creative background of these men, and Ski Party does not find them pushing very hard to broaden their aesthetic. The outline of their creative poverty is hinted at if we observe that Ski Party is in large part a shticky retread of the then 6-year-old Some Like It Hot, but the true scope of their hackery is only revealed by learning that they have the clanging balls to reference Some Like It Hot by name in their dialogue.

The scenario is straightforward and reductive as all hell, and even by the standards of a subgenre whose whole entire purpose was to put girls in bikinis and guys in board shorts, its gender politics are stuffy and ancient. Todd Armstrong (Avalon) and Craig Gamble (Hickman) are best buddies at a Southern California college, and they are utterly baffled by women. Their latest attempted conquests, Linda (Deborah Whalley) and Barbara (Yvonne Craig) have only pity and certainly no romantic ardor for them, and they can't understand how preening blond alpha-male Freddie (Aron Kincaid) can possibly score with so many women, so they study him. And in studying him, they decide that the key is more co-ed sports (?), which is why they crash a ski trip during break. Their inability to ski helps them out not at all, but the only ski instruction available is for women. I pray you can see where this is going.

Todd, as "Jane", gets plenty of cues from the girls on how to attract American boys (their disguises are meant to be British exchange students, though neither Avalon nor Hickman attempts even the slightest accent behind their screechy falsettos), while Craig's "Nora" immediately attracts Freddie, who feels for "her" an intensity of passion he's never felt for anyone. Perhaps to compensate for this dimly interesting hint of homoeroticism, Ski Party retrenches into what might be the earliest overt gay panic humor I've ever witnessed. Which still isn't half as galling as the nonstop repetition of "Women! Like some kind of crazy-ass space aliens, am I right?" jokes that make up the middle third of the movie, reminding one with a dismal pang of how much better these movies are when Annette Funicello is around to provide some sardonic wit and wisdom as the romantic leading lady (she pops up in a cameo as a professor, right at the start, in a rare acknowledgement by AIP that their stable of teen idols were quite long in the tooth).

Rafkin's direction effectively smothers whatever comedy survives Avalon and Hickman's surprisingly crummy baner, and all that's left is the most left-field absurdity to give the movie any punch, like a yodeling polar bear that wanders through from time to time, or a literal ex-Nazi ski instructor recalling the Battle of Stalingrad. The film is hastily and sloppily assembled: scenes jam into each other like bumper cars, and the two big celebrity musical cameos - Lesley Gore singing the two-year-old "Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows", and James Brown with the much newer "I Got You (I Feel Good)" - are plagued by awful sound mixing and terrible lip-synching. There is a certain joyless expediency to virtually everything onscreen save for Bobbi Shaw's dippy Swedish sexpot ski instructor; a stock cartoon character to be sure, but Shaw was good at it, and it's the only self-assured performance in the film. Which speaks volumes about where the film's energy level is set. It's by no means as dreadfully awful as something like the perfunctory How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, but it's just no damned fun, and with this much smutty, manic content executed in a way that strips it of its fun, the film ends up a shrill slog.

Reviews in this series
Beach Party (Asher, 1963)
Muscle Beach Party (Asher, 1964)
Bikini Beach (Asher, 1964)
Pajama Party (Weis, 1964)
Beach Blanket Bingo (Asher, 1965)
Ski Party (Rafkin, 1965)
How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (Asher, 1965)
The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (Weis, 1966)