Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Don't Panic (1988)

I honestly have no idea why Ruben Galindo Jr’s film is titled Don’t Panic (aka Dimensiones Ocultas, which sounds suspiciously more accurate to me) outside of the fact that it’s also the title of the steadfastly Eighties song sung by the film’s lead, Jon Michael Bischof.  When Michael’s (Bischof) jerkwad pals show up after his seventeenth birthday party is already over, he panics.  His drunk mother might hear them.  When his helmet-haired bestie Tony (Juan Ignacio Aranda) starts playing with the Ouija board that he and the rest of the gang gifted to Michael, he panics.  Don’t they believe in the Devil?!  When Michael starts having visions of a demonic killer picking off his buddies and his eyes turn red (not bloodshot, but red), he panics.  That last one, at least, I can understand.

It can certainly be argued that just about any (if not every) film involving teenagers being either stalked by monsters/slashers or turning into monsters/slashers is actually a film dealing with sexual frustration/awakening (I suppose the argument could be made to encompass all films involving teens, period).  Don’t Panic is no different.  Michael, we are lead to believe, is a virgin.  He has a “golly gee” sense of puppy love, and this is directed toward Alexandra (Gabriela Hassel).  The two play hooky from school and enjoy a light, pleasant dating montage that’s as syrupy as it is superficial.  Alexandra is also a virgin, but she seems to handle it better than Michael (even though she expresses her vast love for him after knowing him for one day).  Michael is coded as so nascently pubescent (despite his actual age), he wears children’s pajamas (they have little, colorful dinosaurs on them; everything but the footies), he doesn’t bat an eye about wearing them out in public, and strangest of all, no one ever comments on this.  He has no car, riding a bike everywhere.  He gives Alexandra a “Magic Rose” that will never wither “as long as love exists between [the] two.”  Michael is a child doing childish things, and the concept of love in this film is just as simplistic.  Pretty in Pink this ain’t.  

All of Michael’s sexual frustrations start after messing with the Ouija board, which is also the night he is introduced to Alexandra.  Many times, his visions happen at night when he’s sleeping, and they typically end with him springing out of bed, a reference to the dreaded wet dreams of teenaged boys everywhere (with blood being dripped on his face, a substitute for ejaculate).  The blood red eyes that he gets at the most inopportune times is the equivalent of the erections boys get when sitting in class, idly considering sex with all of the women in their lives, or bouncing around on just the right seat on the school bus (or, let’s be honest, for absolutely no reason at all other than for their dicks to make them aware that they’re awake and have had a full pot of coffee).  The visions of Virgil (did I forget to mention that, according to this film, the Devil uses the alias of Virgil?) slaying other young teens (with a giant dagger; get it?) is the peristaltic contraction of Michael’s sexual vexation.  Even after Michael and Alexandra have sex, Michael can’t deal with the relationship maturely, because the whole of his being is subsumed by hormones, and the killings and visions continue.  He has a hard time even facing Alexandra, perhaps embarrassed by the intimacy they shared.  Michael’s maturity (or what maturity this film will allow any of its characters to attain) is shown in a scene where he throws his toys around his room and tears down the car posters from his walls (the act itself is still immature, however; it’s the realization that maturity needs to happen, whether Michael likes it or not).  Virgil continues to stalk Michael and his friends, an omnipresent avatar of the sexual spark that has been ignited in Michael, one over which he still has no control.

Similarly, Virgil is a metaphor for the domestic stress in Michael’s life.  His mother is an alcoholic.  We assume that this addiction kicked in after her husband left her or was part of the reason why he did.  Michael’s dad is absent from his life, sending money on occasion, never having time to see his son.  Naturally, these are the things Michael’s folks argue about whenever they speak.  In this sense, the murders are a means for Michael to vent about the tensions at home.  Note that Virgil doesn’t stalk adults, because they hold authority over Michael.  His targeted victims are Michael’s peers, a means of becoming king of the heap, as it were, to mirror the beastliness of the adults in Michael’s life and gain control over some aspect of his life.  In other words, to become an adult.  This also ties in with Michael’s sense of sexual frustration, because his mother is the only woman he has had in his life for some time.  She saunters around the house in silky robes and negligees, constantly trying to touch and comfort him, while still convinced he’s going crazy.  Since sex with his mother would be transgressive, Virgil gives Michael an equally satisfying (and somehow less transgressive) outlet for the Oedipal feelings he may be harboring.

Let me be clear; this film is a mess.  Its story is as vanilla as a bean, the characters are, by turns, stultifyingly bland and obnoxious, and the effects work floats along at about sea level.  And yet, there is an otherworldly dementia at play that makes it kind of enjoyable.  This is the sort of cinematic world where a character stops to buy smokes while he’s supposed to be sitting watch over an intended victim, where a character thinks that a Ouija board is THE FUNNIEST THING EVER, where a character shoots up his girlfriend’s house after being the most dreadful, uninvited dinner guest in the history of cinema (and that’s okay in the end).  The film can’t really decide if it wants to be more of a domestic melodrama or a supernatural slasher (and in either capacity it’s a fairly rote, drab affair), so it splits the difference and gifts the audience with these surreal bits and character traits.  It’s essential viewing in the same way that P.T. Barnum’s “Feejee Mermaid” is: you don’t believe a lick of it, but you’re drawn in by its horrific mishmash of oddball pieces.

MVT:  Michael’s petulant man-child persona is truly one for the ages.

Make or Break:  The opening birthday/post-birthday party sequence cements the full flavor of this particular dish: simultaneously mundane and arch.

Score: 6.5/10 

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