Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Panic Beats (1983)

Urban legends, old wives' tales, whatever you want to call them, they exist everywhere in the world. New York City has its legendary alligators in the sewers. India (and just about the entire world) has the Hope Diamond. My neck of the woods has the Stone Couch (essentially a natural rock that looks like a couch – you can Google it). As with all tales of this type, everyone has their own variation on its origin. The one I'm familiar with goes like this: A woman and her child were walking this particular stretch of road one cold, winter night. Becoming tired, they sat on the Stone Couch and wound up perishing from the cold. It's said that if you sit on the couch three times, you'll die. The first two times are just a warm up with something bad happening to you each time. That's the basics. I've known people who sat on it and had bad things happen to them (though never death). I've known people who sat on it and had nothing happen to them. Take it for what it is.

Paul (Paul Naschy) finds out that his rich wife, Genevieve (Julia Saly), has a heart condition and decides to take her out to his country estate. During the drive out, housekeeper, Maville (Lola Gaos), and her smoking hot niece, Julie (Frances Ondiviela), kindly fill us in that Paul's descendant, Alaric de Marnac (who bears an astonishing resemblance to Paul), was a bloodthirsty maniac who killed his wife and became a devil worshipper and black magic practitioner. Genevieve is assaulted by bandits on the way to the manse, showing us just how fragile she is. Upon reaching the estate, strange, unexplained occurrences threaten Genevieve's deteriorating health. Who or what can be behind it all?

The late Paul Naschy (aka Jacinto Molina, Panic Beats aka Latidos de Pánico's director and co-writer) is a cult figure in the world of horror cinema. A former bodybuilder in his native Spain, it was Naschy's forays into the supernatural (particularly his portrayal of the damned lycanthrope, Waldemar Daninsky, in the "Hombre Lobo" films) that catapulted him to fame and garnered him the nickname "the Boris Karloff of Spain." While his movies hold a fascination for me, he's the type of performer you either like or dislike almost instantly. He usually comes off as a schlub but a schlub you should keep an eye on. Even when essaying the role of a despicable character, Naschy always tried to give the role some element of pathos. Unfortunately, it doesn't always work, and sometimes there should not be an attempt to redeem an evil character, in my opinion. Plus, his constant endeavors to make his characters endearing tend to make his work (in toto) a bit one-note. Personally, I enjoy his work overall, but as I see more of it, this facet sticks out to me more and more.

Almost all of Naschy's films adhere to a traditional, Hollywood, Universal Pictures type of mold. His movie sets are festooned with smoking skeletons, snakes slithering out of eye sockets, dense fog, and heavy backlighting silhouetting menacing figures. Not to mention the fact that an old, crumbling, enigmatic castle oftentimes makes up his films' backdrops. Naschy's contribution (as Hammer Pictures and so many others at the time did) was to amp up the gore and sex. His werewolf doesn't just attack his victims and maul them offscreen. He tears into them with gusto and comes up with a jaw loaded with grue. His female co-stars were buxom and lovely to a one, and almost all of them couldn't stop making bedroom eyes at old Signor Molina. That said, in the same way that Naschy only wanted to portray unsympathetic characters for sympathy, his films' narrative structures tend toward the formulaic, as well. Consequently, they never transcend the genre's boundaries, though they do make for some darned good comfort food.

The evil ancestor has been a part of storytelling for years. The concept provides for foreshadowing, an air of menace, and/or a red herring when used properly. The distaff side of this trope is the reincarnation of a former love that some mummy or vampire must pursue to his eventual destruction (there's probably a whole book to be written on that one – okay, maybe a chapter). Nevertheless, the evil ancestor is almost always kept in the film via a portrait or photo that the filmmakers constantly cut to when something "spooky" happens. This film's portrait of Naschy as Alaric has such a great smirk on his face; it makes it hard to buy into his murderous history.

As with many movies of the time (especially foreign films, though whether this is through being cut for English-speaking audiences or just because the filmmakers honestly believed that this is how it should be done, I can't say), things in the plot happen or are revealed just in time for some plot point to exploit this newly discovered information. It gives these films a piecemeal feel and only enhances the fact that they were rarely made for anything other than monetary reasons. Panic Beats is no exception. New characters appear halfway through the film. The more sinister side of characters pop up just in time for some malfeasance to go on.

As I was watching the film, I kept thinking about the old, black & white creature features of yesteryear. But more than that, I kept flashing to all the EC Comics I have read over time. "Tales From The Crypt," "Vault Of Horror," "Shock Suspenstories," and on and on, these comics' stories all had the same basic story structure wherein some character or characters received a grisly, O. Henry-esque comeuppance by the last panel. If you've ever read one of these stories, you will know exactly how Panic Beats is going to play out from the very first shot. This is not to say predictability is necessarily a detriment. When done well, the predictable can be just as satisfying as the groundbreaking, and the very end does give one a slight kick. Unfortunately, Naschy's film doesn't try to do anything other than hit the basics all-around, a paint-by-numbers, if you will. As a result, it is difficult to muster up much enthusiasm for any of the goings-on when you've seen it all done before and with a degree more panache. 

MVT: Naschy's sincere love of old-school horror movies is in every frame of this and all his films. Sadly, his reluctance to deviate from these established formulas is a drawback and a missed opportunity for the man to display his talents to their fullest.

Make Or Break: The soul-deadeningly-long, exposition-laden drive out to the country prepares the viewer for the narrative style and generally plodding pace of the remainder of the film. Even while intercutting between locations and "action."

Score: 5.75/10

No comments:

Post a Comment