While Spanish horror legend Paul Naschy has a huge cult following, Judge Bill Gibron can't imagine that the paltry Panic Beats improves his stature.
Spookiness, Spanish style
Paul and his sickly wife Genevieve have a typical marriage of convenience. She is a wealthy heiress. He is a poor architect. When they wed, everyone believes Paul is merely a money-grubbing fiend. But over the years, the couple has indeed grown closer…or at least, that is what Genevieve thinks. Little does she know that Paul leads a scandalous double life, cheating on her with a blousy mistress. When he learns that his wife is gravely ill with a tenuous heart condition, Paul hatches a scheme. He will take Genevieve to the countryside, to his family manor, and give her the Gaslight treatment. That's right, Paul plans on scaring his spouse to death. And the estate is the perfect place to do it. Legend has it that an ancient relative of Paul's—Alaric de Marnac—killed his unfaithful wife and children centuries before, and now his spirit is condemned to roam the grounds every 100 years, looking for new victims…and it's about year 99.9 right now. Paul arranges terrifying things with some local thugs, as well as a new, sexy live-in maid named Mireille. But the spirits may have another idea about who will live and who will die.
The above plot description doesn't do justice to Panic Beats. Indeed, it's hard to imagine how any account of the narrative would make this movie sound plausible. Writer/director/star/Spanish screen legend Paul Naschy, AKA Jacinto Molina, borrows so liberally from the '70s "Let's Scare Jessica to Death" school of shivers that the bows to other classic creep outs—Diabolique, old Hammer horrors—are almost forgivable. This is a movie cobbled together out of tired old terror clichés and then filtered through a foreign fright filmmaking ideal that's heavy on atmosphere and light on logic. You can almost set your watch by the differing macabre movements present. At 50 minutes, one film actually stalls, only to have another one pick up and begin. Then, at the hour and a half mark, the real regular bloodletting begins. Similar to its approach regarding storyline, Panic Beats also borrows from shock cinema standards. We get gore, atmospheric dread, sudden jolts, slasher splatter, ghostly moaning, and the occasional zombie fu. But instead of simply settling on one and giving us as much as we can possibly tolerate, Naschy just lightly passes over each element, creating a film that fails to generate much menace.
The first half of the movie is the best. It recalls a kind of Dario Argento by way of Danielle Steele, and uses its potboiler plotting to deliver a nice, potentially nasty premise. Of course, we all see through the faux fright ruse right away, even going so far as to suspect the naughty maid Mireille even before you see her doing the bed bump with Naschy's Paul. But after a sensationally slimy dream sequence, and the various sequences where ghastly apparitions finally push Genevieve into the grave, Panic Beats just falls apart. It's as if Naschy didn't know where to go once he killed off this character, and simply settled on a cobbled together, kitchen sink approach. Individuals are introduced—a hoodlum junkie boyfriend of Mireille's named Maurice—but are never explained. Heck, in the case of the addict, he's not even seen. That's right, everything involving Maury is either shown from a first person POV or an over the shoulder perspective. One gets the impression that the young tough was another role Naschy wanted to essay, but at 52, he was already pushing credibility as a "young" husband.
By the time the ghost of Alaric de Marnac makes his reappearance (Naschy again, who gets a nice bit of naked babe bashing at the beginning), we are hoping something will save us from the scrambled script. And the filmmaker almost succeeds. In a sequence that recalls the finale of The Fog, our armor-plated phantom arrives in the manor's chapel to lay a little retribution on Mireille's miscreant head. When he does, the grue flies with force. Actually, the last 20 minutes of the movie contain a disemboweling, a hatchet to the head, and a nice bit of electrocution. But this is after 70 minutes of mostly drawing room melodrama.
Naschy's knack for tone is terrific, especially in the scenes surrounding the estate. He knows how to milk locales for scares, but in Panic Beats they don't add up to very much. Indeed, what we get is a strange juxtaposition of style on top of substance, where neither one wants to incorporate completely into the other. Like oil and water, or talent and boy bands, the traditional tenets of terror just don't want to mesh with the environmental elements Naschy wants to emphasize. The result is something that feels half-finished, never fully realized or complete.
Individuals immersed in Euro-horror will probably champion Panic Beats for its attention to ambiance and desire for eeriness. And Naschy does have his devotees, fans who will forgive him for even the most egregious acts of cinematic stupidity. Frankly, it's easy to see why. Naschy is a man with the macabre engrained in his soul, someone who really enjoys the supernatural scares and paranormal perils of the genre. But he takes the easy way out with Panic Beats, giving us a narrative that is 95% based in reality before resorting to the spook show to solidify some ersatz scares. As a writer, his characterization is weak and his foundations are flawed. Mireille, for example, has to be re-explained every few scenes so that we are properly prepared for her ever-escalating cruelty. Naschy plays Paul as all visual, arching eyebrows and sucked in gut. Only Lola Gaos as the old housekeeper and Julia Saly as Genevieve infuse their performance with any manner of meaning. Unfortunately, both have very limited screen time. Again, this is part of Naschy's problem. He can't seem to balance out his basics. Panic Beats would have been a better film had he kept his situations simple; instead, this movie gets more misguided as it moves along.
Visually, Mondo Macabro's treatment of this title is first rate. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image is clean, colorful, and perfectly preserved. The balance between shadow and light is excellent, and the overall transfer helps heighten Naschy's compositions and framing. The Dolby Digital Stereo sound, on the other hand, has its issues. The mix is muted and muddy, and the Spanish dialogue is distorted and indistinct. At times, you'd swear this film was dubbed, when it's obviously presented in its native tongue. The score is forgettable and the auditory effects—thunder bolts, lightning crashes—occasionally overwhelm all other aural aspects.
Back on the plus side, Mondo Macabro delivers a decent set of bonus features. There's a still and poster gallery, trailers for other DVDs from the company, and a pair of excellent documentaries. The first, dealing with Spanish horror cinema, gives us a nice overview of the industry, as well as the political and social movements that helped foster the frights. The second is a sit down with Naschy in which the 70+ year old auteur discusses his career and his craft. Very honest about the movies that he's made, and careful to list his influences and inspirations, it's a fascinating interview of a very enigmatic man.
Too bad it's in service of such an uninspired effort. Panic Beats may satisfy those who like their scares steeped in the Mediterranean mindset, but there are far better examples of the genre out there. A few moments of gratuitous gore and a decent, dread-inspiring mood can't save a standard money motivated plotline. Naschy may be an acquired taste, but it's hard to believe anyone would enjoy the flavor of this forced fright flick.
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Studio: Mondo Macabro
• Still and Poster Gallery
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