Wednesday, March 16, 2011

PANIC BEATS (Latidos de Panico, 1983)

Growing up in Franco's Spain, Jacinto Molina was steeped in American horror culture. His enthusiasm for Universal Pictures is most obvious in the Waldemar Daninsky werewolf films he wrote (and later directed) for his Paul Naschy alter ego. Latidos de Panico shows a broader American (or Anglo-American) influence, since the core story echoes Patrick Hamilton's play Gaslight, which was made first into a British movie, then into the more famous George Cukor film for M-G-M, which earned Ingrid Bergman her first Oscar. Was the American influence broader still? Could Molina have read translated EC Comics? I have my doubts, but after seeing Panic Beats you'd see why I ask.

Influences aside, Molina's film is a sequel to one of Naschy's most popular movies, Carlos Aured's Horror Rises From the Tomb, for which Molina created the character of Alaric de Marnac, one of his variations on the Gilles de Rais theme. Molina's script and Aured's film borrowed from Mario Bava's Black Sunday the idea of an executed villain's curse coming to fruition centuries later. It also enabled Naschy to play two roles: Alaric and a doomed 20th century descendant. Latidos is a sequel to this film the way any Daninsky film is a sequel to its predecessor. That is, Panic Beats is more a reprise than a continuation of the de Marnac character, an opportunity for Naschy to do again something that had proven cool before, with variations.

For those unfamiliar with Gaslight, I can sum up the situation quickly: Paul de Marnac (Naschy)wants to get rid of a sickly wife (Julia Saly) so he can live with another woman and the wife's money. His plan is to scare the wife to death by convincing her that the ancestral home is haunted by the evil spirit of Amalric (Naschy), a wife-murderer who occasionally returns from the grave to lay into unfaithful women with his trusty flail. Molina wisely opens with a stylish sequence establishing Amalric's viciousness. In armor and on horseback, the villain chases a naked woman through a forest before dismounting to beat her to a pulpy death. This is the first of Molina's directorial efforts I've seen, and the opening impressed me. He invests it with more moody artistry than Naschy's previous directors were usually capable of. Those early films have their own raw virtues, reminiscent of the "history of cruelty" films I've been watching lately, but Molina seems to have more control over tone, and that'll serve him especially well at the end.

It's just a matter of time before Paul's plot pays off, and his success moves us away from strict Gaslight territory. In that film the more modest object is to drive the wife insane, and the villain fails. In Panic Beats the modern villain's victory only launches a grim endgame that puts Paul in another league altogether. His comeuppance comes at the hands of his paramour, or more literally from the working electric heater those hands dump into Paul's bathtub. That leaves the femme fatale the winner, if not for the EC ending.

As an actor-director, Molina has to keep the suds and dirty water carefully placed to hide the "full Naschy" from sensitive audiences, if not from actress Pat Ondiviela.

Whether the femme fatale counts as the required unfaithful woman or not, who should show up to pay her a call but Amalric de Marnac in full armor, an embodiment of Paul's revenge from the freshest of graves? Underneath his helmet is a rotting skull, which re-coheres into the familiar fearsome and bearded visage as Amalric's armor steams with rage. He is a silent, remorseless avenger, more like one of EC's gruesome avatars than a self-interested villain. He avenges his descendant with uncompromising finality, and unlike an EC comic, there's no gallows humor to lighten the mood.

Molina shows us Amalric's handiwork in detail, and the shots of the woman's pulped face would seem gratuitous if they didn't somehow seem appropriate instead. Molina controls the tone so that we (maybe I better say I) feel that we need to see this, that we need to see the woman's beauty utterly destroyed by a force beyond the reach of seduction or appeals to mercy. Much of what falls in between the bookending scenes of horror lacks the usual outrages that make me a Naschy fan -- though that bathtub scene is a typical showcase of the actor's sometimes misplaced vanity -- but the beginning and end should be enough to redeem Panic Beats for Euro horror fans.


The Vicar of VHS said...

Excellent review. I love this one, and feel it's one of Naschy's better directorial efforts (along with NIGHT OF THE WEREWOLF, which is the first Daninsky saga film he directed and also a loose remake of WEREWOLF VS. THE VAMPIRE WOMAN). Also, I thought Frances Ondiviela as Julie, the country girl Paul de Marnac fatally underestimates, did a great and memorable heel turn here.

As to Naschy's "misplaced vanity," I might argue whether it is in fact misplaced--he's Paul Fuckin' Naschy, after all! ;) But I've also noticed in my last few viewings of various of his films a sort of self-deprecating humor about these scenes. Okay, maybe "deprecating" is not the right word, but particularly in the bathtub scenes here and more memorably in A DRAGONFLY FOR EACH CORPSE, I think I detect a certain slyness to Naschy's performance, a not-quite-a-wink to the audience as much as to say, "Yeah, I'm showing off my pecs and cavorting with beautiful Eurobabes, because I CAN...and you would too, if you had the chance."

Of course that may be more reader-response than actual text, but it adds to my enjoyment. :)

Sam Juliano said...

Another Euro horror that I've never managed to negotiate. I certainly appreciate the typically excellent review and the splendid GASLIGHT tie-in/comparison, but a better comment I can't manage until I see it. You have again tempted me here Samuel, especially that Euro-horror aside from Bava, Argento, Franco and that imposter Fulci (LOL!) is something I am woefully underexposed to:

Samuel Wilson said...

Vicar, I wouldn't begrudge Naschy his exhibitionist tendencies a decade earlier, but time does take its toll. The word you're looking for might be "shamelessness," but with Naschy it does have its charm.

Sam, be warned that that ending is brutal but appropriate in context and as a matter of style. Molina/Naschy isn't in Bava's league as a stylist, but his work can definitely be appreciated on a meta-level, which I think is at least partly the way it's intended to be enjoyed.