Ruben Galindo, Jr.
Review by Thomas Scalzo
Posted on 26 October 2011
Source BCI DVD
Categories 31 Days of Horror VIII
Ah, the Mexican horror film. Like the lure of the siren’s song, never what it appears to be, yet who among us can resist? From masked wrestlers to Aztec mummies to inexplicable amalgams of slashers, demons, and folklore fiends, the genre efforts from south of the border are surprising, entertaining, and a reliable source of joyous bewilderment.
With such a varied pool of material from which to choose, however, narrowing the field to four selections was a difficult task. In the end, we decided to steer clear of the most bizarre offerings, and leave the coverage of the mass of wrestler films for another day. Instead, we chose to focus on a few relatively straightforward Mexican horror titles that represent Mexican filmmakers successfully putting their own memorable spin on well-established horror subgenres. Thus will our month-long adventure bring us to the wonderfully atmospheric hacienda of a sophisticated vampire story; to the creepy convent of a demonic possession tale; and to the Mexican suburbs of an endlessly amusing supernatural slasher film. So check back each Wednesday as we continue our search for horror treasures from south of the border.
Welcome to the Mexico City suburbs, circa 1988. Mike’s the new kid in town, recently arrived from Beverly Hills. He’s got Steve Sanders’s hair, David Silver’s voice, and a hefty dose of Brandon Walsh’s do-goodism thrown in for good measure. And just like the kids of 90210, Mike has his share of familial difficulties, what with his alcoholic mother and absentee father and all. But not to worry, Mike also has managed to acquire a close-knit group of friends, and they are determined to make him feel welcome by throwing him a raucous party for his seventeenth birthday. There’ll be booze, girls, music… and what birthday party would be complete without the board game everyone loves to hate: Ouija!
Trouble is, Mike is still dealing with the effects of some long-ago Ouija trauma, and isn’t much up for the game. But good old Tony insists, going so far as to question Mike’s coolness in front of the cute new girl, Alexandra. And so the fun begins. As is usual with Ouija in horror movies, the gang is dismissive at first, treating us to a lot of “this is so stupid” talk. But as the game progresses, Tony gets increasingly severe, and a dark aura descends upon the group. Fortunately, Mike’s mom busts up the festivities before things get too serious, and no one thinks much else about it. But as the lights of the living room are flicked off, and the door closed, the Ouija planchette goes flying into the wall. Something, or someone, has been awakened.
Now, I must admit that I’m not generally in favor of slasher films that feature demonic possession. Characters who suddenly don a gruesome demon face and laugh maniacally, clawed hands that reach down through ceilings, objects that move about the room under their own power… it’s all been done so many times before that a film really has to go out of it’s way to keep such a story interesting. Here, at least, we have the unexpected twist that Mike possesses the ability to see death before it happens, and his desperate attempts to warn the victims do add some tension to the tale. But the film’s horror core still rests with a demon-faced slasher killer stalking around a suburban locale, obnoxiously calling out the names of his victims in an artificially modulated voice intended to make him sound “demonic.”
But let’s face it, when watching a slasher film from 1988, there’s very little chance that the nemesis, demonic or not, is going to surprise us very much. But as I’ve come to understand through my many years of wading through antiseptic horror, at the end of the day, if the killer is unoriginal, the demon-face makeup is clichéd, or the evil voice is annoyingly overwrought, it doesn’t really matter. For the appeal of these seemingly derivative movies lies with the non-horror elements: The bizarre characters, the ludicrous back stories, the annoyingly catchy theme songs, and the unexpected moments of cinematic ineptitude that are never to be forgotten. And what Don’t Panic may lack in slasher originality, it more than makes up for in narrative oddities.
For starters, we have Mike’s hilariously one-note parents. Nearly always pictured with a bottle of something in her hand, Mike’s mom clearly has a penchant for the hooch. And if the subtle visual clues aren’t enough for you, such as when she stares longingly at a bottle of vodka on her nightstand, she certainly clears things up with her confession to Mike’s doctor: “There’s something you should know: I have a drinking problem.” Then there’s Mike’s dad. Never around, even on Mike’s birthday, he’s a classic workaholic dad who can’t understand why his money isn’t an acceptable substitute for his love. “I have my responsibilities to the corporation,” he says. How can you argue with that? Though these characters are only onscreen a short time, their few interchanges are wonderful to behold.
Then we have Mike’s relationship with Alexandra. If anyone out there remembers Cindy from Night of the Creeps, you’ll have a good idea what Alexandra is like. Always shot with a flattering soft light, always dressed in soft, touch-inviting clothes, always speaking in a girlish lilt that is so overdone you will chuckle every time she speaks, Alexandra is clearly meant to be the embodiment of all that is good and pure in the world. That she’s attracted to Mike, and can presumably see the good in him, even when life’s vicissitudes get him down, make us root for her every step of the way.
After some awkward flirting at Mike’s birthday party, their relationship begins in earnest when they’re both late to class on the same day. Instead of hanging around school being bored, Mike suggests breakfast. And so begins what is arguably the most nauseatingly happy falling-in-love montage ever created. Watching balloons float away into the sky, posing for pictures in oversized sombreros, tossing bread to the ducks, feeding each other ice cream… it is impossible not to be happy as this scene unfolds. When Mike and Alexandra finally end up alone in his bedroom, and she exclaims, “I love your room, it’s fantastic,” the ridiculousness of their relationship was so engaging that I didn’t much care if the horror element ever kicked in.
Even when the killings do start, however, and Mike’s unfortunate ability to know in advance just who is going to get it, and how, kicks in, director Galindo somehow manages to keep this upbeat tone going. His secret? Dinosaur pajamas. Despite being a sexually active seventeen year old, Mike still goes to sleep every night in his favorite pair of pj’s, with big, colorful dinosaurs on them. But lest you think Mike’s pajamas would only make the occasional appearance in his bedroom, fear not: once the pj’s are introduced, we have scene after scene of Mike running around town, waking up neighbors, breaking into pharmaceutical facilities, and generally riling up the entire community… all while wearing the dino ‘jams.
Now, I can’t speak for all moviegoers out there, but the thought of a teenager in dinosaur pajamas squaring off against a supernatural serial killer strikes me as funny. True, such a narrative choice doesn’t bode well for the good opinions of the serious gore audience. But to me, that’s a good thing. Galindo could have taken the easy way out with Don’t Panic, patching together a serious, bloody, and ultimately forgettable slasher that may well have never made its way out of Mexico. But he didn’t. For he knew the secret to cinematic immortality: Demon faces fade into the ether, gruesome deaths dissipate into dust, but preposterous characters and dinosaur pajamas will live forever.
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Piranha II: The Spawning1981
Quatermass and the Pit1967
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Bride of Re-Animator1990
Night of the Living Dead1968
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The Bat Whispers1930
The Cars that Ate Paris1974
The Wicker Man2006
The Driller Killer1979