THE EIGHTIES STILL SCREAM III: DON’T PANIC

80s1The second half of the eighties brought about major changes to my young life in that my family and I gathered up all of our humble belongings and moved to the southernmost part of Texas to be closer to my grandparents who had relocated back to Mexico. With the home video revolution in full swing, those years in particular would be the ones in which I would take the horror curiosity that had been instilled in me by my father and begin to seek it out and both slowly discover all of the amazing films that the decade had to offer and to fill my brain with as much of it as I could…without being caught, of course. From the ages of eleven to eighteen, everything that encompassed horror on VHS was my life. At every turn, there was an establishment that offered video rentals whether it was a supermarket, the gas station on the corner, or even the five-and-dime, the term “videocassette” was now on everyone’s lips and videocassettes were soon becoming part of everyone’s daily life. I was becoming obsessed with them, also, and I did what I needed to do to make them part of my own.

The one thing I looked forward to when I was a pre-teen making my way into the wonderful and anticipated stage of adolescence was tagging along with my parents when they went out shopping. For one, it was the only time I would ever get to leave the house other than for school and/or church and every time my mother would lead us all into one of the many local supermarkets, I would immediately leave her and my siblings and head for the video rental department. My mother would always ask me what my fascination was with always walking in that direction as little did she know I was filling my brain with images of mutilated corpses of dumb kids going out into the woods alone or demonic entities wreaking havoc on unsuspecting victims. The same thing would happen every time we stopped for gas or when she needed make a trip to the local Perry’s department store to pick up something for the house. I could feel her eyes watching me as I walked over to the rows and rows of videocassette boxes that comprised the video rental section in the back corner of the store. I could sense that she was just waiting to see which box I picked up first to understand exactly why I always had the inclination of going back there. I would walk slowly and cautiously around the first few isles and quickly glance in her direction to see if she was still watching me before picking up the boxes to Scanners and The Funhouse as to not give away my true motives for pacing around that department. I hoped that she thought I would be looking at kid’s movies or the small section of Nintendo Entertainment System games that were also available for rent to distract her. If she knew what I was really looking at, she and my father would have had a field day as the talk of horror and horror films was strictly forbidden in our house. Believe me, the less she knew I was really up to, the better.

My favorite thing about being a kid living in hot and humid South Texas back then was the fact that my family’s weekends and the majority of our school vacations were spent in the area about an hour southeast of Monterrey, Mexico in the very small town of Garza Gonzales visiting my grandparents. Like clockwork, my parents would pick us up Friday afternoons after school, pile my two siblings and me, along with several suitcases, into the back of our Econoline-150 and head south. Now, getting to experience Mexico in the mid 80’s was something that I will never forget. Television, radio, fashion and film were something 80s2to behold and I soon grew to look forward to spending time sitting in front of the TV in my grandparent’s house watching badly Spanish-dubbed versions of English programs, ghastly music videos, and eating endless bags of Mexican confectioneries, candies and chips. One thing I did miss whenever we were down there was the lack of video technology and its availability. The luxury of a videocassette recorder wasn’t easily attainable for many in those days so its affluence wasn’t as predominant as it was for us living north of the border, especially where my grandparents lived. Not to say that it was absent entirely. There was a national chain of video rental outlets stemming from Mexico City called Videocentro that advertised on television from time to time and it always sparked a curiosity inside of me of what it would be like to cruise one of these stores to feel its atmosphere inside and to see what kind of fodder they offered. One commercial for them in particular used to scare the hell out of me which began with complete silence and the simple image of a VCR sitting next to a television. A hand would pop out from the left of the screen to insert a cassette into the machine and press “play”. Immediately, the screen went black and it would abruptly cut to the scene toward the end of Friday the 13th – part 2 where Ginny is hiding in one of the cabin bathrooms and Jason’s hand bursts through the window. She would scream and I would follow suit. It always made me jump and it made my heart race. I hated that damn commercial but it made me smile knowing that video culture was alive and well down there. Maybe not nationally as a whole, but at least it had legs in some of the more metropolitan areas.  One weekend in 1985, we visited the city of Cadereyta Jimenez (about thirty or so minutes southeast of Monterrey) and I can still vividly recall the exact moment we crossed the street behind the city’s downtown cathedral and my eyes taking in the wonderful sight of a movie poster taped to an open door. I felt my eyes open wide and a smile on my face as I would see rows of boxes on shelves attached to a wall from the street. Could it be? Could that really be posters for Don’t Go In The Woods…Alone! (No Vayas al Bosque…Sola!), Madman (La Hacha Asesina) and Romano Svavolini’s Nightmare (Pesadilla Mortal)? I can still hear myself squealing with glee at the discovery that a mom and pop video rental outlet had opened up right here! And to see that horror was popular enough to warrant posters was enough to excite me into a tizzy.

The game would change for me during Christmas break in 1990 when visiting cousins up in Monterrey whose family had just purchased their first videocasetera that fall. They were proud and ecstatic that they had been the first in the family who lived down there (and the first ones on their block) to get one. While the adults were all downstairs talking and catching up, we older kids were up in my cousin Lalo’s bedroom toying with the videocassette player and me trying to be a big show off and bragging about how much I knew about horror. Needless to say, little did I know that not only was American horror popular in Mexico, but slasher films were actually being made south of the Border!  I was blown away listening to Lalo talk about Viernes 13 (Friday the 13th), La Matanza en Texas (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) and his favorite, Pesadilla En La Calle Del Infierno (A Nightmare on Elm Street). I was shocked as he talked about how familiar he was with those films and how much he loved going out and renting those movies on weekends and brining them home to watch in the dark. With this revelation and after hours of pleading with him, we made a trek to the local video store (and by “store”, I mean the couple three streets over 80s3who took the living room of their home and turned into a small rental outlet) and brought home a pair of films that he and his brother Raul had previously watched bearing the titles of Vacaciones de Terror and the wonderful Dimensiones Ocultas, known everywhere else in the English-speaking world as Don’t Panic.

The film begins with a black screen and a male voice making the ominous claim, “There’s a door that takes you to another dimension. Once you’ve stepped through it, there’s no returning. I’ve already crossed it.” We are then introduced to bright-eyed and curly-haired Michael, a tall young man who’s just moved to Mexico City with his mother to finish out high school. It’s his seventeenth birthday and a slew of friends are leaving his home after what appears to be a rather wild celebration. Much to his vexation, some of them have stayed behind in the dark to surprise him and to set him up with the cute Alex, the pretty new girl at school. Instead of a birthday cake, they decide to blindfold him and sit him in front of an Ouija board, led by the pompous and outspoken Tony. Stating to the group that he’d already made the decision to never play with one again, Michael reluctantly gives in and Tony calls upon “Virgil” to come to the group. When Michael reveals to the others that “Virgil” is actually Lucifer himself and that they both had dealt with him in a prior encounter, Michael’s mother comes down and finds them and breaks up the party, telling everyone to sca-dooch. The others leave, but not before one of them dousing the board with rum (or was it vodka?) causing it to react on its own once everyone turns in for the night.  The next morning, Michael is late for school and runs into Alex in the hallway and the two of them decide to ditch class and spend the day together. Afterward, Michael goes to visit a hung over (and vomiting) Tony who mentions that he’d forgotten the pact between the two friends of never discussing their Ouija experience ever again. Michael side-steps having to answer him and changes the subject to talking about his day with Alex. Tony then mentions that to win her over, Michael should give her a rose. Not just any old rose, but “the rose”. Taking one from a bowl of them in the next room (random!), Tony hands him one and says to tell her that as long as there is love between them, the rose will never wither away. Well, if that doesn’t sound like true love, I don’t know what is (insert barfing noise here).

Later that night, Michael has a nightmare of a bloodied hand breaking through the ceiling of his bedroom dripping onto his face. He then appears to wake up, his eyes blood red, having a vision of a bloody knife disposing of Tony.  If that wasn’t absolutely ludicrous, let’s add the camera shot of Michael getting out of bed to go look in the mirror. Not only do we see that the boy is in pajamas but they’re kid’s pajamas – long sleeved, long legged, different colored cuffs and freakin’ dinosaurs emblazoned across the front (cue the Price is Right loser horn here). Later that day, he walks into the school cafeteria to give her the rose and declare his love for her only to find another guy kissing her. Bummer, dude! His heart broken, he goes off to the music room to do some thinking and she finds him there a while later and  confesses to him that John, the guy that manhandled her just minutes go, was just a friend and that she actually was attracted to the very boy sitting there with her. Michael kisses her and grabs the rose, but doesn’t give it to her. He takes her home and the two make passionate love. And on the second date! Score! He then gives her the rose and delivers the cheesy line earlier suggested by Tony.   Now, at this point we’re heading toward the 30-minute mark and nothing really outstanding has happened yet. The acting and line delivery isn’t as bad as you’d expect from a film like this but the story’s pacing is really slow and is focusing more right now on the budding relationship between Michael and Alex. With this being a horror film with a Ouija board and some teenaged kids in it, the last thing we really care about is character development, right? Get to “Virgil” already, geez! We want more!  Later that night, Michael finds himself paralyzed and rendering him unable to function. As he drags his own limp body over to the bathroom, he has visions of the same bloody knife now dispatching of one of the girls in a brutal fashion. He looks into the mirror and sees his own bloodied face and that the sink is running blood. To make matters worse, the next morning at breakfast with his mother, he sees a face frighteningly push itself through the television screen pleading for help that his friend Cristy is soon to perish. Later on at school, Michael has a vision of the teacher revealing to him from the front of the class that Cristy is going to die and that he needs to get her out of the city by midnight. He looks over at Cristy who is sitting a few chairs away and she begins to profusely bleed from her head and her legs. Ok, what the hell is going on?

The film here immediately changes pace as we discover that a maniac is killing off Michael’s friends one by one and that Cristy is, in fact, the next to die. Hopping onto his bike (in those ridiculous pajamas! Seriously, dude, burn them!) he goes out to visit his nemesis, the foul-mouthed John, who happens to be Cristy’s brother (and who utters the film’s first vulgarities who will then go on to be the only character in the film to do so) to warn him that his sister is in grave danger.  Michael speeds off to the hospital where she works (with no shoes and white socks!) to try and save her and this is where the film dives headfirst into WTF territory as the killer’s identity is revealed and we are shown what’s really going on. For being a “Ouija board” movie, it doesn’t pack the same punch others with this same plot device do. Not that it’s a bad thing because the film does have a great story though it takes a good while to get going. The characters themselves really don’t develop on screen as much as we would probably like them to but when you think about it, it’s not the film’s biggest setback. At first viewing, with my horror palette just taking shape and getting its first taste of foreign slasher films, I have to say that I didn’t care much for it as it didn’t deliver they way I expected a horror film to do so back when I was a teenager. When I finally was able to get my hands on a copy of this one many years later and sit through it again, it wasn’t as vulgar as I remembered it and it was actually much better both the second and third time around. Though the film misses the mark completely when it comes to filling us in on its back story (the Ouija board itself only appears in the beginning and we don’t get enough background on the when, where and why Michael and Tony played with it in the first place and how they came to initially make contact with “Virgil”). What is it that Virgil wants (all we know is that he wants to kill the kids off but we never are told exactly why), or an explanation of why and how Michael is given the ability to see into the future and know who is going to be killed off next? Why is it that playing with the Ouija board gave him an advantage in the predicament he and Tony placed everyone in while the others end up paying the price for the two’s mistake?  The biggest question of all is what is the significance of the dagger? Where did it come from and why is it so important during the final reel? The film does boast a few memorable scenes, most notably, the scenes of Michael in the bathroom that echo the original Poltergeist and the two that recycle and make great use of a memorable effect showcased in the bedroom scene found at the beginning of the fabulous Demons 2 all helmed by legendary special-effects artist Screaming Mad George.

With everything that precedes it, you really expect the final act to really fall flat on its face but surprisingly, it doesn’t. It goes from just a mediocre piece of foreign horror cinema to something very entertaining that completely makes up for the rest of the film. Sure, the acting is sub-par and the (very) bad audio dub is practically laughable but I’ve seen much worse come out of the 80’s. Though the last bits of Don’t Panic are more than satisfying, the final confrontation between Michael and “Virgil”, sadly, isn’t anything to write home about. With that said, it still manages to keep the story even instead of the writers and producers just copping out with a climax so utterly ridiculous that it tosses everything out the window. The ending is rather downbeat and the final scene tries it’s best to be something sentimental and poignant but ends up causing the viewer to chuckle as the credits roll. It’s too bad that Don’t Panic hasn’t gotten a proper stand-alone DVD or Bluray release here in the states although it was included in the now-hard-to-find DVD box set Horror from South of the Border. The film shouldn’t be immediately dismissed – and you will get the inclination to do so once you watch it – as it manages to entertain even on the lowest of levels. For me the film will always be a reminder of how great life was back when we were saying good-bye to the most fantastic decade in history. It reminds me of how much fun I used to have strolling down the streets to the local plaza to hang out with the neighborhood kids with no cares in the world, listening to cheesy Mexican bubblegum pop and watching Knight Rider and Top Cat in another language. It’s amazing how a film can evoke memories of better days and preserve within itself a way of life that no longer exists but can be re-visited each time it’s viewed. It’s rather hard to find an official copy but it’s worth tracking down. Don’t Panic isn’t as bad as you would expect compared to other films of the era (if you’ve ever watched The Last Slumber Party, this is an Oscar-winner compared to that wonderful piece of trash) and though it doesn’t stand out from the rest of the entries in the final wave of slashers to come out of the late 80’s, it still warrants at least one viewing…just to hear its star Jon Michael Bischof (who played Michael) sing the Don’t Panic theme song during the end credits. The song itself is so fantastic that it actually is the best part of the film. Rock on, Jon Michael.

Rock on.

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