Panic Beats (1983)

Sam’s note: I’m really excited that R.D Francis has written something for our site. We met through him listening to our podcast and bonded over our mutual love of Italian films and obscure 80’s metal. This is his first — and I hope not the last — article for us.

About the Author: R.D Francis is the writer of The Ghosts of Jim Morrison, the Phantom of Detroit, and the Fates of Rock ‘n’ Roll and Tales from a Wizard: The Oral History of Walpurgis. Both non-fiction works explore the myth and mystery behind the 1974 album, Phantom’s Divine Comedy: Part 1—an album many believed to be a solo album by Jim Morrison of the Doors. You can read his music and film criticisms on Medium and learn more about the Phantom on Facebook.

When it comes to the opinions of contemporary horror movies fans—those of The Conjuring and Insidious universe jump-scares variety (The Haunted, Annabelle: Creation, The Nun, The Curse of La Llorna, Insidious: The Last Key)—there’s no fog-shrouded middle ground with the films of the professional-anglicized Paul Naschy (from his sometimes professionally-used birth name, Jacinto Molina). And it’s not a matter of love versus hate—but love versus boring.

And I’ll admit to this truth: When you edit out the sex, nudity, and gore from Naschy—which happens often with the U.S English-language cuts of his works—his films do have a tendency to lose their pace and logic—but not their powerful, cinematic atmosphere or imaginative story telling. Time and again, when I attempted to turn a fellow horror fan onto Naschy, their summation comes back: This is boring. This is slow. This makes no sense.

But for the Naschy fan (and Spanish and Italian horror fan)—such as yours truly—his films give me everything I need in a horror film:

1. Twenty-something, curvaceously-nude Italian and Spanish models with perfectly made-up faces that never run, drip, or smudge, hair that never loses its Aqua-Net coif, and French-manicured hands that defy rotted monasteries, the dingiest of cellars, the dankest of crypts, and the darkest of twisted winter woods. Check.

  1. The aforementioned beauties always wear graveyard-appropriate mini dresses and hot pants. Check.
  1. The arousing, unsynchronized gasps and screams of those crypt-kickin’ hotties rival the worst dubs of Asian cinema. Check.
  2. Fictional, creepy European historical characters and events based on real-life, creepy European historical characters and events. Check.
  3. A horror aficionado’s grab-bag of MGM noir and Universal horror film homages. Check.
  4. Nods to Alfred Hitchcock, William Castle, Dario Argento, and Mario Bava. Check.
  5. Deus ex machinas, red herrings, MacGuffins, and POV shots abound. Check.

Dump all of that into a gothic horror strongbox (decapitated head included), wrap it in giallo paper, and tie it off with a film noir bow—and you got yourself a Paul Naschy movie (and an Armando de Ossorio, flick for that matter).

It’s interesting to note that my fellow, so-called “horror fans” who proclaim “Naschy is boring,” also said that about Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm. I love Phantasm beyond words, but let’s face facts: If Reggie discovered Sally and Susie full-frontal naked being groped by dwarfs in the bowels of Morningside, and the Tall Man was going all “Dr. Carl Hill” on the fortune teller’s granddaughter, strung upside down A Bell from Hell abattoir-style—and some zombies showed up—wouldn’t it have made for an even better film? Think Hitchcock’s Psycho with an over-the-top, gut-spilling graphic shower scene, Norman’s mother fully reanimated, along with all of his female victims back from the grave for revenge—and you got yourself a plot-twisty Paul Naschy bloody fest.

In October, I’ll be contributing a review to B&S Movies’ commemoration of Mill Creek’s Pure Terror 50-film box set—with a review of Naschy’s classic, Horror Rises from the Tomb. The 1973 film introduces the character Alaric de Marnac—based upon Gilles de Rais, a not-so-noble medieval French Knight who mixed his sexual kinks for young boys with witchcraft. (The Swiss metal band Celtic Frost also paid homage to Rais’s exploits with “Into the Crypts of Rays” from their 1984 album, Morbid Tales.)

So to gear up for that review, it’s time to fire up its sequel: Panic Beats.

Also known as The Haunted House in the Fog (sound better in the German vernacular), Cries of Terror (lousy), Nightmare House (meh), Heartbeat and Frantic Heartbeat—each with “boring” edits depending on its country of distribution—Panic Beats is the second and final appearance of de Marnac. Naschy would, however, utilize Rais to create an all-new lead character in his 1974 film, The Devil’s Possessed (El Mariscal del Infierno). It would be Naschy’s only other returning film character—one that his fans wished returned more often; the other was his beloved werewolf-cursed Count Waldemar Daninsky—who appeared in twelve films.

As is the case with most sequels—see Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead and The Evil Dead II and Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm and Phantasm IIPanic Beats isn’t so much a sequel as it is a reimaging—with a little bit more money and behind-the-camera-experience. Panic Beats ditches the traditional Universal and Hammer gothic horror touches of its predecessor for a film noir-meets-giallo swirl of supernatural horror-meets-murder-mystery rife with scheming lovers, twisted nightmare/dream sequences, and blood and gore mixed with sex and nudity.

While connoisseurs of Naschy cite Universal Pictures’ 1958 Draculaesque horror feature, The Thing that Couldn’t Die, as the inspiration behind Naschy’s Horror Rises from the Tomb, Panic Beats takes the film noir route by way of MGM’s Gaslight (1944), with its drive-the-wife-crazy-for-the-money plot. While some have cited other inspirational film noir-horror hybrids—such as Diabolique (1955), House on Haunted Hill (1958), and The Spiral Staircase (1946) (and I’ll toss in elements of 1948’s Sorry, Wrong Number, 1963’s The Ghost, 1971’s Let’s Scare Jessica to Death and Twitch of the Death Nerve), where every character is plotting against someone or being plotted against for the love of money—the more accurate antecedent would be Alfred Hitchcock’s forgotten classic, Rebecca (1940). In fact, that film’s 1938 multi-million selling literary inspiration—a gothic horror novel written by Daphne du Mauier—is name-checked by the characters as they bedroom-analogize the similarities between their manor’s creepy housekeeper and the monstrous-housekeeper Mrs. Danvers of Rebecca. (Red herring house keeper. Check.)

Panic Beats, at first, loosely mirrors its precursor: In less than five minutes, before the title credits role, you have a horse-mounted knight in full armor—swinging a morning star overhead—pursuing a curvaceous, fully naked woman through the misty-shrouded woods. In typical Marnac fashion: his wife is a whore and the bitch must die. (First kill: done. Cue title card. Check.)


Fast forward to present day France: We meet long-suffering architect Paul (Naschy) who cares for his heart-ailed wife, the soon-to-be-gaslighted Genevieve (Julia Saly of Armando de Ossorio’s 4th in his Blind Dead oeuvre, Night of the Seagulls (1974), León Klimovsky’s The People Who Own the Dark (1976), and as Countess Elizabeth Bathory in Naschy’s 1981 feature, Night of the Werewolf ). Meanwhile, Paul’s carrying on affairs with two other women: Mireille (Silva Miro), a hooker who is putting the blackmail screws to Paul to hurry up with the wife-murder plan already, and Julie (the heart-melting Pat “Frances” Ondiviela who, after Panic Beats, disappeared into Euro-television work), who is in on Paul’s plot—or so she thinks . . . and so he thinks. . . 

On the advice of his doctor, Paul decides take Genevieve for bed rest at his family’s remote ancestral country estate—which rests on the site of a castle that belonged to Paul’s ancestor, the infamous Alaric de Marnac, a 16th century knight who murdered his unfaithful wife and their three children before turning to devil-worshiping and a healthy human-blood diet. Helping Paul care for Genevieve is the estate’s creepy, elderly maid, Maville (Lola Goas of 1971’s Academy Award Best Foreign Language Film nominee, Tristana, and Jorge Grau’s 1973 opus, The Legend of Blood Castle), who has “been like a mother to Paul” over the years, along with Maville’s troubled niece—and Paul’s second mistress, Julie.

Another plot similarity to Horror Rises from the Tomb is the ol’ roadside bandits/escaped prisoners-honey-we’re-out-of-gas ploy. The “new” twist: Paul recruited the two bandits into his scare-her-to-death plot, which includes Paul taking advantage of his family’s gruesome folk-tale history. Before you can say “Alaric de Marnac,” Genevieve’s heart stops before Marnac can give her a crack of the morning star, the creepy housekeeper goes down the stairs tripwire-style after she turns the screws on Paul, and Julia, after choking-out her aunt Maville when the stair fall didn’t kill her, takes a (very graphic) axe to Mireille, and Paul “settles up” with the road bandits. Then, when Paul discovers Julie’s love letter to her own piece-on-the-side action, Maurice, he plots to kill her . . . but not before she proclaims, “I’m more evil than you,” and tosses a space heater into Paul’s bubblebath. You go, girl!

But, what the hell?  Where’s Alaric in all of this bloody mayhem?  I came for the “every 100 years” gory revenge of a Gilles de Rais-inspired Knight and all I got was William Castle and Alfred Hitchcock film fuckery. Did Alaric de Marnac “possess” everyone to do his bidding? Was Paul, Alaric all along? Did Paul really die in the tub?

. . . So, Julie is the last backstabbing bastard standing and, thanks to her quickie marriage to Paul, she got the family fortune. Until . . . oh, shit. The screws are turning again. Now Paul’s photo falls to the floor and bleeds, there’s blood flowing out of shower heads, eyeballs and entrails are in the soap dish, snakes are in the bed—and zombies are knocking at the door. It turns out the Alaric de Marnac legends are true! Julie’s “evil” resurrected Alaric—and he beats her to a (graphic) pulp in bloody blaze of morning star glory in the estate’s chapel. (Deus ex machina knight. Check.)

While the film debut of Marnac (who comes across as a hairy Marlon Brando-Jim Belushi-Jack Black hybrid), Horror Rises from the Tomb, appeared on U.S UHF-TV and cable superstations and VHS in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Panic Beats wasn’t seen by Naschy fans outside of Europe until its 2005 DVD restoration by Mondo Macabro. In fact, Panic Beats never made it out of Naschy’s native Spain—outside of muddy VHS bootlegs (which I got to see many moons ago via an old grey market mail order, VSOM: Video Search of Miami-analog print).

In fact, you rarely found a Naschy movie on a video shelf or seen them on American television. Before the advent of widely-distributed retro-DVD reissues (by companies such as Mill Creek, Shout Factory, and Mondo Macabro), wee horror buffs such as this writer had to rely on reading about Paul Naschy’s celluloid exploits in books and magazines about horror cinema—and hope for that errant UHF-TV showing or VHS Tape appearance of Horror Rises from the Tomb, Fury of the Wolfman, and The Mummy’s Revenge.

But why? Well, the American serial-killer-on-the-loose-in-the-woods genre—derived from Italian Giallo—was in full swing. And here’s Naschy with a homage-throwback, granted, a very bloody one, but a throwback to Universal and Hammer horrors. American audiences wanted non-character developed Jason Vorhees, Michael Myers, and Freddy Krueger child and babysitter-killing knockoffs—not a murderous Knight based on a sociopathic Knight from European history that actually killed children.

As an added bonus: The Mondo Macabro DVD presentation of Panic Beats offers a Spanish horror primer with two scholastic vignettes: Blood and Sand, a 28-minute documentary that features interviews with Jorge Grau (1973’s The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue), Jose-Ramon Larraz (1973’s The House that Vanished and 1974’s Symptoms), and Armando de Ossorio (1969’s Malenka and 1975’s Demon Witch Child), and a 28-minute interview with the maestro himself, Paul Naschy On . . . , as he takes fans through his life and career.

So, if you’ve never seen any of Paul Naschy’s films—and I still haven’t seen them all (120 plus!)—this beautifully restored, uncut version of Panic Beats presented by Mondo Macabro is a great place to start your bloody education into the giallo-soaked and noir-twisted world of Spanish Euro-horror.

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