Monday, October 31, 2016

Pánico (1970)

... aka: Panic

Directed by:
Julián Soler

We first see a nameless young woman (Ana Martín) staring blankly out of a window. She hears her baby crying, goes to the bassinet and pulls back the sheath to reveal that there's no baby there. This woman is clearly not right in the head, something further illustrated by the fact she thinks a baby doll is the real thing. As she's holding it, she's startled by a strange woman (a very intense Ofelia Guilmáin) in a purple dress staring her down from the side of her house. She drops her baby, it breaks and then she stuffs the remains inside a pipe and flees into the woods with the madwoman in hot pursuit swinging a knife around. As the frightened young woman keeps going, she spots three men standing around and either fantasizes about or flashes back to a time when she was gang raped. A baby doll rises from a pool of blood but she can't pull it out. The camera keeps panning up and down trees and doing 360 degree swirls at the sky. This almost entirely dialogue free 17 minute experimental piece (titled "Pánico") has some effectively creepy moments and several good startles and is a fittingly bizarre opening to this above average but seldom-watched three-story anthology.

Story #2, "Soledad" (or “Solitude”), opens with two men; the emotional Carlos (Joaquín Cordero) and his more level-headed friend Abel (José Gálvez), just finishing up burying the latter's wife (Susana Salvat). Unlike most of the rest of their village, they didn't get out when they should have as the yellow fever struck. Although it's too late for the wife, the men decide to take off down a stream by canoe to put as much distance between themselves and the plague as possible, eventually hoping to find a town that's not been effected. During their long and exhausting trip, both men have flashbacks. Abel only has bad memories of his wife and how she was stripped of her beauty as she lay on her deathbed. Carlos, however, remembers her being both beautiful and passionate; probably because he was having an affair with her behind Abel's back that his friend still has no clue about. While the two are lost in thought, their canoe capsizes and is washed downstream. Now they're forced to camp out and walk.

The swamp they're stuck in is rough and unforgiving terrain, something the gruff and hard-working Abel is accustomed to but not so much the weaker and more guilt-stricken Carlos. Carlos becomes paranoid they're going to die there, finally admits his affair, starts hearing his dead lover calling to him and soon is begging Abel to put him out of his misery already. Instead, Abel's the one who gets a knife in his back after a scuffle in quicksand. Carlos buries the body and now is left all alone in the jungle trying to survive, which isn't easy considering he's not only falling apart mentally but physically as well thanks to very likely being plague-infected himself. And there's the small added issue of Abel's corpse not wanting to stay buried.

Running 40 minutes, this is bleak, dark, slow and moody, with an outstanding central performance from Cordero, several effectively chilling moments and excellent use made of sound, setting and natural lighting. The solitude of the title, as well as the grim situation both men find themselves in, is driven home by filming this in a heavily-shaded forest where speckles of shadow heavily intrude into every frame as if constantly closing in on the protagonists.

After two completely serious and depressing tales, the third segment (“Angustia” / Anguish) finally offers up a bit of humor and levity. Having worked tirelessly for three long months, scientist Tiberius Hansen (Carlos Ancira) has just created a powerful, long-lasting narcotic that would make for an excellent surgical anesthetic. With just a few drops of this potent stuff, a patient can be put into a cataleptic state and have their bodily functions slow to a death-like rate while still retaining their cognizance. Just imagine what it'd be like taking even more of the stuff! Well Tiberius is about to find out since his pesky lab cat has knocked an entire beaker of his formula over onto his coffee mug. Soon after drinking it, Tiberius keels over onto floor. Hearing a noise, his wife Melody (Alma Delia Fuentes) rushes into the lab only to find him motionless and unresponsive.

A doctor (Aldo Monti) is called in, does an examination and pronounces Tiberius dead. He doesn't even give the body a chance to get cold before signing the death certificate and trying to get Melody to make burial arrangements. Seems like he, as well as Tiberius' good friend Elias (Eduardo MacGregor), are secretly excited there's a sexy new single woman on the market. But there's something strange about the corpse. His eyes won't stay closed. The doctor chalks that up to rigor mortis, but Melody's cousin Vilma (Pilar Sen) would rather be safe than sorry and recommends they slit his wrists. Melody passes on her suggestion. After all, she doesn't want her hubby's corpse to be desecrated. Tiberius (whose thoughts we hear as a voice-over) is certainly relieved. However, he may end up being buried alive if the drug doesn't wear off in time.

An amusing spin on Poe's The Premature Burial, this features some very funny moments, a rather morbid (yet amusing) conclusion and clever camera shots, like a “corpse” POV as various characters unsuccessfully try to close Tiberius' eyelids. Even more cleverly, it traces the scientist's slow awakening period through his cat, which has fallen into a similar dead state after lapping some of the formula off the floor. However, unlike the scientist, it managed to crawl under a table and hide to avoid detection.

A nice surprise, this obscure anthology manages to pull off what few other horror anthologies have: Presenting numerous stories that all work about equally well while each offering up something different content-wise, visually and tonally. Even most of the more famous films of this type can't say that. The first story, albeit somewhat predictable, takes an arty, imagery-based psychological approach. The second, while perhaps too slow going for some viewers, is all about creating mood and atmosphere. And the third is a black comedy that doesn't completely forget the genre during its final act. Clearly filmed on a very low budget and it often shows, but Soler and screenwriter Ramón Obón put real care and imagination into this one and the actors put in solid if not exceptional work.

IMDb currently has this listed as being released in 1966, though a date on a tombstone (and numerous other more reliable sources) says in was made in 1970 and played in theaters in 1972. It was released on VHS here in the U.S. in 1987 on the Esco-Mex label.

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