Michael just turned seventeen, ain’t that great? He also just moved with his mom to Mexico City so that…also happened to him. His friends decide to throw him a surprise party (at the end of the party he was already having) and invite the girl with whom they know Michael is smitten. What a great opportunity, thinks the teen rabble, to drink and, less traditionally, play a round of Ouija. Unwittingly, because no one would ever accuse any of these putzes of having any wit, they release a demonic spirit called Virgil and spend the rest of the movie being offed in ways that feel very
If nothing else, Don’t Panic adds another stamp in my blood-stained horror passport. Even with all the foreign horror I’ve watched, I’ve somehow managed to skip over Mexico entirely. Unfortunately, this was film so beholden to an American horror film that it made it nearly impossible to identify any possible unique national tropes. Don’t Panic is the brainchild of two sibling Mexican filmmakers who recognized the popularity of A Nightmare on Elm Street and strove to do exactly that with no money and with just enough dancing around international copyright laws to keep them out of court. The film therefore bears the scars of bargain basement filmmaking as proudly as those on Freddy’s charred face. Don’t Panic is like watching a brain-injured child try and describe the plot of ANoES based on seeing the trailer.
If sense and reason are prerequisites for your enjoyment of a film, Don’t Panic is not the film for you. Very little about this film follows any system of logic established on either side of the border. The two main boys keep hinting at some event in their past involving this Virgil entity that never ends up flushed out, so we don’t ever fully comprehend their relationship with him. He’s just an ill-defined malevolent spirit; much like the Boogeyman or Norwegian Santa Claus. All we know about Virgil is that he has the uncanny ability to steal tropes from Freddy Krueger. People end up dying in these dream-like sequences in which Michael envisions the eminent deaths of his friends. The most blatant requisitioning of ANoES cannon is the face coming through the wall bit; though they had the “wherewithal” to make it a television set this time around.
Michael, our lead, our hero, is miserable in both regards. He is a whiny, developmentally-arrested waif. One of the film’s most bizarre elements is the fact that its seventeen-year-old hero wears pajamas adorned with colorful dinosaurs; age-inappropriate crossing the border into fully inappropriate on all counts. He’s so inadequate as a screen presence that even his fit of rage involves politely tossing model cars at pillows and knocking a pencil cup off his desk in slow motion. Despite the film’s establishment of the fact that he is a recent transplant to Mexico, the actor dubbing his voice is about as stereotypically Mexican as a person can get; like a drunk Cheech Marin doing his old standup routine. His romantic interest? Some sort of lispy Chupacabra with one eyebrow that stretched across her forehead and on into infinity. The two of them share a relationship that is as uncomfortable to behold as their bumbling sex scene.
Don’t Panic is a tapestry of ill-conceived setpieces. Levitating roses, body-snatching, reaction shots for empty liquor bottles, and an entire plot device devoted to whether or not a character will obtain pants. It also features one of the only finales I have ever seen in which the hero triumphs while epically failing at the same time. He drives the ancient dagger into Virgil who has possessed the body of his friend Tony, but only after he drops a massive piece of machinery on him. So the instant Tony returns to his body, it’s just long enough to discover he’s about to die. I’m also still not sure who they thought would be afraid of a killer named Virgil; those with psychological phobias of epic poems?
Despite its very best efforts, I genuinely enjoyed Don’t Panic. Granted, I would never argue that it is a quality film or that it is some sort of underrated gem. It is in fact rated exactly as low as it rightfully deserves. However, it stumbled blindly into some charm. There is something desperate, but sincere about its inadequacies and its grasping at horror straws. When it failed, it thoroughly delighted. It also features at least one really great kill; a dagger up through the bottom of a jaw. The final narration from beyond the grave didn’t so much leave the door open for a sequel as it did run back through the movie we had just seen, recklessly ripping apart all secure ends. By the end, I wasn’t sure exactly what I had seen, but I was grateful for the experience.
It had been awhile, I’m sorry to say, since I had attended Terror Tuesday. Don’t Panic offered the perfect homecoming and exemplified everything that makes Terror Tuesday one of the premier Alamo signature events. It was one of the only 35mm prints of this film in existence so we were afforded a rare privilege in its viewing. The absurdity playing out like a sketch comedy show on screen had the audience roaring with laughter when appropriate, but showing great respect for the proceedings with their silence in between. It was perfect.