Monday, January 17, 2022

"Dreadful Actors, Don't You Agree?" - Panic (1983) aka Bakterion - Film #221

Italian-Spanish co-productions filmed in Great Britain are some of the finest films world cinema has to offer, and Panic (1983), also known as Bakterion, is no exception. Italian director Tonino Ricci creates a memorable monster movie set in the sewers beneath what is either a city full of skyscrapers or a quiet suburb, or perhaps both.

For example, reviewer Hellraiser-1 writes, "It was just terribly boring." Reviewer wes-connors writes, "'Bakterion' (or 'Panic') is simply not a competent film." And reviewer strong-122-478885 writes, "strictly bottom-of-the-barrel stuff and that rendered Panic simply worthless as viable entertainment."

Read on for the truth about Panic...

The film begins with the camera prowling through a suburban British neighborhood. The filmmakers then cut to a skyscraper, and then to extreme closeups of lab rats in cages. A rat-fight alarm goes off as two rats fight each other so a scientist played by Janet Agren gets on the phone. “There’s an emergency in the laboratory and a serious risk of contamination. Have the emergency squad sent here right away!”

Elsewhere in the building, a man with gloppy skin covers his ears.

After the emergency is over, Dr. Agren is grilled by her superiors at the scientific company, called Chemi-Cal. The president of the company tells her the public won’t find out about the emergency. “After all, it was accidental.”

At night, two lovers making out in a car are stalked by the camera. The woman screams as the man is jerked from the car and killed. The man’s body is dragged away from the scene, and then the woman is attacked by the unseen assailant.

Back at the daytime meeting at Chemi-Cal Incorporated, Dr. Agren and her colleague inform the president of the company that a guinea pig is missing and may have grown to the size of a dog or a lion (such a creature is never shown and never mentioned again). Also, Professor Adams, who is in charge of the experiment, is missing, presumed to have gone fishing.

In London, an overcoat-wearing David Warbeck, playing a British military officer with an American accent named Captain Kirk, is informed of the lab accident and Professor Adams’s disappearance. Capt. Warbeck is assigned to go to Chemi-Cal and investigate because Parliament is interested in the results of their experiments. When he meets Dr. Agren in her lab, he looks at a live guinea pig in an uncomfortable-looking glass tube. “So it was it was one of these things that created all the mess, huh?”

“There are some things that even science cannot understand,” she replies, perhaps not quite answering his question. She drives Capt. Warbeck to Professor Adams’s house, then waits in the car while he prowls around the house. He finds a revolver outside. Rather than keeping it clean for fingerprints, he carries the weapon in his hand and searches the inside of the house. Dr. Agren joins Capt. Warbeck in the house and she notices a few things missing, as well as a conspicuous hole in the wall near the fireplace. When she investigates the hole, a bloody corpse inexplicably drops down in front of her, its legs hanging from the ceiling—the corpse of Professor Adams’s bodyguard.

“Yes, I used to know him,” Capt. Warbeck says, pulling Dr. Agren away from the corpse and leaving the house rather than investigating the body, or even cutting it down from where it hangs.

Back at Dr. Agren’s lab, Capt. Warbeck says condescendingly, “In my opinion, there’s a connection between the murders, the accident in the laboratory, and the disappearance of Professor Adams.”

Dr. Agren replies noncondescendingly, “Perhaps, but you have to prove it.”

Capt. Warbeck smirks, a common occurrence in the film. “Look, Jane, you have to cooperate with me if we’re going to find out the truth. And that’s more important than the good name of your dear Professor Adams.”

During a meeting with the president of Chemi-Cal and Sgt. O’Brien of the local police, Capt. Warbeck learns from another scientist that a computer has determined there is insufficient data to link the lab accident with the murders. (This sequence contains perhaps the fastest intercutting of four actors’ reaction shots in all of cinema history.) The president and the scientist leave the room, after which Capt. Warbeck says to Sgt. O’Brien, “Dreadful actors, don’t you agree?”

“What do you mean?”

“All right, what if there is a connection between the accident in the laboratory, the disappearance suddenly of the professor, and the killings? Sergeant, before we find it, we have to find the professor.” (One might begin to believe Capt. Warbeck believes there is a connection between the killings, the lab accident, and the disappearance of Professor Adams.)

In order to investigate the possible connection between the lab accident, the killings, and the disappearance of Professor Adams, Capt. Warbeck strategizes with the police, though this is limited to drawing a quadrilateral on a map of the area pinned to the wall.

Elsewhere, a blonde woman lights a candle with a bizarrely massive flame (or perhaps it is some kind of gas burner in the bathroom) and takes a shower. In a scene reminiscent of many, many shower scenes, an unseen assailant stalks her and then smashes his hand through the glass to attack the nude woman.

Sgt. O’Brien consults with the coroner, who tells him, “Apparently this killer, whether it’s a man or animal, is a kind of mutant.” Referring to the loss of blood in the victims’ bodies, the coroner says chillingly, though a bit awkwardly, “And as for the blood, he may very well have drunk it.”

Elsewhere, at an English country estate, the filmmakers introduce yet another scientist, who explains to someone named Sir Charles that they have discovered a new virus. “It’s indestructible and very dangerous.” After the scientist is dismissed, Sir Charles confirms to Capt. Warbeck’s superior officer that Plan Q has been given the go-ahead, which means the entire town where Chemi-Cal is located will be completely destroyed, residents and all. 

In fact, Plan Q is immediately implemented, as the filmmakers cut to the striking image of a series of military vehicles driving through the suburb of Newtown (a sequence made all the more striking by the fact that it goes on for at least five minutes).

The Army wastes no time in cutting off all communication (everyone in town communicates with the outside world, of course, using red telephone boxes), power, and the BBC. 

Meanwhile, Capt. Warbeck and Sgt. O’Brien search for Professor Adams at an abandoned building, based on no information whatsoever. They hear a sound and see a manhole cover moving, so they investigate further, only to see some kind of face peering up at them from the sewer.

In a suspenseful sequence, the filmmakers finally reveal the monstrous Professor Adams as he stumbles through the sewers underneath a cinema which is showing a movie with a jaunty electronic soundtrack that consists solely of shots of a young man driving a car back and forth. The professor is bothered by the soundtrack. He begins roaring and throwing things behind the scene, and then he breaks through the cinema screen and attacks the panicking moviegoers. The crowd runs out of the theatre (there appear to be far more people running than were in the cinema, however), and oddly none remark that the film they were watching has been improved by the appearance of a grotesquely deformed (and, incidentally, dreadlocked) monster. Professor Adams strangles the one remaining patron, a young woman, and he drags her back to his home in the sewers, where he either rapes her or begins to eat her.

The police chase the monster away and find the woman’s body. They investigate the now-empty theatre, where Capt. Warbeck touches traces of green slime on the seats, clearly uninterested in whether the virus is transmissible through fluids. Then Capt. Warbeck waves his gun to disperse the crowd of cinemagoers.

Meanwhile, the powers that be decide that zero hour will be 5:00 tomorrow morning. They must destroy the entire town to contain the virus and the monster.

At the local church, the priest barricades the sacristy to protect himself and six young boys, whose presence in the otherwise empty church at night is unexplained. The monstrous professor claws his way through the door with his bare hands while the children escape through a ventilation duct, allowing the priest to use a candle to burn the monster, and allowing the audience a glimpse at the professor’s face.

Unfortunately, the priest is killed by the monster, though the boys appear to escape (though they never appear in the film again).

Instead of dealing with the monster and/or the virus, the Army as well as Capt. Warbeck and Sgt. O’Brien argue with the townsfolk, who are informed they are quarantined for up to 20 days. Additionally, anyone attempting to leave town will be shot. Testing the Army’s resolve, a carload of townspeople wielding shotguns (apparently, everyone in Britain in 1983 was armed with a great deal of firearms) drives toward the roadblock, only to be shot by the Army, barely escaping their own flaming automobile. As he rides back into town with Sgt. O’Brien, Capt. Warbeck hatches a plan: They must convince the Army they have a cure for the virus within five hours.

Meanwhile, Professor Adams breaks into the president of Chemi-Cal’s house. The president shoots the monstrous professor twice with a shotgun, but it has little effect. The professor kills the president while his young daughters watch from upstairs.

Joining Dr. Agren at her lab, Capt. Warbeck stumbles upon a simple solution to their problems. “As far as we know, isn’t Adams the only carrier of the virus?”

“Yes,” Dr. Agren replies, “since all his victims are dead.”

“So if we eliminate him, that stops all danger of contagion, right?”

“I suppose it might.”

“I’m sorry, but we’ll have to kill him.”

The film, not to mention the smirking Capt. Warbeck, thus clearly demonstrates that it is better (and easier) to commit murder than to develop a cure for a disease.

After finding the Chemi-Cal president’s body, Capt. Warbeck traces the monster’s green fluids into the tunnels underneath the city. He goes alone, for unexplained reasons, with only a handgun for protection. The tunnels lead back to the cinema and the body of a wino—and quite quickly to Professor Adams himself. Capt. Warbeck fires his handgun several times but the gun does only slightly more damage than the shotgun. When the cinema lights are turned on, however, the monstrous professor runs away.

Elsewhere, the tension mounts as Army pilots take off in their plane, ready to bomb the city (actually, ready to abandon the plane and send it and a nerve gas bomb hurling like a missile into town) and complete Plan Q.

Back at the lab, Dr. Agren holds up another guinea pig in a glass tube. “It worked on the guinea pig,” she tells her colleague. “Now we can cure Professor Adams.”

“Oh no, Jane. Use your head. It’s impossible. We can’t even get close to him in the condition he’s in.”

“I’ll do it,” she volunteers.

Capt. Warbeck bursts into the lab. “You’ll do nothing of the kind,” he says, ignoring the possibility of curing the monster and preferring the simple solution of killing him.  He tells Dr. Agren’s colleague to obtain for him “two units of Nekron.”

“It’s impossible that you people know about it,” says the scientist. “No. No way. I must refuse to oblige unless you force me.”

Capt. Warbeck smirks and holds up his handgun.

After obtaining the Nekron, Capt. Warbeck and Sgt. O’Brien lead two police officers into the sewers. Referring to the sewer system’s layout, Sgt. O’Brien states, “I know it by heart. And so does Professor Adams. We’re both members of the Civic Works Commission.”

They pursue Professor Adams through the sewers (which contain some of the cleanest water ever captured on film), pausing only for Capt. Warbeck to take a cigarette break.

In a shocking twist, Dr. Agren appears in the abandoned building, searching for Professor Adams so she can cure him before Capt. Warbeck murders him. Dr. Agren’s compassion, perhaps predictably, fails when Capt. Warbeck arrives before she can administer the antidote.

The captain and the professor fight by throwing boxes and chairs at each other. Then Capt. Warbeck shoots a fire extinguisher loaded with Nekron at the professor, causing him to die as well as melt.

In the finale, the filmmakers put a digital clock onscreen for a short period of time, indicating the town has 10 minutes left, but well ahead of schedule the pilots of the bomber receive a phone call and smile. “It’s all over!” They turn the plane around, saving the town and all its inhabitants.

And we finally have an idea about the connection between the lab accident, the killings, and the disappearance of Professor Adams.

The final credits include this chilling warning: “WHAT YOU HAVE SEEN MIGHT REALLY HAPPEN…PERHAPS IT ALREADY HAS!”

Perhaps the only thing wrong with Panic is its alternate title Bakterion, which brings to mind bacteria even though the film is about a virus that infects (and appears capable of infecting) only one person, despite the Army's desire to bomb an entire town to keep the disease from spreading. In our modern, COVID-afflicted times, Panic's suspenseful satire comes across as even starker and more realistic than it must have in 1983. Who can say how many governments around the world in 2020 launched their World War II-era bombers armed with nuclear weapons, planning to bomb entire cities to dust so an infectious virus would not spread? And who can say how many David Warbecks had to shoot fire extinguishers full of Nekron at mutated scientists in order to convince their governments not to drop those bombs? PERHAPS IT ALREADY HAS happened, indeed!

Outside of its sociopolitical relevance, Panic features fine performances from David Warbeck and Janet Agren, not to mention various British and Spanish character actors. The film's sets and locations are also top-notch, realistically depicting the mild inconvenience of trudging through pleasant sewers with clean running water. The film also features a classic example of the common trope of a monster erupting from a movie screen in a busy cinema, and it shows the ideal method for a movie hero to deal with such a situation -- by waving a handgun until the cinemagoers (eventually) disperse. All in all, Panic is a 1980s classic, well deserving of Capt. Warbeck's frequent smirking, an image with which I shall bid adieux...