If your family tree has a hirsute Satanic knight who killed his wife with a spiky mace during the sixteenth century perched on one of its branches, it's a good idea to keep overly menacing portraits of him off the walls of your creepy château. Sure, it's cool if you want to honour his legacy and junk, but the fact that you've adorned every square inch of the place with his battle axes and suits of armour will no doubt trouble some outsiders. However, if that's your intention, it's the perfect setting to scare the semi-sentient fecal matter out of someone you want out of the picture frame that is your squared off existence. And that's exactly what happens in the atmospheric Panic Beats (a.k.a. Latidos de Pánico), a four room gothic chiller from Paul Naschy, a virile Spaniard best known for playing a wide array of fiendish ghouls and supernatural beasties (mostly werewolves) throughout his storied career. Portraying a human being for a change, Paul, who also co-wrote and directed this film under the guise Jacinto Molina (which is his actual birth name), conjures up a universe where a man's bearded past collides with his clean shaven future in a way that will amaze and bewilder those who judge the merit of man's character solely on the length of his facial hair.
You see, during olden times, a man with a beard was always viewed as a bit of a pariah; the kind of person who would stab you in the neck just for looking at them funny. Although, to be fair, you were probably were looking at him funny–you know, with them sporting a beard and all. Anyway, a non-bearded gentlemen is not regarded with the same amount of suspicion because he is not trying to hide his immorality underneath a scratchy field of scraggly fuzz. I know what you're thinking, what about mustaches, goatees, and those displaying only four or five day's worth of growth (e.g. "lazy people"), surely they can't be evil as well? Well, actually they're worse than those who are completely bearded, in that they're attempting to placate the fears of a highly irrational population by tricking them into believing they're not up to no good. Watch them closely (oh, and don't call me Shirley).
My seemingly sound, yet, at the same time, totally misguided theory is put to the test early on during Panic Beats (a sequel to Horror Rises from the Tomb), as we see a bloodstained naked woman (Carole Kirkham)–kinda like "Barefoot in the Park," except, without the park benchs and featuring alarming amount of wonderfully flat-chested blonde women covered in mace wounds–stumbling through a foggy forest filled with smouldering skulls (a cool synthesizer drone accompanies each skull-induced stumble). I'm happy to report that my hypothesis holds firm when the knight that's been chasing the bloodstained naked woman lifts up his face guard to reveal a bearded mug.
Flash-forward to modern times, Paris, France, to be exact, where we meet Paul de Marnac (Paul Naschy), a, get this, clean shaven man who looks eerily similar to the knight in not-so-shining armour we saw pummeling that woodland nudist during medieval times. We learn that Paul's elegant, fur coat-loving wife Geneviève (Julia Saly) is gravely ill (she has a weak heart), so his doctor advises him to take her up to his ancestral home out in the country (the fresh air will do her good). After a terrifying run in with a couple of thugs along the way–Paul may have a low centre of gravity, but he can wield a hunk of wood like nobody's business–Paul and Genevieve arrive at their new digs.
Greeting them at the door are Maville (Lola Gaos), a sixty-something housekeeper whose known Paul since he was a baby, and her attractive niece Julie (Frances Ondiviela), a Dexy's Midnight Runners' fan with a keen sense of fashion. Even though they apparently gave each other quite the stink-eye when they first met, Genevieve and Julie grow close with one another over the course of the next few weeks. Only problem is that Maville has filled both their heads with ghostly tales about Alaric de Marnac (Paul Naschy), a distant relative of Paul's, one that just happens to be a brutal knight who apparently likes to arise from the grave every one hundred or so years to murder unfaithful women with a morning star. The portrait of the bearded Alaric de Marnac hanging above the fireplace stares right through the ladies. No matter how hard they try, it's nearly impossible to escape its penetrating gaze.
While the initial weirdness that transpires is strictly contained to the odd sighting of a snake slithering across a gravestone, fiery visions of old maids with slashed throats, and nightmares involving grabby suits of armour, the real threat in Panic Beats comes from a source that surprisingly owns a face that bears not a single whisker. Yep, that's right, persons featuring no face fungus whatsoever are the primary troublemakers in this film. True, the malevolent-looking man in the painting might still cause a ruckus, but I feel I should apologize to all the bearded folk out there for besmirching their hairy cheeks and chins in such an inflammatory manner. It turns out, the shaved are evil, too.
Moving on, one of the perks to directing yourself is that you can cast yourself as a suave lady's man who drives the all the Spanish-speaking women in France wild. Unfortunately, while Paul is a fella that brunette chicks desire, sickly redheads should definitely fear him. Now I don't give anything away, but let's just say Paul, a man who's like a poem that doesn't rhyme, has an elaborately sinister plan in works. Utilizing the legend of his homicidal lineage, Paul conspires with two women to screw over another woman, while at the same time, getting one of the two women he is conspiring with to screw over the other woman involved with the conspiracy. One of these so-called "screw over" attempts, by the way, may or may not feature an axe to the stomach and a bashed in brain.
Even though I'm itching to heap praise on the ladies, I feel I should take second and compliment Paul Naschy on the sheer intensity of his steely gaze, as the stare he sports throughout this movie is downright fierce. There were times where it seemed like his eyes were going to leap out of their sockets. This leaping eye temperament wasn't limited to the film's more animated scenes, Paul even managed to maintain a heightened level of opthalmic fortitude while wearing the kind of pajamas that a suburban dad might sleep in.
It's no secret, I prefer women with auras that are slightly off-kilter in nature, which is funny, because that's exactly what Julia Saly radiates as the doomed Geneviève, a sexy heiress/hair brushing enthusiast who treats every situation like it were a heart-stopping plunge into a bottomless pit of everlasting darkness. Let me put it this way: If screaming while grasping your chest was an Olympic event, Julia would easily finish somewhere in the top twenty. At first, you think she's just being a paranoid. But it's hard to criticize her when one-eyed miscreants start showing up in her bathroom, suits of armour appear in your doorway, and the help have begun serving you eyeball stew for breakfast.
An unequaled master when it comes to smirking while tilting one's head to the side, Frances "Paquita" Ondiviela (an enchanting cross between Maria de Medeiros and Jane Leeves circa The Benny Hill Show) is a mischievous delight as Julie, the new wave niece of Paul's crusty maid. Rocking what I like to call a "non-threatening denim look" during the film's early going, Paquita's wardrobe seemed to get more chic as she became more evil. The blandness of the dungarees, even though they reappear a few times over he course of the film, have been mostly replaced with French maid uniforms, diaphanous nightgowns (perfect for exploring drafty hallways at 3am), green bath towels, and brown shorts. These items are a testament to Julie's growth as a depraved person. This development is best observed when the aspiring femme fatal enters a room in one scene wearing a pink skirt with beige pockets. That's right, beige pockets! The boldness of this particular fashion choice makes you quickly forget that this is the same woman who earlier in the film was saddled with an uninspired ponytail and lit every cigarette as if it was her first.
Living on the fringes of society, the third woman in Paul's life announces her arrival by employing one of the most effective weapons in any woman's arsenal, and that is: the leopard print jumpsuit. The camera, focusing on a pink lamp resting on a bedside table, pulls back to reveal Silvia Miró in all her leopard print glory lounging seductively on the bed of a local motel. Call me foolish or an imprudent slug, but this particular scene was favourite in the entire movie. Please don't judge, but I think I might have even gasped a little the moment she first appeared on screen. Playing Mireille, Paul's super secret mistress, Silvia may only appear in four or five scenes, but she makes the most of them. On top of her introduction at the motel (Le Cheval Blanc), Silvia can be seen sleeping in the nude while a stocky man hovers over her (he's debating whether or not to strangle her with her pantyhose), unwisely pushing her way into the de Marnac residence, and greeting Paul at his Paris apartment wearing a gold disco mini-jacket with matching puffy pants that practically screamed V.I.P. area.
As you can see, Paul Naschy has filled Panic Beats with female characters that are not only complex, but also possess a deep inner strength. True, the scenes involving the suits of armour were a tad clumsy (I would have gone with the more flexible chain mail style of armour), but the overall gothic atmosphere was, for the most part, eerie enough to make one look past the film's obvious flaws. Oh, and it gave me a brand new perspective on facial hair.