To celebrate Panic Day, my plan was to compile a list of movies that were made to warn of/cash in upon some kind of national panic that threatened our very way of life. I scoured the internet looking for examples and found myself drowning in PSAs and Google searches that suggested Panic Room.
This led me to ask some of my friends for suggestions, but when I did I found it hard to explain what I meant when I said “panic movies”. People assumed I meant horror films or movies about panic attacks, or Panic Room. The best example I could give them was Reefer Madness, which turned out to be a cultural reference that wasn’t as popular as I had hoped.
Reefer Madness, available in its entirety on YouTube, was made in the late 30s and is also known as Tell Your Children or Doped Youth. It is about the horrors and effects of marijuana and is about as subtle as a hammer to the teeth. Every character who smokes weed ends up dead, a murderer, insane, or suicidal. The movie ends with a doctor-type telling a crowd that events like the ones featured in the film happen all the time and could happen to any of their children or, as he points straight at the camera, YOUR CHILDREN!
That is a panic movie. It doesn’t tell a story. It has an agenda and no real skill about presenting it but presents it anyway. At the same time though it is not a real movie, or it didn’t start out as one. Originally, it was funded by a church group as a morality tale, but eventually it was bought by a producer who re-cut it and distributed it on the exploitation circuit, bringing it to a wider audience.
How about now, though? Surely modern audiences are more savvy about the world now that we’ve moved beyond panic movies. Oh, don’t get me wrong, there are always going to be church groups pumping out Kirk Cameron-starring dreck warning us that Christmas should be about Christ and that a marriage can be saved with prayer. These movies are as subtle as a crucifix to the temple, but they can be spotted from miles away. The same goes for Tyler Perry, a filmmaker I despise but absolutely loved in Gone Girl, and his brand of bullshit morality tales.
Look to the awkwardly titled Tyler Perry’s Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor. This is a movie that, in no uncertain terms, tells its female audience that if they cheat on their husbands they will fall into a life of drugs, sex, and depravity and end up with HIV.
That is a panic movie. It lacks nuance and jams its message down your throat like one of those tubes they use to force feed prisoners on hunger strikes.
And let’s not forget 2014’s Men, Women and Children (or maybe we should forget it). Jason Reitman has made some legit movies in his short career, but this anti-Internet stinker feels like it took story lessons from Reefer Madness in its lack of subtlety. Every conceivable way in which the internet, smartphones, and video games could be seen as evil is presented in this awful, awful movie. And they are presented in a way that screams, “YOUR CHILDREN ARE NEXT! MODERN FAMILES ARE FALLING APART! THE INTERNET KILLED YOUR PUPPY!”
That is a panic movie.
The beauty of panic in a movie is when it’s subverted. Diego Crespo wrote very passionately about Attack the Block a few weeks ago. An element of that film which is denied to him and which resonated very strongly with me (because I am English and he is not) is that in England around the time of that movie’s release, so-called “Hoodies” were the worst enemy of civilised God-fearing Englishmen and women. They were a blight upon humanity, devoid of any goodness and out to tear down the very fabric of our nation. The idea of a movie presenting these Hoodies as not just human beings but also heroes? Unthinkable! And yet the movie works because it subverts our panic about gangs and creates something that we beforehand could not conceive (see also Hot Fuzz).
So Happy Panic Day everyone. Don’t hide under your tables for fear of Marijuana, the Internet, and Tyler Perry. Go out and enjoy yourself. Talk to your children like they’re adults about the dangers of some things in the world. Educate yourself about things that scare you and maybe they won’t anymore. Don’t listen to people who will try and prey on your fear.
And in the immortal words of Douglas Adams…