Saturday, June 12, 2010

Panic in the Year Zero! (Milland 1962)

(NOTE: this is another classic review, originally written in 2008 and before my review of the The Quest)

Late last year, I was working on a project about the adaptations of Richard Matheson’s novel “I Am Legend,” and picked up a DVD with the first adaptation of the novel, The Last Man On Earth (Salkow 1964), a low budget production from noted B-film horror studio American International Pictures (AIP), producers of many early Roger Corman films. The disc was a double feature DVD which included another AIP production, Panic in the Year Zero!

Panic in the Year Zero! both stars and is directed by Ray Milland, star of Billy Wilder’s famed 1945 film The Lost Weekend (which I still need to see) and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 classic Dial M for Murder, working from a script by John Morton and Jay Simms. The film is the story of the Baldwin family, consisting of patriarch Harry (Milland), wife Ann (Jean Hagen of Singin’ In the Rain [Donen and Kelly 1952]), son Rich (teen idol Frankie Avalon) and daughter Karen (Mary Mitchel), who are on their way to a camping vacation when they discover a mushroom cloud over the Los Angeles area. As word comes in over the car radio of the destruction of major cities over America (and Canada!), Harry decides the family needs to continue on their journey as opposed to returning home in order to protect themselves both from the fallout and possible lawlessness as society seems to collapse around them. With each mile, the family is pushed by Harry’s increasing survivalist drive into extreme behaviour which pushes them outside the bounds of societal order.

The central thematic and dramatic crux of the film is the conflict between survival and the need to preserve society and civil order, and the point in which irrational panic begins to take control of the former. The masterstroke of the filmmakers is in their use of the stereotypical patriarchal organization of the Baldwin family to organize these themes and allow the audience to gradually witness the system of patriarchy and its values undermine themselves rather than resorting to didactic tactics.

While Ann occasionally voices questions about Harry’s increasingly aggressive measures to ensure his family’s safety, her willingness to submit with ease to Harry’s decisions allows the viewer to witness the contradictory, simplistic and dangerous aspects to Harry’s militaristic and survivalist attitudes for themselves. Harry frequently references potential threats towards the family in order to coerce their willingness to go along with his plans. However it is his behaviour that is closest to the threats he describes, turning to using weapons on store keeps and causing a massive traffic accident in order to get his family across a major highway. When Harry is finally confronted with what appears to be the threat he has been worried about, the situation only escalates because of Harry’s insistence of possessing firearms.

In perhaps the most damning moment of the film, Harry, having established his family’s base in a cave, preaches about the need to attempt to maintain a semblance of civilized life. However, unlike Ann’s previous and later moments of stating the need to maintain rational behaviour and trust in her fellow man, Harry’s view of civilization is limited to the need for daily shaving. Civilized behaviour is merely an act to be preformed, an act without substance.

Milland has a complex character in Harry, and his performance is up to par, allowing the viewer to keep sympathy for Harry even as he continues to dig his own grave and one for his family. The only other actor given substantial material to work with is Avalon as Harry’s son, and his performance is solid if not up to Milland’s work. Harry’s use of his son within the film is alternatively frightening and loving, as he tries to transform Rich into a man such as himself.

Where the film struggles is in its third act, in what I can only guess at the moment is due to the film being produced during the days of the Hay’s Code. After two acts of Harry’s increasing ethically questionable behaviour, the film attempts to shoehorn in a group of villains in order to mitigate the questions surrounding the actions of the Baldwin family. The filmmakers do their best within these constrictions to keep the moral ambiguity going however, as the last minute crisis of the film is the result of another of Harry’s fear based decisions, and the ending of the film refuses narrative closure, undermining the attempted moralizing on the part of two individuals at the film’s conclusion. The end result is fascinating to behold.

Milland’s direction of the film is solid if unspectacular, making the best of the low budget production values of AIP. Unfortunately these limitations occasionally become noticeable, including the use of some obvious stock footage and a poorly realized mushroom cloud. Thankfully the film is mostly an actor’s piece, allowing Milland to focus upon the drama and thematic issues rather than effects work, elaborate sets and staging. In Milland’s favour is also the solid screenwriting of Morton and Simms. A set of third act coincidences however are problematic, unnecessarily bringing back characters whose roles could easily have been fulfilled by other characters.

Oh, and I could not talk about the film without discussing Les Baxter’s music. Having written music for many AIP pictures, Baxter here writes a very jazzy score which, while seemingly at odds with what is onscreen, strangely enough works for the film in the end, giving the film an off kilter feel which matches the shifting morality of the family.

All in all, Panic in the Year Zero! is worth checking out, a thematically rich and dramatic B-film. Personally, I really want to check out more of these AIP films given my success thus far with them. However, in order to get a bit of possible pain out of the way, I think I am going to watch another film with actor directing himself next: The Quest (Van Damme 1996).

God help us all.

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