Last week The Plague of Zombies played at cinemas across the UK as part of StudioCanal’s Made in Britain season. Hammer’s 1966 tale of the Cornish undead remains its director’s best-known and most widely seen work, and yet John Gilling did much more than this particularly memorable horror flick. A one-time prize fighter, he’d entered the industry as an assistant in the 1930s before moving up to director in the late forties with low-budget potboiler Escape from Broadmoor. Gilling quickly established himself as a safe pair of hands, regularly turning out no-nonsense crime melodramas and, if called upon, the occasional science-fiction or comedy too. Hammer came calling in the early sixties which broadened his output further - boys’ own yarns as well as the horror stories - before seeing out his career with mostly episodic television for ITC: The Saint, The Champions, Department S.
For a long time it was easiest to see the Hammer horrors - The Reptile and The Mummy’s Shroud as well as The Plague of Zombies - whilst the likes of The Flesh and the Fiends (a Burke and Hare tale from 1960) would also intermittently show up on the box. It is only recently that some of Gilling’s non-horror output has been making its way onto disc. Two of his historical adventure yarns for Hammer turned up earlier this year as did the wonderful Anthony Newley vehicle Idol on Parade (review). Just as importantly we’re finally getting a chance to see some of the thrillers; despite being the most regular occurrence in Gilling’s filmography, they’ve also been the most difficult to track down.
Part of the pleasure of getting acquainted with these crime films - the likes of The Voice of Merrill and The Challenge (review) - is seeing their director’s obvious knack for this particular brand of cinema. Gilling was involved in both ‘A’ pictures and ‘B’ movies, yet both would demonstrate the same no-thrills, no-nonsense approach. Many of the thrillers didn’t have the stars or the budget in place and so the emphasis was on pacey, muscular storytelling (Gilling would often write his own scripts) and getting the talent behind the camera. Panic was no different - its producer was a veteran of ‘B’ films soon to break into the sexploitation market and it lacks the big names, yet such considerations are never allowed to get in the way of this energetic little yarn.
Panic is the tale of a diamond heist gone wrong. An innocent man loses his life and Jan, our heroine, loses much of her memory thanks to a nasty bump on the head. Consequently she has no idea that she was in on the job in the first place. Panicking - because of the dead body in front of her and because she remembers none of this - she runs. First to some seedy lodgings complete with dodgy landlord and dodgy client (the instantly recognisable wrestler/actor Milton Reid, most famous for his rooftop tussle with Roger Moore in The Spy Who Loved Me), then - as brief flashes of the past begin to come back to her - to former acquaintances. Unfortunately, both the police and the criminals (including boyfriend Johnnie, played with mean-eyed menace by Dyson Lovell) are on her tail, whilst even an innocent stop-off at a café prompts the unwanted attentions of a particularly seedy beatnik. Thankfully kind-hearted boxer Mike (seemingly the only non-predatory male in the entire film) is on hand to offer up assistance and common sense.
None of this particularly new, but that never prevents Panic from being a perfectly entertaining experience. Key to its success is Gilling’s handling of the pace. The film doesn’t even reach the 80-minute mark and as such whirls through its tale with a relentless energy. Film noir would appear to be the main influence and it’s really quite impressive to see that very particular mood and style transposed to the UK. Prolific cinematographer Geoffrey Faithfull (who had recently shot sci-fi classic Village of the Damned) contributes some wonderful chiaroscuro photographer and takes full advantage of the constant rainfall, whilst Sydney John Kay provides the jazzy score - mean-eyed Johnnie is also something of a mean trumpeter. Gilling should also be commended for finding so many British character actors who blend seamlessly into this noir environment: not just Reid and Lovell, but also Glyn Houston (as Mick), Charles Houston (as Johnnie’s weak bohemian artist brother), Marne Maitland (the seedy landlord) and plenty more besides.
British film noir is a rare beast though it does has its classics, most notably Jules Dassin’s Night and the City, Alberto Cavalcanti’s They Made Me a Fugitive and - though some may disagree with the labelling - Robert Hamer’s It Always Rains On Sunday. Panic is never going to be a contender to such a status but that’s not to say its DVD release isn’t welcome. Labels like Odeon, who are responsible for this release, and Renown are doing a sterling job in getting viewers acquainted once more with British cinema’s ‘B’ movie past. They’ve unearthed their fare share of forgotten gems and, just as importantly, they’ve also enriched our understanding of our national cinema. Indeed, John Gilling’s name is no longer one to associate almost solely with Hammer horror. There’s much more to him than The Plague of the Zombies as Panic ably demonstrates.
A mostly decent if unspectacular presentation. Panic comes in a ratio of 1.33:1 which I suspect is incorrect. The opening credits are a little tightly framed as are some of the later scenes. Nonetheless, the print quality is otherwise of a perfectly acceptable standard being mostly clean and damage-free. Contrast levels are very good as is the amount of detail in the image. Admittedly, the latter does waver a little from scene to scene but never to any real detrimental effect. The soundtrack is in a similar condition, occasionally showing signs of age though, for the most part, doing a fine job of handling the dialogue and Kay’s score. On-disc extras are limited to trailers for other Odeon releases, but we do also find a booklet with new liner notes from James Oliver offering up plenty of background info.