For the uninitiated there are some things you need to know about this franchise. It began in 1987 with The Curse, a very, very, very loose adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s tale, “The Colour Out Of Space.” Incidentally, not counting this one, to date there are now three other adaptations of this tale currently in existence—Die, Monster, Die (1965), Colour From The Dark (2008) and a black and white German version called Die Farber (2010), and there’ll be at least two more some day, a new one is in the works by director Richard Stanley and he states this’ll be the most faithful. In an interview he did a few months ago he also stated he knew of one more version in the works. This is one of my favorite tales from Lovecraft with an ending that has yet to be realized on screen.
In 1989 a “sequel” called Curse II: The Bite hit the VHS market. Despite having the Curse moniker it had nothing to do with the first flick. “Curse II” is the only film in existence about a man who’s bitten on the arm by a radioactive rattler while on vacation with his new girlfriend and has that arm slowly metamorphosis into a mutant snake. Deviations from Lovecraft’s tale not with standing I’m a fan of The Curse, and I’m also a fan of The Bite, the movie’s original title. The latter has got some great physical effects and, hey, it’s about a guy whose arm turns into a snake. How can you not love that premise? Two more unrelated movies were added to the Curse franchise, the one I’m reviewing now, which came out on VHS in 1991 under the title, Curse III: Blood Sacrifice, and one in 1993 titled, Curse IV: The Ultimate Sacrifice. Catacombs is the original title of that final installment and it’s a demon possession tale from Empire Pictures.
Okay, now that we’re all caught up with the history of this weird little franchise let’s move on to Panga. The first two installments I saw when they first hit cable, but I never saw the other two. I reviewed Catacombs just a few months ago but I’ll talk more about the DVD history of these movies at the end. I first heard about Panga in Fangoria but they never formally covered the movie, only reviewed the VHS in issue #105 on page 32. It wasn’t a flattering review either, in fact most reviews I’ve come across over the decades aren’t, but when I really want to see a movie I generally ignore all the negative reviews. Panga never hit cable back in the day, which is why I’ve never seen it. In short what I always remembered from that Fangoria review was that it had Christopher Lee in it and there was a monster that showed up at the end. I’m a fan of Lee and I love monster movies. Those two things pretty much sealed the deal for me and I’ve waited years to find out if this unseen “memory movie” would be my cup of tea.
I’ll know tonight when I watch it.
Okay, now that I’ve finally seen it I can tell with no uncertainty had I seen this when it first came out I would’ve hated it. That being said despite the movie’s “logic problems” I actually liked it. First off the movie is a slow-mover. What that would’ve translated to for my 22-year-old self back in the day is boring, but over the decades slow-movers and slow-burn movies don’t bother me as much as they would have my younger self. Panga is not a slow-burn, just a slow-mover and I shall call it that because I wasn’t bored by it at all. It may have many problems, but for me boredom wasn’t one of them.
I always knew it was a “jungle horror tale,” but what I didn’t know was that it was a period piece, taking place in East Africa in 1950. I probably knew that at one point since I remember reading the Fangoria’s review and I’m sure they mentioned it took place in 1950, but since I had forgotten that it was a pleasant surprise; I don’t see many period piece horror flicks.
Jenilee Harrison (Three’s Company) stars as Elizabeth Armstrong the American wife of British-born Geoff (Andre Jacobs). There are four more members of this family she’s married into but their connection to the husband is never revealed. There’s an Olivia (Olivia Dyer) and a Robert (Gavin Hood) and an obvious grandmother and granddaughter living at another house close by. Robert may or may not be Geoff’s brother, but we do know Olivia is Robert’s girlfriend.
Before all our characters get messed up in this curse, a prologue is shown that has a kid lost in a cane field being stalked by someone or something. It turns out be a someone, a native who eventually catches the kid and kills him with a machete. As we get to know some of these characters an event unfolds that gets this family cursed. And this can all be traced back to the nefarious activities of the local witch doctor, who had the kid in the prologue murdered for some transgression that involved either a kid or a cub getting killed by a leopard. Some of the accents are thick in this movie and the DVD doesn’t have subtitles, so I’m not really sure what the kid did, but whatever it was it was bad enough to get him murdered. When a child dies in this neck of the woods it’s commonplace to make a sacrifice the day after. On this particular day Olivia, Robert, Elizabeth and the Armstrong’s foreman, Mletch (Henry Cele), (the Armstrongs are cane farmers) are out for a drive when they happen to make a stop right at this village just as the witch doctor is planning to ice the goat in this ceremony. Olivia’s PETA gene activates and she leaps from the truck to save the goat. In so doing the witch doctor curses the family, mostly Liz, since she was out front despite not being the one who formally fucked everything up.
Liz is pregnant and according to Mletch the curse was aimed at her unborn kid, and she even suffers pain later on with what we all assume is going to be a miscarriage, but this is the start of the “logic problems.” She recovers and never once is the baby mentioned again.
Christopher Lee comes into the movie as he’s the local doctor they call. Pearson’s his name. Afterwards when they’re all out on the patio talking casually like nothing ever happened Pearson spots a rare staff a witch doctor would use to summon a demon from the sea that can be used as a tool for revenge. He asks Geoff if he can keep it for a while, but is Pearson a good guy or a bad guy? He’s seen later meeting with that witch doctor and giving him the staff to which we all know he’s going to summon this demon to snuff out Liz and probably her family.
It seems this movie wasn’t quite sure what it wanted to be either a supernatural slasher or a creature feature? If you take out the monster, what little there is of it, and substitute and actual human killer you’d have a more logical movie, but either there were creative differences, or someone deemed what they were filming didn’t have much of a punch and decided to throw in an actual monster. Whatever the deal was the monster certainly feels like a last minute addition, but that doesn’t mean the slasher elements were downplayed because of it.
I’m somewhat forgiving of monster movies from the 80s and 90s that incorporate slasher elements since 80s horror cinema was in one respect built on the back of slasher films. The Boogens (1981) is a creature feature with minor slasher elements, and even The Incubus (1982) is paced somewhat like a slasher, but at least the slasher element is integrated sensibly in those two movies. Not so much in Panga, and I would even go so far as to say they are laughably incorporated. You see after the demon is summoned, which gave me a nice Lovecraftian Deep One vibe, and as it walks POV style out of the sea and towards Olivia and Robert who’re shagging in a make-shift tent on the beach (a very definite Humanoids From The Deep vibe cannot be denied here as well) it decides to not kill them with it’s claws, like a sensible monstrous fishman would do, but use that machete Robert was screwing around with prior and kill them that way.
I know, I know, I had the same reaction.
As the curse plays itself out and hunts down our cast members two of which end up lost in that cane field like prologue boy was we get another headscratcher. If you’ve sent a demon to kill, don’t send your henchman to stalk your prey too, which is what you get in those cane field scenes. We get the heavy, gurgle breath of our gillman, insinuating he’s the one on the prowl, but then we get quick shots of that witch doctor, or his henchman, was never quiet sure which one it was, skirting through the field too. And in the final act the movie also wants you to blame Pearson, who shows up at the second house looking for Liz after Geoff’s been killed and Liz’s been chased out. He’s breathing suspiciously like that monster was. So what’s that supposed to mean? Does he turn into the monster? Is he possessed by the monster? No, it’s just a red herring he quickly debunks as Liz holds him at gunpoint suspecting him to be the killer.
It was at least nice to see Lee not just making a brief cameo, he has a small part, sure, but after he departs the movie in the beginning he shows up again to add more to the film even though that more will have you scratching your head. During his explanation that throws in some of his personal history, he explains he was trying to undo the curse with that staff, and we even get a scene out in the jungle at night with him gesticulating with it.
I think this movie would have worked if it were revealed Pearson was the actual killer; that this demon works by possessing and then forcing the possessed to kill. I admit I was getting that holy shit vibe when it was looking like he was indeed the murderer, of course I was then expecting him to lay out and connect all the loose ends that would have made that plausible, but, no, there’s an actually monster stalking everyone, even after the witch doctor, or henchman, is burned alive in that cane field. Ending number #1 you might call that, which gives more credence to my theory someone didn’t believe the main story here was working so they went back and filmed ending #2—with a monster!
The fishman was created by FX artist Chris Walas, which is why it looks so good, but it’s never seen until the final act, with only a glimpse of its eye at the 46-minute mark. They did show enough of it, however, and have it fully engaged, like a good monster should be, in the final moments to give me a satisfied feeling, but a lot of his impact is lessened by his unnecessary wielding of that bloody machete. He’s cornered Liz in part of the house, it looks like a greenhouse, or something, she’s locked the door, to get inside, he first shatters the glass near the knob with the machete, then reaches through to try and open it, and then continues to menace Liz with the machete once inside before he’s set afire. This was like if they filmed the Gillman in Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954) killing people with a spear.
The opening credits also feels like this was supposed to be more slash and less monster when the Panga title pops up (Panga is a type of machete. Ah-ha!) it’s slashed in half, reminding me of how any Friday The 13th sequel begins.
As I said despite the many flaws in pure logic this movie swims in I still managed to enjoy it and do actually see myself wanting to watch it again at some point. And so it ends up making my collection. I have it on the same shelf with the other two MGM MOD’s I reviewed, The Falling (1987) and Mom (1991).
Video/Audio/Subtitles: anamorphic 1.85:1 (or) 1.78:1 widescreen—2.0 English Dolby Digital—No subtitles.
MGM never puts exact ratio specs on the back of their MODs, at least not with the three I’ve reviewed, so the ratio on Panga is either 1.85:1 or 1.78:1, but point is this is it’s widescreen debut and it looks really good. In fact I’ve been pleased with all the previous transfers of the MGM MOD’s I’ve written about.
There are no extras.
It appears Scream Factory has cornered the market on releasing The Curse franchise on blu-ray. In March they’re releasing The Curse and Curse II: The Bite on a double feature blu and this past summer they released Catacombs (aka Curse IV) on blu with Cellar Dweller. Now just because MGM released Panga on their MOD program (back on November 17) it doesn’t mean it won’t hit blu at some point. DVD rights and blu-ray rights are two different things. If you need proof of that as well, you can buy MGM’s I Come In Peace (1990) either as a DVD-R on their program or the blu-ray Scream Factory released. So I fully expect Scream to announce a double feature with Panga next year.