Monday, July 22, 2024

From the Vault: “Panther Squad”

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In his essay on bad movies, critic J. Hoberman remarks, “A supremely bad movie–an anti-masterpiece–projects a stupidity as awesome as genius.”  Sometimes you stumble across a movie so stubbornly incompetent, so breathtakingly stupid, you can’t help but admire its hopeless lack of charms. 

Pierre Chevalier’s, working under the name Peter Knight, Panther Squad is one such movie. Or is it The Panther Squad? The film and the poster can’t seem to agree. For a little over an hour, the audience is left to cobble together what they have seen amid all the visual gibberish that unfolds with little to no help from anyone in the film.

panther squad
The poster for Panther Squad with Sybil Danning that gives the absolute wrong impression. It’s nowhere near this badass.

Worse is how the box cover and poster would lead you to think Panther Squad is some sort of adventure film set in the bayou. About a thousand miles from the mild sci-fi tale about a group of eco-terrorists, Clean Space, sabotaging the futuristic space program of N.O.O.N (New Organization of Nations) and the elite all-women squad dispatched to stop them. (Yes, you read that right, they included “of” in the acronym. Welcome to Panther Squad.)

Panther Squad is so bad even the plot synopsis on IMDB gets the name of the eco-terrorist organization wrong. IMDB has it as “Space Clean”. Much like the government organization N.O.O.N, the name is said so many times you almost have to be actively ignoring the movie to get it wrong.  

The more you begin to grasp the dissonance in the very DNA of Panther Squad the more you begin to understand why a man responsible for the infamous shlock classic Orloff Against the Invisible Man aka The Invisible Man’s Love Life is using pseudonyms. When a director like Chevalier starts exhibiting shame, we’ve hit rock bottom.

Panther Squad is a 1986 Eurotrash movie starring the legendary Sybil Danning as Ilona, the leader of an elite squad of all-women mercenaries. A squad of women whose names we are never told and who are utterly indistinguishable from each other except for hair color and even then not so much. The squad has little to no bearing on anything that happens despite all the scenes of them kicking ass and swimming in pools while the fate of the free world hangs in the balance.

Chevalier tries to set up the squad as an elite force but the dissonance in Panther Squad is forever hungry and needs feeding. We are shown scenes of Ilona watching her recruits, and they hardly seem the type you’d want for a top-secret military force. Whether it’s slapping their jammed machine guns in frustration and giving up, or throwing knives at landmines and then running towards the land mine, it’s hard to believe they are sending Ilona their best. Even more baffling is we see Ilona stamping the file of one of the ladies–the one who ran towards the exploding land mine–as “O.K.” 

Only the mildest ladies make it onto Ilona’s squad.

Ilona is the type of character Danning perfected during her career. One character describes Ilona, as “the toughest cookie in our jar.” ”What this lady has, you wouldn’t want to camouflage.” Accurate summaries of the type of roles Danning often played as well as Danning herself. As playmate turned actress, she often bared, not necessarily all, but more than enough.

Likely the name Sybil Danning is lost to the modern generation, but if you were alive in the 80s, the name fills you with a kind of breathless excitement. A queen of exploitation movies such as Warrior Queen, Battle Beyond the Stars, and sleazy potboilers like They’re Playing With Fire her barely contained breasts and trademark smirk made for an exciting combination. 

I’m not joking when I say there was a time when Danning could have easily played Catwoman in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns. Danning was a queen of exploitation and B-movies during the 80s with her wild blonde mane and impressive bust line. To quote Roger Ebert, “Sybil Danning has probably been in more different movies in the last fifteen years than any other actress in the free world, and they can’t all be Citizen Kane.”

panther squad
Ilona (Sybil Danning) and Frank (Jack Crawford) have a drink and discuss plot points.

Much like other actresses from that period, such as Monique Gabrielle or Lana Clarkson, Danning was often cast primarily for her sex appeal. Sex sold, and few sold sex as well as Danning. But Panther Squad isn’t sleazy or sexy, or fun, or good. Despite Danning’s ridiculous fetish-inspired outfit, the outfit looks neither erotic nor comfortable. The leather monstrosity must have been hell for the poor sound designer.

It becomes clear as Panther Squad lurches on that Chevalier has given no thought to who his audience might be. The cover shows a braless Danning in a vest and jeans wielding an AK-47. But as I said, there’s no sleaze, heck there’s not even any nudity. Yes, there’s the scantily clad bevy of beauties of the squad and Danning in her outfit, but that’s where the scintillating starts and ends. Chevalier imbues a sense of ho-hum to everything. 

Panther Squad immerses itself into a vibeless sun-drenched smog where Phil Uyuer’s lens is something less than a recording device. This was, by the way, the first and last film Uyuer shot. It is also Chevalaier’s last film. 

Ilona’s partner Frank Bramble (Jack Taylor) embodies the film’s ho-hum attitude. Taylor plays every scene as if he’s awoken from the world’s deepest and greatest nap and he can’t wait to get back to it. There’s laconic and cool and then there’s tranquilized and comatose. Danning and Taylor are the best things about Panther Squad. They have good chemistry and seem to have a better idea of what they are doing than Chevalier.

Chevalier and his writer Geroges Friedland utilize the run time to dance around frivolous things like plot points and story beats. Panther Squad doesn’t move to its own rhythm so much as stomps to the beat of a drummer from a new form of music as yet undiscovered by Earth. 

Danning served as a producer, her first Producing credit, on Panther Squad. One can only surmise that Panther Squad was, if nothing else, a learning experience.

There’s a joy to bad films if for no other reason than, as Hoberman states, “An objectively bad film promotes perceptual havoc,” in which the language of the film falls into disrepair, leaving the audience in a stupor. Panther Squad is a paradox in that it moves at a breakneck pace but also irrevocably feels at times as if it’s stuck in a mud pit running in place.

Chevalier and his editors Barry Lensky and Peter Marks rely heavily on a mixture of stock footage, reusing the same shot multiple times, and an editing style that laughs in the face of even the barest hint of continuity. In one fight scene alone we see a change of filmstock, slow motion, and an inexplicable cut to an empty room, before cutting back to the fight at the same moment they cut away from.

Logically this is because everyone involved had no business being in a fight scene. The director attempts to shoot and edit around this fact. But it’s the way the scene is edited that sends the viewer into convulsions. Several cutaways would give the scene an air of surrealism. But only one cut? And to return at the exact moment, makes it feel as if the film is gaslighting us!

It doesn’t help that Panther Squad combines on-location shooting, stock footage, and sets that are obviously one half of a room rather than a soundstage. To call Panther Squad cheap would be an insult to cheapness. Chevalier wishes the film were cheap because that would mean there was some influx of cash on hand. 

No, Panther Squad feels shot on the fly. I get the sense that after every scene the cast and crew fled the premises before the cops showed up to ask if they had a permit for shooting there. Perhaps they hoped Danning’s glistening cleavage would serve as a distraction, a valiant effort in any case. 

Another scene has the nameless squad of women soldiers trying to sneak aboard a yacht where the terrorists are hiding. We see a girl swimming towards a boat, cut with footage of another woman windsurfing. The film then cuts to two shirtless, well-muscled men on a yacht waving, presumably at the two women. But there’s no eyeline match in the editing. 

So we’re left to assume these people are looking at the others. In a way, it’s an experiment to see how much information the human brain needs before crafting its own story to make sense of the madness. Worse, the montage repeats itself on a loop, but since they are the same shots over and over, it forms a Morbius loop rather than a montage. We the audience are forced to sit transfixed and flustered as even the basic relief of progress seems imprisoned in eternal stasis.

panther squad
The President of N.O.O.N, played by Roger Darton, gives his speech about the new space race.

I haven’t seen a filmmaker rely so much on the same footage since Amando de Ossorio’s Ghost Galleon. But at least with Ghost Galleon de Ossorio was able to cobble together a sense of place, a mood. Chevalier miraculously achieves none of that with Panther Squad. However, he does manage to craft an unrecognizable reality along with making sure Danning’s breasts are always somewhat in a frame. A fact that doesn’t help the movie but also doesn’t hurt it either. 

Panther Squad was shot in multiple European countries, but since it was meant for American distribution, it forced many of the European actors to speak in English despite their tenuous grasp of it. Imagine the “Mawriage” scene from The Princess Bride but for the whole movie. One poor bastard has to read an entire ransom letter in a scene that goes on so long it begins to feel like a “Family Guy” bit. One plot point has Danning searching for a woman named Barbara Wims, which feels like a kind of comedic sadism at that point. Heck, I defy anyone to say the name Barbara Wims with a straight face, accent or no.

The last fifteen minutes of the film don’t feel like a climax so much as Chevalier giving up. It is revealed that a nameless South American dictator has been manipulating Clean Space to do his bidding. But no worry, Danning’s Ilona has a deux ex machina in the form of a ray gun exploding out of left field. 

The world of Panther Squad is a world where NASA rocket ships take off and turn into futuristic starships from a Corman sci-fi movie once they reach space; possibly the aforementioned, Battle Beyond the Stars. These futuristic star cruisers are called “space jeeps” because Panther Squad delights in always going for the most baffling yet boring creative decision possible.

The spaceships are soon revealed to be capable of being flown remotely by fringe eco-terrorist groups. At first blush, this seems preposterous. Though given the state of modern AI and technology in general, this bit of Panther Squad tracks. 

Panther Squad is without question an anti-masterpiece. Some movies are masterworks of clever and lucky decisions. Others are trainwrecks of bad luck and wrong turns. The former is harder than you think and the latter is so easy it keeps many filmmakers up at night. 

Images courtesy of Full Moon Productions

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