The living dead in this case is personified by Alex (William H. Macy), who, after a lifetime of intimidation by his controlling father, has grown into a defeated, middle-aged man sitting on an inferno of rage. Insisting to his wife, Martha (Tracey Ullman), that he sells sexual appliances and kitchen aids (or is it the other way around?), Alex keeps his real profession a secret. The only person on the planet with whom he shares a modicum of intimacy or genuine tenderness is Sammy (David Dorfman), his precocious 6-year-old son.
Alex, being a modern Southern California man, is enlightened enough to know that he's one of the walking wounded. As such, he seeks out a therapist (John Ritter), a befuddled healer who instantly realizes that he's in over his head with this client. As it turns out, Ritter's character is also in harm's way. As a test of filial loyalty of biblical proportions -- or perhaps simply because he's a sadist -- Michael demands that Alex execute the therapist, who is now privy to the family business. "I love you too much to see you throwing your life away like this," he says, as if his son had dropped out of college rather than confided in a doctor.
Meanwhile, let us not forget Deidre (Barbara Bain), a well-coiffed, suburban Lady Macbeth, who has formed an unholy alliance with her husband, Michael. June Cleaver she is not.
Sutherland is top-notch as a foul, venal bully with pretensions of urbanity. Whether he's throwing a tantrum after losing at bowling or berating his grandson for being a "retard," he's a rank specimen. Writer/director Henry Bromell, an accomplished fiction writer and former executive producer of the television series Homicide, uses visual shorthand and sassy, irreverent repartee -- tools he may have acquired as a TV vet -- to delineate character. He strategically places Sutherland in settings that accentuate Michael's diabolical nature: rooms with florid interiors, lending the character a suitably demonic aura reminiscent of Vincent Price in The Masque of the Red Death.
In contrast, Macy is often photographed against cool steel and flat, sterile backgrounds, reflecting an inner landscape of permanent winter. The actor, who has the face of an unhappy court jester, has always been a master of implosion. From his years working with David Mamet, he has perfected the art of delivering wry, punchy dialogue while appearing too weary to move. With each subtle gesture, he signals the deteriorating mental state of a man who could either collapse from despair or detonate.
Alex perks up, relatively speaking, when he meets Sarah (Neve Campbell). With her unkempt hair and leather pants, she represents raw sexual possibility -- and, more importantly, escape. Their polite, goofy exchanges lead to a tenuous affair, but their lovemaking feels less like passion than like the last, desperate clutch of two people on the verge of breakdown. Campbell is very good as an impulsive, sexually frank, yet vulnerable woman who keeps a spare set of handcuffs on the couch along with her unwashed laundry. Her scenes with Macy have a delicious, gawky tension: His hunger is unduly restrained, but she can take her shirt off as easily as she can put her fist through a window. Of course, their frantic interlude can only stave off the inevitable for a brief time.
Bromell tells this tale with understatement and economy, successfully alternating between flippant humor and horrific moments, such as when Sammy, under his grandfather's wicked tutelage, is forced to shoot a squirrel. Though there's no gore, it's clear that the psychological damage is profound. The demon seed has been planted.
It should be noted that Panic, which aired on cable last month, almost missed its shot at the big screen. Roxie Releasing rescued it from oblivion after Artisan Entertainment, the original distributor, shelved plans for a theatrical release because of a disappointing response from a focus group. After its Bay Area release the movie will open wide across the country. And that's a good thing, because Panic is a tightly wound, sharply written, superbly acted film. It's that rare article: a smart, taut, witty movie that deserves to be seen.