Anguish Review (1987)

Spoiler-free so you can read before you watch

Anguish Review (1987)

Horrorific content by penguin_pete on June 22nd, 2018 | Movie Review | Supernatural, Cult Classic, Killer, Maniac, Body Horror

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It’s about a serial killer optometrist and his controlling hypnotizing mother which becomes an exercise in post-modern meta-horror.

Anguish (also titled Angustia) was directed by Bigas Luna  and stars Zelda Rubinstein (from Poltergeist), Michael Lerner (from Strange Invaders) and Talia Paul.

The eyes of the city are mine.

Anguish Review

Anguish - not to be confused with the 2015 movie of the same name - is a movie so obscure that you’d have to be a real horror fanatic just to chase it down. And that’s just the beginning of your problems if you’re out to review it, because it’s also a mind-bender. You could compare it to Funny Games, in that it starts out being a horror movie that becomes a commentary on watching horror movies. You could note that watching it becomes a masochistic experience because the movie browbeats you for watching it. Then you realize you sound like a raving nut and have to back up and start describing it over again.

The Straight Dope

John (Michael Lerner) is an optometrist who is ironically losing his sight because of an untreated diabetes condition. He lives with his mother, Alice (Zelda Rubinstein, of Poltergeist fame), a creepy, whispery old witch who hypnotizes John into doing her bidding. She makes John kill people and steal their eyes, which has nothing to do with his own condition. Instead, possessing people’s eyes makes Alice’s powers grow, so she just makes him fetch her these eyes. So we end up with this medical-themed slasher with a unique concept told in a psychedelic way, filled with hypnotism motifs of spirals, eyes, spinning camera zooms, and shots of the random menagerie of pets the household keeps, including pigeons and snails. Zelda Rubinstein plays this to the absolute hammy max, her famous raspy whisper dominating the story and making her one of the creepiest horror villains to come along in some time.

Do you like the movie so far? Well, too bad, because we’re not watching it. Instead, this is the premise of a movie called “The Mommy,” which we zoom back to see an audience in a movie theater watching. We’re barely able to keep track of the rest of our bait-and-switch feature on their screen in bits and pieces, because there’s a real-life spree killer who is obsessed with “The Mommy” and has entered the theater to begin randomly shooting the audience. Meanwhile back in “the Mommy,” John has himself entered a movie theater showing The Lost World, and starts stealthily offing victims there as well.

We end up with parts of The Lost World , “The Mommy,” and the movie we’re presumably watching (...get on my knees and pray we don’t get fooled again...) mixed together in a chowder. The rest of this becomes an experiment in telescoping movies. Sometimes we’re an audience watching an audience watching an audience and sometimes we’re watching a movie about a movie about a movie. Events from all three blend together, even to some sly jokes where it seems the characters in The Lost World are reacting to events outside their screen. Have fun finding your way out of this hall of mirrors!

What The Heck Was That?

Anguish leaves us free to take it however we want it. Maybe it’s a parody of horror movies. Maybe they ran out of ideas for “The Mommy” and just copped out the rest. Maybe it’s a moral lesson about letting media define your reality with its fantasy. Maybe its a symbolic statement about real life events in society, meditating on how fiction mirrors real life mirrors fiction. The point of view of the hypnotism scenes suggests that we viewers have been hypnotized too, and now we’re all serial killers experiencing the movie through our own filters. Maybe director Bigas Luna had a psychic vision foretelling the 2012 Aurora theater shooting. Or maybe he had a psychic vision foretelling 2010‘s Inception. It works as all of the above. It’s a desert topping and a floor wax, it slices and dices, it’s two (three? four??) movies in one!

For Bigas Luna’s first directorial outing, this was one headache of a movie to start with, but you can’t deny that he has a scarily brilliant concept. He pulls your strings, knowing you want to just watch the rest of “The Mommy” but he keeps smacking your on the snout for wanting it. It’s like being tied up and teased by a Dominitrix. You leave questioning what the heck “a movie” is.

Relevant Today?

Anguish has a few glaring flaws. Once we get to the telescoping movies bit, the acting drops sharply, as we now have to empathize with two teenage girls who become the focus of the audience watching “The Mommy.” And of course, we were really getting into “The Mommy” ourselves, even though it was just about to get a bit trite in places.

But the overall premise is enticing enough that it had several twins, among them 1991‘s Popcorn, also about a serial killer stalking an audience watching horror films; 2008‘s Midnight Movie, where the killer from a horror movie comes out into the audience to terrorize them; and Dario Argento, of all people, with 1985‘s Demons, where a movie audience is once again victims to the monsters they came to see. This last predates Luna’s film by three years, so it’s a pretty hefty candidate for an influence. You can probably think of several more examples of self-referential horror, but Anguish stands alone in handling this premise in its own unique way.

And hey, we already mentioned the uncomfortable similarity to a real-life tragedy, which casts this whole movie in a more profound light. Movies like Anguish tend to stir the brain by forcing us to examine the experience of watching movies on an avant-garde level. Indeed, since it cuts right through to the heart of human nature, its desire to see scary movies, and what that says about us, doesn’t that make it a perfect meta-horror movie?

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