Anguish AKA Angustia (1987)
Directed by: Bigas Luna
Starring: Zelda Rubinstein, Michael Lerner, Talia Paul, Àngel Jové, Clara Pastor, Isabel García Lorca
1/2 (out of 4)
Please, no talking during the movie.
Warning: Some spoilers below
I went into Spanish director Bigas Luna’s self-referential Anguish somewhat blindly, only knowing that it involved the film-within-a-film concept but nothing more. The adverb “blindly” seems apropos here, considering that crazy man John, of the film-inside-the-film (played by Michael Lerner), goes around killing people and collecting their eyeballs at the bidding of his twisted mother (Zelda Rubinstein, a year after Poltergeist II). John is unable to break free of his mother’s influence, partly due to her exceptional powers of hypnosis (her methods are paid special attention to by the movie) and what seems to be a telepathic link between her and her son. That Anguish is paying homage to the motif of the killer-with-mother-issues is clear, but where Bigas Luna takes the story is quite fascinating.
Is that you, Carol Anne?
At a point where John has made his first two gruesome kills, the camera pulls back to reveal that everything so far has been happening on a movie screen inside an L.A. theater, and people in the audience are visibly affected by the on-screen carnage. One girl in particular named Patty (Talia Paul) is so disturbed that she leaves to use the bathroom, only to imagine that she’s hearing the screams of Zelda Rubinstein (and the movie-within-the-movie is given the amusing title “The Mommy”). Later, when her annoyed friend Linda (Clara Pastor) takes a restroom break, another visibly affected moviegoer (Àngel Jové) goes Psycho for real, shooting the theater employees and locking the audience in, intent on playing out the events of “The Mommy” all the way to the end.
Before The Dark Knight Rises, a really funny tagline would have gone here.
That I happened upon Anguish at this particular moment in time seems fortuitous, and I use that term in the classical sense, not the modern definition. Remember, this film predates the events involving Dark Knight Rises killer James Holmes by 25 years. Anguish is the kind of movie that tries to offer up a possible explanation for Holmes’ behavior: a clearly disturbed man (in this case, with mother issues), who has seen a particular violent film (“The Mommy”) enough times to know it by heart, pulls a gun and shoots theatergoers at random, while taking a hostage (in sync with the big screen behind him, where Michael Lerner’s character also takes a hostage inside a theater showing The Lost World). I think that not many people are aware of this film’s existence, explaining why the TV talking heads haven’t tried connecting it to the Aurora killings.
They must be watching Battlefield Earth.
The subtext of Anguish is thorny. Is Luna casting judgment on the horror genre as having deleterious effects upon those who watch it? Is he merely mocking those who make that case? I don’t know, the movie seems too serious for the latter theory (and you can compare this to Lamberto Bava’s Demons from 2 years prior, since they both cover similar territory, but Demons is much campier). It could be that he is simply demonstrating the power of cinema to mesmerize (why else give special focus to Zelda’s methods of hypnosis? So much so that there’s a disclaimer at the beginning of the film!) When Anguish comes to its conclusion, we are aware of watching people watching a movie, but then the credits roll up and we see yet another theater of people watching the credits, gathering their things, then leaving the theater. I almost want to look behind me to make sure I’m not being watched too.
Ah, another Michael Bay movie.
Anguish sees madness as somewhat like a spiral, and this spiral is manifested in the appearance of snails (an interesting choice). Mostly though, the movie is about cinema’s “assault” on the viewer, as demonstrated by the movie-killer’s theft of eyeballs. As John’s mother exclaims “The eyes of the city are mine!” and John himself says towards the end “I want your eyes, too!” This is a theme that has been around since Un Chien Andalou, but I haven’t seen a film so willing to explore the idea as this one. Through our eyes, movies hypnotize us; they create illusions and for a few hours, we live in their universe. It’s the power of cinema.
– Bill Gordon
Another Fulci midnight movie marathon.