Anguish

English Title: Anguish

Original Title: Angustia

Country of Origin: Spain

Studio: Luna Films, Pepón Coromina, Samba.

Director: Bigas Luna

Producer(s): Pepón Coromina

Screenplay: Bigas Luna

Cinematographer: Joseph M Civit

Art Director: Felipe de Paco

Editor: Tom Sabin

Runtime: 88 minutes

Genre: Crime and Thriller

Language: Spanish

Starring/Cast: Ángel Jové, Zelda Rubinstein, Michael Lerner, Talia Paul

Year: 1987

Volume: Spanish / Portuguese

Synopsis:

John, a plump middle-aged man, and Alice, his wizened old mother, share a home. Alice sets a spiral disc spinning on a phonograph and hypnotizes her son. The scene then changes to a hospital, where John works as a doctor who collects human eyes as medical specimens. One day John gives a patient the wrong contact lenses and refuses to remove them even though she is in obvious pain. He gets fired for this, and shots of Alice back home reveal that she can hear what is going on through a seashell she holds to her ear. When John returns home, she sends him forth on a mission, telling him to collect ‘all the eyes of the city’ as revenge against humanity. John’s first stop is the home of the patient he mistreated earlier that day; he murders her and her husband, and takes out the woman’s eyes. 

At this point the film image seems to recede and, as the camera pulls back, we see that everything we have watched is not reality but rather a movie called The Mommy being viewed by an audience within the movie we are viewing. That audience includes two young women, blasé Linda and her sensitive friend Patty, who are increasingly anguished by the shocking weirdness of The Mommy. It then becomes clear that a killer is on the loose in the theatre where The Mommy is being shown. Anguish now continues on three levels: that of the audience watching The Mommy; that of the characters in The Mommy; and that of The Lost World (Harry O Hoyt, 1925) an old Hollywood picture watched by people in a theatre that John enters to gather more grisly trophies. The final scene casts additional doubt over what has and not been real in the events we have witnessed.



Critique:

This disorienting blend of the horror, slasher, and psychodrama genres was filmed in English. It is one of the rare movies that authentically bridge the divide between art cinema and exploitation film, delivering impressive doses of fright and gore with a narrative complexity that requires more than one viewing to be fully appreciated. Having established and developed the film-within-a-film-within-a-film structure, which becomes as dizzying as the spinning spiral that Alice uses to entrance her son, Luna bedecks the mise-en-scène with off-kilter details that further skew the story’s portrayal of natural and supernatural events. How is Alice able to hear things as they happen miles away? What is the point of the meticulously-detailed scene with the bird and the cupboard? Why do certain locations in the film (a doctor’s office, a movie theater) have placards with Cyrillic lettering? These and other questions evade definite answers, even as they enrich the picture’s high-wire oscillation between the ferociously concrete and the perplexingly oblique.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Anguish is the critique of cinema coiled within it. Patty is repelled by the movie she is watching, and she gets woozy at the sight of Alice’s hypnotic spiral; yet her eyes stay riveted on the screen, and when she finally escapes to the restroom, forebodings of the real-life killer drive her back into the darkened auditorium. Anguish appears to say that the more deeply transfixed we are by a movie, the more endangered we are by images and sounds that seduce the unconscious and reduce our ability to distinguish between actual and phantasmal worlds. This is an unusual message for a movie to carry, aligning Luna with the Stanley Kubrick of A Clockwork Orange (1971), where the antihero’s forced viewing of ultraviolent imagery is a nightmare illustration of cinema’s most insidious powers.

Other aspects of Anguish are more amusing, if perversely so; for example, the movie theatre showing The Mommy is called the Rex, which jokingly alludes to both the tyrannosaurus rex of The Lost World and the Oedipus Rex of ancient Greece, which foreshadows the unnatural ties between John and Alice, and also between the real-life killer and the mommy he believes is controlling his actions. Another reference point for Anguish is Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Psycho (1960), where the protagonist’s mind is invaded and conquered by a mother of his own imagining. Antecedents by Kubrick and Hitchcock notwithstanding, Anguish carves out its own grim territory in the art-horror domain, transforming cinephobic dread into a film charged with perfect, poisonous allure. Luna gives us hypnotism as necromancy, mesmerism as mutilation, and moviegoing as a voyage into psychic jeopardy. Fixing your eyes on Anguish, you hope you will still have them when the show is over.

Author of this review: David Sterritt