Anguish (1987)


Director:  Bigas Luna
Cast:  Zelda RubinsteinMichael LernerTalia Paul
Plot:  A film-within-a-film thriller about two teen girls among a small group of people whom are terrorized in a movie theater by a killer while watching a horror film about a murderous optometrist who stalks his victims in a movie theater in the film.

Genre:  Horror / Thriller
Awards:  -
Runtime:  89min
Rating:  NC16 for violence and disturbing images.

Screened as part of the World Cinema Series in 35mm at the National Museum of Singapore.

“What are you looking at with those little eyes?”

The eye is the motif in Anguish.  It is a scary and disturbing motif.  It is recurring and hypnotic, as if it is an omnipresent force.  Eyes are taken away by violent force, kept in jars and the jars paraded in a cold, organized fashion in a claustrophobic house that is occupied by an old mother and his adult son. 

Directed by Bigas Luna, who passed away in April this year, Anguish is perhaps his most audacious work in a filmography that is a mix of forgettable comedy-dramas, often of a romance nature, and thrillers.  It might also be his best work, and a textbook example of how to make a meta-film.

The genre is horror, both the visceral and the psychological kind, as Luna constructs a meta piece of horror cinema that is a precursor to more popular but not necessarily less influential films such as Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) and Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods (2012). 

The old mother, played by Zelda Rubinstein (who appeared in the Poltergeist films), hypnotizes his son to scourge the eyeballs of moviegoers in a nearby theater.  Ever dependent on the mother, the son, played by Michael Lerner (Barton Fink, 1991), becomes a serial killer determined to win the love and affection of his dearest.

The masochistic themes are highly disturbing, so are the gory bits.  But what Luna has successfully done is to bring the forth the notion of the spectator as victim, both the screen spectator and us, the real spectator.  The transference of fear across three lenses – we are watching spectators watching a movie about spectators watching a movie – is remarkable, though its execution can be experimental. 

We are essentially watching three films – Anguish, “The Mother” and the classic version of The Lost World (1925), and while it intercuts quite seamlessly, some of the visual (and sound) effects that depict hypnosis is deliberately jarring and nauseous inducing.

The experience of watching Anguish is one of discomfort and unease.  However, we find some comfort in the knowledge that spectators are “just watching a movie”, or so we think.  What if reality imitates reel-ity? 

That’s the big question.  It has happened before, and you don’t need to dig deep into history to find a salient example.  Remember the madman who shot and killed moviegoers during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises (2012) in the US?  In that regard, Anguish becomes startlingly relatable, a warning of sorts to the perils of the cinematic apparatus if it meets the sick and unstable mind.

Verdict:  A meta-horror film that sees the spectator as victim, constructed as a part-experimental, part visceral experience.

GRADE: B (7.5/10 or 3.5 stars)

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