Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Anguish (1987)

"All the eyes of the city will be ours!"

Now this one came out of nowhere and managed to sink its claws firmly into the psyche, somewhat reflecting the occurrences in its bizarre story. Spanish filmmaker Bigas Luna taps some of the classic horror essentials in a tribute of sorts and demonstrates the true power of cinema in a manner that is effective enough to get under your skin.

It is quite difficult to outline the plot synopsis of "Anguish" (1987) without spoiling some of the fun, but as an entry point in order to pique the interest of the viewer/reader, it is sufficient to say that what we are dealing with are at least two parallel stories, occurring in two different universes. One of the major narrative strands deals with a psychotic old mother, Ms. Pressman, the fabulously over the top Zelda Rubinstein, who sends her only son John (Michael Lerner), an optometrist, out to murder people via hypnosis and mind control, so that he can gouge their eyes out and bring them home to add to her eye-collection!

In a separate narrative, a disturbingly violent film playing in the theater begins to have an effect on its audiences, with many of them showing visible signs of discomfort and anxiety. In particular, a teenage girl in the audience suspects something grossly wrong as she begins to feel giddy and senses a sinister, murdering presence lurking within the theater. Incidentally, the film playing on screen also depicts a murderous psychopath storming a movie theater....

Bigas Luna bases his film on a gimmick that thankfully doesn't come off as forced or cheap and justifies its presence in the context of his story. The result is a cracker of a film with intertwined tales, intelligent juxtapositions and narrative ideas that are wholly original, despite stylistic borrowings from Italian horror maestros Dario Argento (in the visuals, lighting effects, atmosphere) and Lucio Fulci (in the gore department), albeit with a lot of polish, enhanced production values and crisp photography, that saves "Anguish" from the B-movie tackiness.

The segment involving mother Pressman and her son John, in particular boasts of some of the finest hypnotic imagery and the most imaginative sound design ever; something that David Lynch would surely be proud of. In a particularly disorienting scene of brainwashing, there are some trippy visuals and sonic effects that literally mess with your head and throw you in a trance. The Pressmans' home decor itself renders a surrealistic touch, what with its collection of strange artefacts, small birds and animals including metaphorical snails the mother uses to describe her son ("Hiding, happy..") in a mantra in one of her procedures. The insanity, the dominating mother, the weirdo son and the birds, all combine to form a nice little Hitchcock homage as well.

The setting and premise of the other narrative thread of the movie theater does bring to mind Lamberto Bava's horror classic "Demons" (1985), but Luna's film definitely trumps it in almost every department by a huge margin, if not the gore department. That isn't to discredit the gore in Luna's film; it is very much there in adequate doses, and some of the sequences are downright quease-inducing!

The references are not limited to other cinematic works but to cinema itself, as a medium that is capable of enslaving the audiences who are willing to submit themselves to its immersive power. Cinema has the ability to transport the viewer to another time and place. 

An involving film makes the viewer a part of the narrative, and with "Anguish", Luna takes this idea several steps further and makes it literal. Boundaries are crossed, and mediums collapse upon each other, rendering the distinction invisible. The choice of eyes as Ms Pressman's collectibles and the quote above are not random. Eyes is the primary means of perception and with Ms Pressman owning the eyes, the film in Luna's film and Luna's film itself owns its respective audiences!

John Carpenter pulled off the idea of crossing the barrier between the dimensions of fiction and reality really well in his "In the Mouth of Madness" (1994). In that film, the power of written fiction has an effect on its fans and they go insane. Luna's film came seven years before Carpenter's and, albeit not explicitly, Luna dabbles with a similar idea, with a very inventive film-within-film-within-film trope that works brilliantly. Luna also juggles multiple narrative threads quite skilfully as they meld or cross paths in some meticulous editing choices, often throwing the viewer off guard by almost obfuscating the line between distinct narratives and in this case, even between celluloid and actuality!

Michael Lerner and Zelda Rubinstein add to the delight of the film with their outstanding performances, mixing deliciously creepy and darkly hilarious together, acts that they clearly seem to be enjoying, while the teen girls in the theater and other cast members somehow disappoint with their half-baked acts and stilted mannerisms and line delivery.

The acting in the theater segment doesn't become so much an eyesore however, thanks to Luna's handling of the material that rises above the problem areas. He keeps it all considerably tense by constantly playing with the viewers' minds and expectations with disconcerting imagery, remarkable sound effects and startling plot shifts, eventually culminating in an unpredictable and chilling finale that aptly reflects the old idiom, "It's not over, 'til it's over", and compels you to stick around till the final credit roll.

Score: 8/10

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