Screenplay : Bigas Luna
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1986
Stars : Zelda Rubinstein (Alice Pressman, the Mother), Michael Lerner (John Pressman), Talia Paul (Patty), Angel Jovè (The Killer), Clara Pastor (Linda), Isabel García Lorca (Caroline)
More than a decade before the art-imitating-life -imitating-art postmodern horror theatrics of the "Scream" trilogy (1997-2000), there was Bigas Luna's "Anguish," a clever, if not wholly successful, slasher film that toys with the uncomfortable links between blood on the screen and blood in the audience.
The film opens with a "Psycho"-inspired story of poor John Pressman (Michael Lerner), a shy, overweight orderly at an optometrist's office who has diabetes and is going blind. Driven by his domineering mother (Zelda Rubenstein, best known as the paranormal investigator in "Poltergeist") who has psychic control over him, John murders people and cuts out their eyes.
This scenario occupies roughly the first third of the film, at which time the first of its many twists is revealed: John and his mother are actually characters in a horror movie called "The Mommy." The camera pulls back from a close-up of John and moves right out of the screen and into the audience at a small Los Angeles movie theater. Two of the spectators are teenage girls: Patty (Talia Paul), who is frightened and sickened by the ghastly gore effects and wants to leave, and Linda (Clara Pastor), who is deeply absorbed in the story and has no intentions of getting up.
Writer/director Bigas Luna then begins to cut back and forth between the story on-screen and the story in the theater, and the narrative inflections become steadily more complicated when a psychotic killer (Angel Jovè) who is obsessed with "The Mommy" begins murdering people in the theater. His actions have a direct counterpart on screen, as there is a long sequence in "The Mommy" where John goes to a movie theater, locks the doors, and begins killing people. Life imitating art, or art imitating life?
"Anguish" is that all-too-rare thing: a horror movie with an idea. Luna's script twists and turns and inverts back in on its own self-reflexivity, yet it is never overly confusing (although some of the action is a bit improbable--yes, we all get absorbed while watching movies, but could that much murder go on in a crowded theater without anyone noticing?). The symbolism of John cutting out his victims' eyes is interesting as the literalization of the assault on the vision that most horror films are accused of being (this probably began with Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s "Un Chien Andalou"  and its infamous scene depicting a man slicing a woman1s eyeball with a straight razor).
But, at the same time, the attention to the idea is part of the problem. "Anguish" is a movie that plays with an intriguing central idea in interesting ways, but it fails too much on a narrative level. Most notably, Luna is so involved with the larger idea that he forgot to create interesting characters who are worth caring about. Michael Lerner ("Barton Fink") does a good job playing John in an obsessed, Norman Bates kind of way, but in the end he is a device, not a character. The two teenage girls in the audience are not particularly engrossing: Patty whines and carries on to the point that she becomes truly irritating, and Linda is flat and unwavering, and the manner in which she dismisses Patty's concern makes her quite unlikable, as well.
But, flaws aside, "Anguish" is still a fascinating endeavor. Movies rarely if ever take themselves into account, and the manner in which "Anguish" suggests the links between art and life is a bit unnerving. The film doesn't make the simplistic assumption that violence in film necessarily causes violence in real life, but it does suggest that violence in film is a more complex construct that most people (both those for and those against cinematic violence) want to admit.
The fact that "Anguish" is a gory horror film in which a homicidal maniac is apparently inspired to kill people by another gory horror film within the film blurs all conceivable boundaries. Is "Anguish" a bloody movie, or is it just a movie in which there is another movie that happens to be bloody? Did the film-within-the-film actually cause the theater killer to go on his rampage, or was it a merely the catalyst for an already sick man? Or, did it have nothing to do with it at all?
These are all questions that are posed, but, of course, none of them are answered because there are no answers that would satisfy. Although "Anguish" fails at a narrative level and, to a certain extent, as a horror film, it is completely successful in making the viewer think about what he or she has just seen and question some of the assumptions about movie-going that we have come to take for granted.
16x9 Enhanced: Yes
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1; Dolby 2.0 Surround
Extras: Spanish theatrical trailer
Distributor: Anchor Bay Entertainment
Video: The new anamorphic transfer looks good. The film is framed at 2.35:1, and older pan-and-scan versions must have suffered greatly because director Bigas Luna uses every bit of the frame, especially in the scenes that cut back and forth between the movie and the movie-with-the-movie. Colors are rich and, although the film is a bit soft, detail level is still high (during one particularly squirm-inducing sequence depicting eye surgery in graphic close-up, you may wish it weren't so detailed).
Audio: The new 5.1 channel surround mix is generally effective. The surround channels are not used a great deal, but when they are, they create a good ambient environment. The surround channels find their greatest usefulness once the movie-within-the-movie scenario is unveiled. There are several scenes where we are watching the movie-within-the-movie, but we can hear dialogue between members of the audience coming from behind and to the right and left, creating the sensation of being in the theater and sitting in front of two people who are whispering to each other.
Extras: With the exception of a generally incoherent theatrical trailer made for the Spanish film market (it is presented either with or without English subtitles), this disc is supplement-free.
©2000 James Kendrick