Saturday, November 24, 2012

In short: Anguish (1987)

Original title: Angustia

Ophthalmologist's assistant John (Michael Lerner) is losing his eyesight and his mind. Assisted and/or hindered through the hypnotic influence of his mother (Zelda Rubinstein), John begins to remove the eyes of various unwilling donors. His killing spree eventually leads John into a movie theatre where he goes to work with particular relish. However, the mommy's boy and his serial killer habit are only a movie inside of a movie.

Teenage girls Patty and Linda (Talia Paul and Clara Pastor) are sitting in their own movie watching John's, but their mix of popcorn-munching and naked panic in reaction to the peculiar happenings on screen - respectively - is just the beginning, for someone starts killing off the patrons of their cinema, though in a less sexy style than John is using. The borders between movies, or between movie and reality, become exceedingly porous for everyone involved.

Spanish director Bigas Luna's Anguish is a fascinating movie, and one of the most interesting and successful attempts at that whole "horror movie inside of a horror movie" thing. When films go as meta as this one does, they sometimes tend to put too large of an emphasis on the ironic or the satirical elements, leaving any chance of an emotional connection (and I do think a film absolutely needs this kind of connection as much as it needs an intellectual one) with its audience by the wayside.

Anguish for its part works on all levels it reaches for at once. Taken completely at face value, it's two fantastic thrillers at once - the eyeball killer one a giallo style experience in exciting weirdness, the other one a more naturalistic piece made with the same expertise and sense of style. Yet it's also a film which questions even the realism of its supposedly realistic parts, permanently asking questions about not just the nature of reality, the nature of realism, the influence of movies on reality (which of the two movies we see is really mirroring which?), but also the question if the per definition more realistic also is the more real. After all, these borders tend to blur when the murderer of one movie kills for the approval of the mother of the other movie's murderer, even more so once it becomes quite unclear if the first movie's murderer doesn't have the ability to enter the second one, though he might do so only in a character's mind. And that's before we come to the ending titles where another movie audience watches said titles. It's all rather complex, and yet Luna never loses control over his material, with every (stylish, brilliant) shot clearly made for a reason.

On another level, Anguish is also a film about the power of the Weird over mainline reality. This aspect of the movie is perfectly incorporated in Rubinstein's performance. Her character, in all her ambiguous oddness, has no trouble drifting through the movie screen into the minds of the audience (both the real and the imagined one), changing the reality of those she comes in contact with in one way or the other. It is after all the nature of the Weird to infect reality until ideas of order, of cause and effect begin to disappear.

This moment when the quotidian transforms (deforms?), is what Anguish is all about for me; that it's also a great meta-thriller is nearly beside the point.

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