Sunday, October 28, 2012

Anguish (1987) dir. Bigas Luna

a.k.a. Angustia

Logline: Mother (Zelda Rubinstein) and her adult son John (Michael Lerner) live together in a house full of birds and snails. Mother has hypnotic, telekinetic powers and compels John to stalk about the city, scooping out innocent victims' eyeballs for their growing collection. This is the first act of the film The Mommy, which we watch before switching perspectives and beginning to watch the audience watching the cinematic exploits of Mother & John. Patty (Talia Paul), a young girl in the audience who is devastated by the brutality she's seeing on screen, begins to believe that the film is seeping over into reality as the crowd watches. But it's just a movie... right?

Crime in the Past: The crimes in the present are too pressing to worry much about the past. That said, it's clear that The Mother and her mouth-breathing son have been collecting "the eyes of the city" for some time.

Bodycount: 18-21, let's say. It gets a little hectic.

Themes/Moral Code: The back text blurb on Blue Underground's DVD release of Anguish refers to the film as "an otherworldly twist of reality in the William Castle tradition." I'm not sure that's quite accurate. Castle, bless his raven-colored heart, was a huckster and a gimmick man, and his films (whatever enjoyment they provide) largely reflect that. Anguish has aspirations to mean something, even if that something isn't as developed or as clear as it could stand to be. The Castle comment is there because Anguish does have a "gimmick," if you'd like to call it that: its metafictional layers of films within films results in us (as the audience) watching an audience watch a film. But this fact isn't revealed until roughly half an hour in; up until that point, we've been merrily viewing The Mommy, that delightfully gratuitous and overblown film within the film. When it makes its narrative shift, and we begin to watch the reactions of the audience watching The Mommy, we're of course made aware of our own positions as audience members watching a film, and perhaps (or perhaps not) feeling the same discomfort as the diegetic audience. This reality-bending twist is all well and good, but what's the point? What prevents it from being nothing more than induced cinematic navel-gazing?

Things get interesting when a deranged man in the theater watching The Mommy decides to mirror the actions of John (the killer who he's watched countless times on screen) as he kills several victims in a movie theater. (Yes, that's right: in the latter half of Anguish we're actually watching an audience watching an audience watching a film. It's almost a shame the layers stop there). The "real" killer's actions bring up some interesting though thin thematic content: has his obsession with the violence in the literally hypnotic The Mommy directly inspired his own violent crusade? This seems like a tough point to counter, as we see that this killer mimics John's precise actions as he sees them on screen, even occasionally lapsing into speaking John's dialogue with him and reacting to the other projected characters. So what relevance does this have to our reality? Is Anguish agreeing with the concerns of lawmakers like those in Britain during the earlier Video Nasties moral panic, those that purported the ability of violent films to corrupt the minds of upstanding adult citizens and (especially) youths? Or, rather, is it sticking its tongue out at such an extreme notion, building a complex funhouse mirror that reflects society's anxieties while displaying how ridiculous they look, stretched far out of proportion to the actual situation?

My major complaint would be that Anguish never makes it totally apparent how it feels, either way. I'm afraid it becomes too caught up in its technique to resolve this theme in any way that eschews ambiguity. But we do receive at least one indicative hint towards its position: the film's closing credits are situated in a way that allows us to view from behind a new audience, one that is (presumably) intended to reflect us, as they watch the closing credits for Anguish. In singles, couples, and clusters, the audience members file out of the theater in silence-- all except one. This figure becomes the only soul left in the theater, sitting in rapt attention as the credits role. Momentarily, we begin to ponder if this figure is not unlike the killer who idolized John, who viewed The Mommy a hundred times and kept coming back for more until it convinced him to kill. We consider all this until the credits finish, and the man stands up: he's an unassuming old man who before leaving slaps a hat back onto his head. He's the sort of audience member who stays to the end of the credits out of habit and respect rather than homicidal intentions. In a moment like this one, Anguish both has its fun and bothers to make a comment about the world outside of it. It's not the film's obligation to have that sort of depth and relevance, but it sure does help.

Killer's Motivation: We never exactly discover what drives John and Mother to kill, but-- in consideration of the film's larger concerns-- the methodical stealing of the city's and particularly a movie theater audience's eyes is, I feel, of rather obvious symbolic significance.

Final Girl: Patty is our final girl and, in a move that falls far outside the tradition, she spends the majority of the film as a quivering wreck, spellbound and horrified by the graphic violence of The Mommy. Her mounting unease and paranoia does render her able to observe the bleeding between fiction and reality before everyone else in her theater does (an ability which also anticipates the closing twist that makes this point explicitly). In a way, she's a direct audience surrogate; unfortunately, that means she has to sit still for the duration like we do.

The Good, the Bad, & the Cheese:  Anguish is my kind of movie. If I'd known about the central metafictional conceit before the film thrust it before my helpless eyes, I would have watched it a lot sooner. As it stands, I'm pleased to report that it's very nearly a great film. Despite my qualms with the rather limp thematic conclusions, there's no denying the craftsmanship on display. Director Bigas Luna is a radical Spanish art house filmmaker, and he brings his surrealist sensibilities to the genre slasher, transforming it into something that isn't at all outside of his purview. His production of layers upon layers of narrative mediation make Anguish one of the more disorienting films I've seen in horror cinema. The fact that the narratives weave in and out on the visual level, cutting directly from one to the next with nary a signal of warning, demands a certain level of audience awareness and engagement that's quite unlike the typical passivity that horror conventions engender-- to make heads or tails of what's happening, one needs to be as attentive as Patty, frozen and bleary-eyed but unblinking in her theater seat. This observation makes an even stronger case for Luna's brilliancy when we consider that the two primary narratives featured in Anguish are rather conventional on their own. It's his ability to weave them together through his rampant cross cutting and overlapping audio design (which allows for dialogue from each narrative to make peculiar entrances into the other) that elevate the material above what would otherwise be common genre fare. The film makes us aware of the division between its two narratives' diegetic realities, then deliberately attempts to confuse and conflate them in our visual and aural perceptions, forcing us to move our minds against such actions. Anguish is, as its opening text warning informs us with a smirk, an attack on the senses. I'm rarely this pleased to be attacked.

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