(R, International Spectrafilm, 88 mins., U.S. release date: January 8, 1988)
In the wake of the concurrent deaths of Roger Ebert and Jess Franco, somehow the passing of Spanish director Bigas Luna passed me by. This is quite a shame for me, as I had a youthful familiarity of the man based on his 1987 horror flick Anguish, which was lucky enough to have caught my eye first in a VHS reference book showcasing recommended genre titles and then by seeing the actual physical version of its videocassette box at a Video Update in Mesa. The Key Video catalog release showed the memorably creepy face of diminutive actor Zelda Rubinstein superimposed over a spiral, and I was savvy enough to know that the suggestion was that of hypnotism without having to read any cautious preambles. I picked it off the shelf the exact moment I saw it and made it my mission to actively experience it.
Luna is perhaps best known for affording breaks to young homeland actors Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz with his surrealistic, sex-crazed soap opera Jamón Jamón in 1992, years before the great Pedro Almodovar later helped make them bigger stars via Live Flesh and All About My Mother. No current household names are to be found in Anguish, although American stars Michael Lerner (Hill Street Blues) and Zelda Rubinstein (Poltergeist) are well-known and have vigorous enough personalities to help sell this film's twisty indictment of spectatorship. Luna also seems to set his anarchic sights on William Castle-style gimmickry, the Oedipal complexes of many popular horror touchstones, and the notion of the vicarious release which constitutes the reason people consume horror movies, for better or for worse.
I feel like a certain sense of tact is needed in handling the developments of Anguish, a movie that pulls the rug from under its own artificiality only to engage in quirky juxtapositions and parallel situations that give it the heady allure of solving a puzzle box. Most horror films involving methodical slashers aren't as intentionally mind-contorting as this. So I'll try to keep spoilers to a minimum whilst doing my best to deliver my impression of this very odd, surprisingly complex story.
Anguish begins with a loudspeaker announcement warning of free-by-ticket-purchase medical service available in the theater lobby for those who may need it. At the same time, there is onscreen text which rehashes what the film's advertisement touted up as that there are certain "subliminal messages and mild hypnosis" which may be of no permanent consequence but, once again, advice is given that you "leave the auditorium immediately" should you become upset.
The proper movie stars Lerner as John Pressman, a hospital orderly and optometrist's assistant rendered nearsighted from diabetes and living under the care of his elderly Mother (Rubinstein). Henpecked at work after a haughty patient named Caroline (Isabel Garcia Lorca) complains about her contact lenses cutting into her eyes, John gets bloody revenge after his clairvoyant Mother puts her son under a deep trance. No longer the "hiding, happy" snail the world has reduced him to, the vindictive Ms. Pressman mind-melds with John, and she guides him towards murdering Caroline and her lover at their penthouse and then slicing out their eyeballs for souvenirs.
And then a whole new perspective is introduced, meaning that what we've just seen is indeed a fictional construct being observed by the audience of a Los Angeles cineplex. To put it plainer, it was "only a movie," a film called "The Mommy" currently being screened for a matinee auditorium at the Rex. One member of the crowd, teenage Patty (Talia Paul), is exhibiting signs of serious distress and begging her friend Linda (Clara Pastor) to take her home. The disturbing images continue to take an unhealthy toll on Patty to the point where John's dramatized carnage, which soon extends to a revival screening of The Lost World, becomes all too real for her to handle.
The second act of the film, therefore, has the Anguish audience (re: us) watching the watchers of "The Mommy," as Patty and several others experience disorientation from the reverberating, repetitive mantras of Mother as well as the graphic violence more akin to Italian giallos than MPAA-submitted U.S. slashers. This part of the film eventually proves more fascinating than the fictional film onscreen, especially since "The Mommy" is just a programmatic piece of lurid bloodletting with laughably prolonged, deliberately old-fashioned "surrealism" (you try not to chuckle when John is framed against a spiral and the camera frenetically swoops in and circles around). A teen boy in a circle of friends clutches his heart due to the psychology-warping intensity of the sound mix when Mother hypnotizes John, whilst another lonely man (Angel Jove) with a shocked, stretched face seems to check his watch in anticipating the film's end, although his motivations turn out to be not quite so simple.
Eventually, Linda, who has spent the better part of act on berating her frightened friend whilst staring at the screen and snacking on popcorn, comes to realize Patty's paranoia and feverish imagination is wholly justified. Finally, the movie develops a decent amount of suspense in time for a grand finale that turns the Rex theatre into a crime scene and finally sends poor Patty into full-on hysteria.
Bigas Luna has given us the ultimate in voyeuristic fascination: a movie where we become spellbound at the sight of others being spellbound because of a movie. The third act is not as fluid at juggling both of the unfolding films, as "The Mommy" peters out at the moment where John fatefully reunites with Mother, but it is captivating to see the way in which life imitates art for the poor people at the Rex. And Luna's canny compositions both on-camera and through sound design keep the illusion strong like blood rushing from the heart to the head and back down again. Luna is also fond of his recurring motifs: snails, caged pigeons and, of course, lots and lots of eyes. It's almost as if Luna is reclaiming the violence toward sight away from Lucio Fulci and replacing it in the surrealist Spaniard tradition of Un Chien Andalou. Certainly, Luna's golden hues, controlled if copious use of cross-cut edits and engrossing Scope framing put a lot of lesser schlock cinema to shame.
When describing Anguish, I do feel the closest comparison piece is Lamberto Bava's outlandish if more entertaining shocker Demons (1985), which unspooled supernaturally when spilling out the slaughter from the projected image to the communal setting. It also was a lot more exaggerated, as the people in the theatre were colorful and diverse in their personalities. Anguish is a noticeable inverse, as the Rex audience is more typical of a nondescript weekend afternoon crowd and has no punks or perverts in sight.
Anguish, though, loses momentum to a certain degree since Luna's academic fascination with the conflicting behaviors in which people who binge on bloody B-movies exhibit reveals a filmmaker more heady in his intentions than heartfelt. Remember the advice from the theatre owner at the start of the film? This falls on deaf ears for Patty and some of the more squeamish, impressionable cinemagoers, and for all his boasts of medical service and oxygen masks, the lobby is entirely barren save for a few staffers who duly get murdered. The resonance of Luna's experimental approach lies in the way in which the viewer is forced to examine his own objective relationship with the lurid power of celluloid, especially since it's easy to lose patience with the thinly-sketched roster of characters in either film.
Luna is nowhere near the soulful provocations of Pedro Almodovar or the brutal self-reflexivity of Dario Argento in dealing with the meta-textual, nor does he transcend the sum of his influences like those two international icons. But if he inspires a gorehound to some degree of thought, at least such an intention is noble, and when the closing credits crawl in yet another amusing bit of surveillance, it seems reasonable that we can finally trust our own eyes again...maybe.
(The film's copyright date is 1986, but Anguish made its theatrical debut in native Spain in 1987 as Angustia, getting picked up for American release the following year. The movie was released on U.S. digital video in its intended 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and with a properly enveloping 5.1 surround remix to boot, through Anchor Bay/Blue Underground.)