Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #421
Also known as Angustia
Number of Views: Two
Release Date: 8 January 1988
Sub-Genre: Pyschological Thriller
Country of Origin: Spain
Running Time: 86 minutes
Director: Bigas Luna
Producer: Pepón Coromina
Screenplay: Bigas Luna
Special Effects: Francisco Teres
Cinematography: Josep M. Civit
Score: José Manuel Pagán
Editing: Tom Sabin
Studios: Luna Films, Pepon Coromina, Samba P.C.
Distributors: Luna Films, CBS/Fox Video, Anchor Bay Entertainment
Stars: Zelda Rubinstein, Michael Lerner, Talia Paul, Ángel Jovè, Clara Pastor, Isabel García Lorca, Nat Baker, Edward Ledden, Gustavo Gili, Antonio Regueiro, Joaquín Ribas, Janet Porter, Patricia Manget, Merche Gascón, Jose M. Chucarro, Antonella Murgia, Josephine Borchaca, Georgie Pinkley, Francesco Rabella
Suggested Audio Candy
 José Manuel Pagán “Anguish”
 Paul Rutherford “Get Real”
I have been watching horror movies for over thirty years now and rarely does a film come along which can truly boast originality. There is a rough template which must be followed, basic logic which must be adhered to, and only a limited amount of ways in which you can skin a cat. Every now and then however, the trend is bucked, and Spaniard Bigas Luna’s Anguish is one such example of a piece of art which transcends genre. Sadly, despite cover art which screams “WARNING!” before boldly stating that it “contains scenes of powerful hypnosis, shocking crimes and unrelenting terror”, this bizarre picture failed to spark much interest and has long since been condemned to obscurity.
By 1988 the genre was in free-fall and the heyday of the early eighties already seemed like a fleeting memory. The most significant works which emerged during this particularly vapid year for horror were Hellbound: Hellraiser II, Waxwork, Night of The Demons, and The Blob; all undoubtedly decent movies but hardly brimming with ingenuity either. Luna went precisely against the grail, fashioning a film within a film within a film and, by doing so, took us far away from our comfort zone. At its best, horror has the ability to place us in a peril which transcends what we are viewing on-screen. This does so for fun, thus, the arrogant claim of its cunningly mesmeric cover art is pretty much on the money.
Our story appears to center around ophthalmology intern John (Michael Lerner), a middle-aged man suffering somewhat unreasonably from degenerating sight. His overbearing mother (Zelda Rubinstein) has a disconcerting hold over her only son which extends to mind control and psychic leadership. Like any parent, she only wants the best for her boy, even if that includes encouraging him to seek out unwilling donors to lynch, before relieving them of their peepers. It’s all in the name of science of course; although that may struggle to hold up in a court of law. However, mommy knows best, and her powers of hypnosis coupled with John’s disillusion with the lack of respect he gets from his colleagues, ensure that the apple lays right beside the tree stump.
After a solid first act; Luna does something of a number on us and the camera pans out to reveal that we have been well and truly hoodwinked. I will purposely remain vague where details are concerned as those not familiar with Anguish deserve to be kept in the dark over certain revelations for a film such as this offers a rather exclusive experience unlike any other. I will say this; we are suitably challenged and any feeling of wooziness that ensues is bound to persist right through to the final reel, should Mother’s trance have been succumbed to.
Lerner is excellent as John; while Rubinstein’s performance is hypnotic in itself. Shrill and imperious, her voice also doubles up as a mental laxative once Luna begins to turn the screw. Anguish begins to feel particularly asphyxiating by the time we reach the second act and thus is only intensified by the cerebral manner in which he approaches the material. Actual scenes of hypnosis play out for extended periods so those who suffered motion sickness when watching The Blair Witch Project may wish to offer this a wide berth. For those of us left; the anesthesia is skillfully administered and it becomes fruitless attempting not to fall under its spell.
Where Anguish excels is its deception and closer scrutiny of the ingenious sleeve art offers enlightenment of its intent to fabricate. By not allowing us to settle and blurring the lines between fantasy and reality so seamlessly; whilst overlapping itself purposely to befuddle us further, it affords itself wider boundaries to operate from within. If this is making little sense then my work here is done as Luna’s wondrous experiment defies logic and it seems fitting to honor his work accordingly.
The bottom line is this Grueheads: Anguish will not suit all dispositions. Squeamish parties will find certain unflinching surgical procedures too unbearable to stomach; while any narrative Nazis will find its patchwork structure somewhat infuriating. However, Luna’s film may well be the eighties’ last true innovator and is still as nightmarish now almost thirty years later. It has excruciating tension to spare, unsettling its audience on a far more cerebral level than its contemporaries, and once viewed it deftly repeats on you long after it has unspooled. This is any true horror aficionado’s wet dream and everyone else’s worst nightmare. If that doesn’t convince you then I shall have to dust off my pendulum.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10
Grue Factor: 4/5
For The Grue-Guzzlers: Had I ever mentioned my aversion to ocular tampering? Lucio Fulci knew of my Kryptonite and frequently punished me with it. If you have any intention whatsoever of undertaking laser eye treatment then Anguish may not be the film for you. There is a veritable smorgasbord of splatter but it is the clinical approach to surgery detail which may prise that last meal away from digestion. Films such as these are the reason we are gifted fingers and the same reason why some of us still peek through them.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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