Anguish (1986)
Anchor Bay Entertainment
Cast: Zelda Rubinstein, Michael Lerner
Extras: Theatrical Trailer

In the mid-eighties, horror was searching for a new identity. The slasher cycle was all but dead, and the wave of zombie films was beginning to run its course. While filmmakers in America were floundering in rehashed ideas (save for films like "Re-Animator" and "Evil Dead 2"), European horror-mavens were trying something different. The Spanish film "Anguish" is a perfect example of this. By blending the slasher motif with an occult aspect and throwing in a dash of "Twilight Zone" style twists, the film does manage to come off as somewhat unique. Anchor Bay Entertainment is now bringing us "Anguish" in a newly remastered DVD.

S0POILER WARNING!! If you’re a regular reader of my reviews, then you know that I try to give away as little of the plot as possible. Unfortunately, there’s really no way to describe what "Anguish" is about without giving away some of the plot twists. So, if you want to be totally surprised by the film, or if you’re just interested in the quality of the DVD, then please skip to the section of the review where I focus solely on the DVD materials.

As the film opens, we are introduced to John Pressman (Michael Lerner) and his mother (Zelda Rubinstein of "Poltergeist" fame). John works as an orderly at an opthamologist’s office. When one of the patients angers him, John’s overbearing mother hypnotizes him and programs him to kill the offenders. Mother knew that people were speaking ill of her son, because she could hear them through a nautilus shell. I’m not making that up. Apparently, Mother gets her powers from snails, although that’s never really explained in the film.

Anyway, John goes to the home of the woman who insulted him and he kills both the woman and her husband. After killing them, he cuts out their eyes, thus introducing us to the fact that he is obsessed with eyes. After John commits the murders, his mother calls him home telepathically. The next day, John and his mother argue and he goes to a theater to see the original version of "The Lost World."

At this point, twenty minutes into the film, "Anguish" follows classic Hollywood scripting technique by bringing in a plot twist, and boy, is it a big one! As John enters the theater, the camera pulls back to reveal that everything that we’ve been watching thus far is actually a movie! The movie is called "The Mommy" and we are now introduced to members of the audience watching "The Mommy". The film is making Caroline (Isabel Garcia Lorca) uncomfortable, but her friend Linda (Clara Pastor) is enjoying "The Mommy" and doesn’t want to leave. Caroline then begins to become very suspicious of the people around her. And for good reason, for there is a man in the theater who has seen "The Mommy" too many times and is about to go on a killing spree inside the theater! From here on out, the film intercuts action from "The Mommy" and the siege in the real theater.

The obvious draw of "Anguish" is the use of the "film within a film" gimmick. While writer/director Bigas Luna (that’s not pronounced "Big Ass" is it? Considering the fact that he’s behind films entitled "The Tit and The Moon" and "Golden Balls", it may well be!) uses this technique to its fullest extent, it’s clear that he’s not 100% sure what to do with it. From the 20-minute mark where the "film within a film" is revealed until about the 32-minute point, nothing happens. I mean nothing. We’re just treated to a bunch of shots of the crowd watching "The Mommy". The pacing at the beginning of the film is good when Michael Lerner is on his killing spree, and it picks up when the "real-life" killers goes to work in the theater, but that twelve or so minutes where nothing happens really slows the film down.

Other than that somewhat large flaw, the film is quite entertaining. The parallels between "The Mommy" and the "real life" scenes are done very cleverly. When Linda goes into the lobby, she passes a poster for "The Mommy" and if you look quickly, you’ll see that it was directed by "Anul Sagib. (Wait a minute. "Anul"? "Bigas"? Am I missing something?) There is some true suspense when the "real life" killer begins to hunt his victims in the theater. Also, the intercutting between the ending of "The Mommy" and "real-life" is handled very well, with both ending in the same basic fashion. The film gets quite violent at times (you gotta’ loves those eighties movies) and there’s some nice eyeball gore. Unfortunately, there is also some violence perpetrated on what appear to be very real animals, and that’s always a downer.

However, the film leaves a lot of unanswered questions. The scenes from "The Mommy" that constitute the first 20 minutes of the film are quite intriguing. But, once we switch to "real-life", the plot of "The Mommy" is left behind and we get no further information about John Pressman or the strange relationship with his mother. (And why the hell is she listening to a shell?) Along those same lines, we are thrown into the middle of the "real-life" story and never learn about these characters either. We learn that Caroline is bothered by the movie and that one patron is disturbed enough to go on a rampage, but that’s about all the info that we get. "Anguish" presents the audience with some memorable set-pieces, but there’s not much of a story to string them along. "Anguish" appears to be more about the idea of cinema as a concept than about telling a coherent story. Also, there’s a warning at the beginning of the film that the movie we are about to see contains subliminal and hypnotic effects, but we are never told if this is for "The Mommy" or "Anguish". It appears that this decision is left up to the viewer.

The DVD of "Anguish" from Anchor Bay Entertainment brings us a very nice transfer of the film. The movie is presented in an <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> and is <$PS,letterboxed> at 2.35:1. Considering that this is a Spanish film that is some fifteen years old, the quality of the transfer is quite good. The picture is very clear for the most part, with few signs of artifacting. The only real grain that is noticeable is when we view "The Mommy", and this appears to be intentional on the part of the filmmakers. The color balancing on the disc is good, with the red blood standing out against the black backgrounds. The outdoor scenes at the end are quite clear, and show little grain and few defects to the source print.

The audio for the film has been digitally remastered to a <$DD,Dolby Digital> <$5.1,5.1 mix>. This mix gives a very nice balance between dialogue and sound effects, with the latter never drowning out the former. SPOILER WARNING!!! The surround sound mix is very effective while we are watching "The Mommy", as we can hear the comments and shuffling of the audience in the theater. This was a very nice effect that added a real depth to the picture.

The only extra on the DVD is the original Spanish trailer for the film. This is <$PS,letterboxed> at 2.35:1 and can be viewed with or without English subtitles. No matter which way you view it, it’s nothing but a series of random images that tells you little about the film. I love European trailers.

"Anguish" is an excellent example of the variety of horror films which appeared in the eighties. The film may have some flaws in the pacing and story departments, but it has a very intriguing premise and some exciting scenes. On top of that, it’s nice to see a Spanish horror picture from that time period which wasn’t directed by J.P. Simon ("Pieces", "Slugs"). The Anchor Bay DVD gives us a pristine transfer of "Anguish" with both superior picture and sound. "Anguish" may not be a masterpiece, but it is relatively painless.