Anguish (1987, directed by Bigas Luna)

John Pressman (Michael Lerner) is a mentally unbalanced, middle-aged, diabetic mama’s boy who is losing his eyesight.  When his mother (Zelda Rubinstein) orders John to go out and collect healthy eyes, it leads to John going on a rampage that eventually brings him to a movie theater.  After he barricades everyone inside, he starts to pick off the patrons one-by-one, removing their eyes with a scalpel.

Meanwhile, in another theater, an audience watches John’s rampage on the big screen.  Is the story of John Pressman just a movie?  Maybe.  But in the audience, people start to react strangely.  A woman breaks down in tears.  When John Pressman starts to kill people in his movie, a man in the audience starts to kill people in the real theater.  When the mother in the movie-within-a-movie sends her son out to get eyes, is she after the eyes of the people in her movie or the people watching in the audience?  Has the madman in the audience been possessed by the movie or is he just another spree killer, an ever-present threat in both the movies and the real world?  And how will his rampage be stopped?

Anguish is a clever, multi-layered Spanish horror film.  Watching the film, it’s important to remember that it was produced in the middle of a worldwide moral panic about whether or not people could experience violent movies without becoming violent themselves.  At first, it seems like the film is saying that horror movies are a bad influence but then there’s a twist ending that turns the entire premise on its head.  As the movie peels away layer after layer of plot, you’ll find yourself wondering what’s real and what’s just a movie.

An unheralded horror classic, Anguish is two good movies in one.  Obviously, the film about John Pressman and his crazy mother is considerably more cheesy than the one about the madman in the “real” world but both films are full of atmosphere, suspense, and a some surprisingly grisly violence.  The movie-within-a-movie also features Michael Lerner and Zelda Rubinstein, two actors who just seem like they were destined to play a henpecked son and his crazy mother.  Lerner is one of the best character actors around and Anguish gives him a rare leading role.  Lerner makes the most of it, carefully cutting out eyeballs while his mother’s voice echoes in his head.

Anguish is a good head trip of a film.  It’s long been rumored that Anguish contains subliminal images and sounds that are designed to make the people watching feel nervous.  I don’t know if that’s true, though the film does open with the following classic warning:

During the film you are about to see, you will be subject to subliminal messages and mild hypnosis.

This will cause you no physical harm or lasting effect, but if for any reason you lose control or feel that your mind is leaving your body — leave the auditorium immediately.

Luckily, Anguish is available on DVD and Blu-ray so you can watch it in the safety of your own home.

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