Spain’s Bigas Luna made this 1987 English language horror film for the American market. A fairly clever movie theater set splatter film, it has some clever touches but suffers from the fact that the film-within-the-film is really lame.
ANGUISH (ANGUSTIA) was a rare horror themed offering from Bigas Luna, who tended to specialize in erotic fare like BILBAO (1978), THE AGES OF LULU (1990) and JAMON JAMON (1992). The star of ANGUISH was the late Zelda Rubinstein, of POLTERGEIST infamy. She’s supported by the veteran supporting actor Michael Lerner (of STRANGE INVADERS, BARTON FINK, MANIAC COP 2 and many, many other films) and the teenaged future singer/songwriter Talia Paul.
A creepy old lady lives in a bird-filled house with her grown son John. John is an eye doctor whose latest patient, a disgruntled woman, bitches incessantly about her contact lenses. John’s mother hears the woman’s complaints through a magic seashell, and responds by hypnotizing John into visiting the woman’s house that night on the pretext of giving her a pair of new and improved contacts—his true motive, however, is revealed when he slits the woman’s throat and scoops out her eyeballs. John also kills the woman’s husband and removes his orbs.
At this point it’s revealed that what we’ve been watching is actually a film called THE MOMMY, playing in a packed movie theater. Among the patrons are two teenage girls, one of whom, the winsome Patty, is especially upset by what she’s seeing.
In the film-within-the-film the evil old woman encourages her son to continue his gruesome handiwork, confidently predicting that “all the eyes of the city will be ours!” She hypnotizes John again and sends him off, this time to a movie theater playing the original 1925 LOST WORLD. There John commences an all-out stabbing spree.
In the theater without, meanwhile, the patrons are becoming ever more freaked out, particularly the aforementioned Patty. She heads to the ladies room and sees a man she’s convinced is the movie killer’s real-life counterpart. Back in the theater Patty convinces her friend to go to the ladies’ room and investigate; in doing so Patty’s friend discovers there is indeed a killer on loose, a pistol-wielding freak who’s a little too inspired by THE MOMMY.
From there real and reel life begin to increasingly intersect as cops swarm the theater within and the one without in time for a final, possibly supernatural intrusion. But is anything we’ve seen actually “real?”
Bigas Luna has made many interesting films, and ANGUISH is nothing if not interesting. It’s also very much a product of its time, following Lamberto Bava’s movie theater set splat fest DEMONS and featuring a pointed eyeball motif. Eyeballs were quite popular in European horror films of the eighties (see Lucio Fulci’s entire oeuvre for confirmation), and the motif arguably reaches its apex in this film, in which plucked eyeballs are directly linked to the act of viewing a film. Luna pulls off some interesting visuals, most notably a shot of a girl in the movie theater viewing a guy on the screen who’s also watching a movie.
Yet for all its cleverness ANGUISH is not among Luna’s better films. The movie theater scenes are fairly strong (if implausible: it’s difficult to believe nobody notices a killer in the theater holding a knife to a girl’s throat), but they’re only a portion of the overall film, which is taken up largely with the Zelda Rubinstein headlined movie-within-the-movie. Zelda Rubinstein had an imposing screen presence without question, yet here she overacts, intoning much of her dialogue in ridiculous growls. But then the film-within-the-film where Rubinstein has all her scenes is complete nonsense, being silly and pedestrian in a most un-Bigas Luna manner (it even has a lame title: “THE MOMMY”). Presented without the movie theater wraparound THE MOMMY would be unreleasable, and its presence severely cripples the overall film.
Director: Bigas Luna
Producer: Pepon Coromina
Screenplay: Bigas Luna, Michael Berlin
Cinematography: J.M. Civit
Editing: Tom Sabin
Cast: Zelda Rubinstein, Michael Lerner, Talia Paul, Angel Jove, Clara Pastor, Isabel Garcia Lorca, Nat Baker, Edward Ledden, Gustavo Gili, Antonio Requeiro, Joaquin Ribas, Janet Porter