Bigas Luna’s Spanish slasher Anguish was released this week in 1987. Cue the merch sales and quell the urge to party your head off. Sure, the release date of Anguish doesn’t sound like much to celebrate, as this obscure old 80s flick may not ring a bell for many outside of the most dedicated horror circles, but when a surprisingly frightful, smart little number with a microscopic following sees an anniversary, it deserves to be highlighted.
Luna’s Anguish is a sharply crafted “film within a film” slasher – more inventive than the average straightforward narrative, with odd touches, superb performances, and a few haunting twists that make it a more involved, and frankly horrifying experience than what’s offered by standard 80s knife-wielding assailant thrillers. Though Anguish relishes in its gross-out kills and chronic eye-gouging, there’s a surprising level of sophistication involved in its playout. Anguish will surprise and delight, and of course shock as any 80s horror should, but it just may stir up paranoia you wouldn’t expect to sit with watching a kooky Spanish slasher from this period.
Spoilers lay ahead, so if you haven’t seen 1987’s Anguish and have the strange urge to change that soon, read forth with caution.
Anguish is, in simple terms, two horror flicks; arguably even 3 flicks within one working cohesively, with a standard slasher playing out on a theater screen, while a more real horror takes place behind the scenes and eventually in said theater, as a scalpel-carrying maniac essentially brings to life the on screen terrors, slicing up moviegoers while under hypnosis from his overbearing mother.
The flick follows a miserable eye-doctor named John (Michael Lerner,) who has an exceptionally unhealthy relationship with his overprotective mother Alice (Zelda Rubinstein.)
An unhappy patient (Isabel Garcia Lorca) seeing John for a painful set of contact lenses insults his professionalism and points out his lack of care. Alice, who’s oddly mentally connected to John, hears this woman scolding her son (through a seashell.) In response, she puts him under hypnosis and prepares him for eye-gouging revenge.
After John, under the control of his mother, teaches the unhappy patient and her useless boyfriend a bloody lesson, John returns home to his mother’s disgusting apartment, which is overrun by snails and pigeons. She again puts him under hypnosis for more restitution.
John makes his way down to the local cinema for more ocular violence, and here’s the kicker/moment of realization/big twist among twists – We realize what we’re watching is actually part of a film that’s being viewed by a packed theater of people. We’re introduced to teens Patty (Talia Paul) and Linda (Clara Pastor,) who are watching the hypnotic slasher along with a crowd who seem desensitized to and unmoved by the on-screen violence. Patty’s the only frightened person, or at least the only one feeling any bit of dread, but Linda comforts her with “It’s only a movie?!” IS IT?! Because these poor young ladies are in a movie! And a rather gruesome one, at that.
It’s difficult to properly lay out the plot of Bigas Luna’s Anguish without ruining every twist the film has to offer, which urges me to label this a fun, frightening flick you just have to watch if you haven’t. Spanish director Lunas is predominantly known for his erotic comedies like Golden Balls and Jamon, Jamon, but as evidenced here, he can craft a pretty ingenious terror with layers of unsettling creepiness beneath shock, shlock, and violence.
Twists are handled inventively, making for a most “meta of meta” horror before self-aware horror flicks truly caught on. Older Spanish horrors almost unanimously favor style over substance, but Anguish offers a hearty, hair-raising helping of both. Lunas builds dread masterfully, drenching every moment in eeriness. With each turn the film grows more fascinatingly complex. The many horrendous moments unfold artfully, and with an inspired tact. Killings are carried out not in over-the-top 80s gorey fashion, but by a filmmaker who’s no stranger to unsettling arthouse ventures.
Luna bombards us with a lot of pigeons, eyeballs, and hypnotic swirls; thus this is a weird one with trippy flare. Stylistically Anguish is layered and sharp. Visually it’s beautiful, haunting, and a little bit gross. Tonally, it’s strange beyond belief and consistently creepy. What else could horror fans ask for? Strong performances, maybe? Needless to say, Michael Lerner and Zelda Rubinstein deliver those as well.
Lerner’s historically in lighter, more comedic roles, but he plays a fantastic tortured creep. You’re disgusted by John, understandably. Any eye doctor who’s gouging out his patient’s eyes probably isn’t a great healthcare professional, and certainly not someone to care for. However, Zelda Rubinstein is so hypnotically evil and compellingly infuriating as his psychotic mother you can’t help but feel a bit sorry for John. Both Lerner and Rubinstein lean into these disturbed roles, and create nutty characters you’ll be glued to. A pitiful creep under the control of a vindictive nutball? That’s entertainment, and memorable performances make this duo as fun as they are horrifying.
Slasher fans owe themselves an evening with this surprisingly smart, remarkably odd late 80s venture that’s layered beyond the norm and unshakably perturbing. You have twists upon twists. Stylish kills. Wacky yet ghastly performances that are too strong to be cheeky or joke fodder. Anguish has a lot horror fans love, and it’s all packed away in a freakish Babushka doll of terrors.
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