Anguish (1987)

This sixth directing effort and second English language film intended for the American market by Spain’s Bigas Luna is mistakenly dismissed as a Spanish giallo ripoff of Demons (1985).

In reality, Luna wasn’t inspired by that Lamberto Bava and Dario Argento co-production: he was inspired “The Sandman,” an 1816 German short story by E.T.A Hoffman, which appeared in his book Die Nachtstucke, aka The Night Pieces. The story moves from a subjective-objective-subjective narrative across three stories-within-stories by way of three letters regarding a protagonist trapped in a world of hallucinations and reality, as he deals with his childhood-based post-traumatic stress regarding the horrific tales of “The Sandman”—who was said to steal the eyes of children.

All the eyes of the city will be ours.”
—Mother Alice Pressman

And “The Sandman” in Luna’s interpretation, Mother Pressman, was almost portrayed by Betty Davis (Burnt Offerings). Could you imagine a ten-time nominated and two-time Oscar winning actress chanting this other classic line from the film?

“For years you were like a snail, hiding, happy. Hiding, happy.”

It almost happened.

Sadly, due to a scheduling conflict with The Whales of August (a very good romantic drama with Vincent Price and Lillian Gish), Davis turned down the role. And while she would have been amazing, we got Tangina Barrons from Poltergeist, aka Zelda Rubenstein, in the bargain—and she brought us one of the most diabolical mothers to the big screen since Mama Bates in Psycho. And for his tortured “Nathanael” from Hoffman’s story, Luna brought on Oscar nominated character actor Michael Lerner, who modern audiences of the Marvel Universe know as Senator Brickman in X-Men: Days of Future Past and Mayor Ebert in Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla ’98.

As the film opens, we meet Lerner’s timid mamma’s boy, John Pressman, a diabetic ophthalmologist’s assistant who’s going blind. And his psychic mother’s prone to hypnotizing him and sending him out with his surgical tools to collect eyes for her.

By the wrap of the first act, it’s revealed we’re inside a Los Angeles movie theatre, The Rex, which is showing a horror film, The Mommy—that stars Rubenstein and Lerner. As the film plays on, the theatre patrons begin to experience symptoms of mass hypnosis from the film, suffering anxiety attacks, disorientation, nausea, and eye strain. The psychosis eventually inspires a man in The Rex to start killing patrons and employees—in sync with the killings committed in the film The Mommy.

And this is the point of the review where my passion for this masterpiece from Bigas Luna goes off the rails and I expose the entire film in a manic run-on sentence. So, we’ll stop here. For this is a movie that you must watch—and not read about.

Released before Richard Martin’s Matinee (1989) and Alan Ormsby’s Popcorn (1991) more mainstream film-within-film romps, Anguish is Bigas Luna’s masterpiece. It is the film that should have broken him to mainstream American audiences and been a runaway success on par with Halloween.

Sadly, a John Carpenter, Sean S. Cunningham, or Wes Craven-like success was not in the cards for Luna. As with Reborn, Luna’s 1981 religious thriller starring Dennis Hopper and Michael Moriatry, Anguish (aka Angustia), bombed, making less than $300,000 in U.S box office. But at a meager budget of $2 million, in conjunction with video rentals, it became one of Luna’s biggest hits in the worldwide marketplace.

This one has everything you want in a giallo—be it an Italian original or Spanish variant: Victorian furnishings, metallic wallpapers, telepathy via conch shells, crazed pigeons, snails, and eye surgery. Seriously, snails are cozying up to pigeons. Birds fall behind china hutches and get stuck between walls. Snails are crushed. Eyes are poked. It’s an M.C Escher “Magic Mirror” of insanity that’ll send Freud screaming from the theatre ranting that it’s all about a fear of castration. That’s Freud for you: right to the penis. The fact that the constant reference of spirals and the spiral formation inside the conch (snail shell) is symbolic of infinity, was lost on Freud, it seems. Why is it always about the schlong, Siggy?

Me? I’m just in awe of Michael Lerner from Harlem Nights and Maniac Cop 2 going meta-giallo and moving from film-to film-to film scooping out eyes for his momma like a god boy should. And my only “anguish” with this film is that I didn’t experience it in a movie theatre as intended—and on a VHS tape as everyone eventually did.

There’s no free online rips or PPV-VOD streams? Well, at least the DVDs and Blus are all over the online marketplace and easily obtainable. And don’t listen to Leonard Maltin and abide by his stuffy Movie Guides—which awarded Anguish 2.5 out of 4 stars. Listen to Sam. Listen to me. Listen to Matthew Diebler and Jacob Gillman who reference this Luna masterpiece in their neo-giallo The Invisble Mother: watch his movie.

About the Author: You can read the music and film reviews of R.D Francis on Medium and learn more about his work on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies.

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