Like many horror geeks, I practically grew up in Video Stores. And like many of the visitors to this site – I assume, anyway – I would spend eons in the horror section just gazing with awe at the cover art on the video boxes. Absolutely fascinated with all the terrifying, morbid imagery – from the subtle and creepy to the outright disgusting – I lost god knows how many hours to the Night Gallery of mom-and-pop rental shops. Often wondering just what the hell was contained on the tape wrapped around the spools inside (especially for the movies whose back cover blurbs had been cut and tossed), I would labor over the decision of which story to gamble on. Which tagline would most likely keep its promise? More importantly, which would my mother most likely let me rent? Or which one would haunt my dreams too intensely for comfort?
There weren’t a lot of films my mom objected to. In fact, it was usually more a question of production quality than graphic content, for her. She was just as big a horror fan as I was. Probably the very reason for my genre leanings. Only she was a little more snobbish about it.
But there were several movies that, judging by the cover art alone, I didn’t want to take a chance on. Stuff that may have been too disturbing, but just as easily may have been tamer than a baby burp. And it just wasn’t worth the risk.
There was one in particular that stood out for years.
It was the single creepiest cover I’d ever seen. Nothing could come close. Not the obscene crotch bulge in the jeans of Maniac. Not the plucked Betsy Wetsy eyeballs of Dolls. Fuck, not even the cackling (or screaming?) skeleton working the Creepshow box office would shake me the way this one did (and I was scared as fuck of that sonovabitch).
Tired of the suspense?
Want to know what picture could’ve been so frightening to me as a youngster that it trumped the eyeless doll, Joe Spinell’s boner, AND the fucking Creepshow skeleton (not to mention Bruce the Shark, a bunch of glowing hockey masks, a skull-faced pumpkin and EVERYTHING ELSE)?
Check it out:
That’s right, kids.
Zelda Fucking Rubinstein.
In black and white.
With a goddamn red spiral coming out of her eye.
Add to this already unnerving image the diagonal bar bearing the cautionary message: “WARNING: CONTAINS SCENES OF POWERFUL HYPNOSIS, SHOCKING CRIMES AND UNRELENTING TERROR.”
I mean, Fuck.
Not just a terrifying picture of the Poltergeist lady (who was inherently creepy anyway) looking all intense, but a goddamn warning too? A warning that ended in a period rather than an exclamation point. So you know it meant serious fucking business.
There were only about ten movies in the entire aisle that were badass enough to come with warnings. And this one hinted at much more than mere nausea. “POWERFUL HYPNOSIS.”
So, like, am I going to be hypnotized if I watch this movie? Could it turn me into some mindless zombie? Perhaps laying some activation trigger deep in my subconscious so that one day I could just be out somewhere, hear the word “casserole” and suddenly snap and go on some killing rampage?
Shit, guys, I was hooked. Fascinated, compelled, obsessed. At least once a week I would head straight for that box, pick it up and just stare at it. Contemplating.
Would this be it? Was I finally brave enough to confront the “POWERFUL HYPNOSIS” and all that shit?
Nope. Never had the balls.
Until this week. When chance delivered a VHS copy of ANGUISH right into my eager hands for two lousy quarters.
And before I give my opinion of the “UNRELENTING TERROR” and everything, let me address something. Yes, I know it’s been released in a somewhat easily obtainable DVD edition, but in all those years since VHS began its steady march into obsolescence, I’ve not personally met one horror fan who’s seen this movie. Not a single soul who could confirm or deny the warning on the box.
Who knows? Maybe they’d all been hypnotized into killing themselves.
But I doubt it.
Because the fact of the matter is, the terror isn’t all that UNRELENTING, the crimes are hardly SHOCKING, and POWERFUL isn’t really how I’d describe the hypnosis.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Anguish isn’t a totally worthless experience. But neither is it worth all the hype my neurotic mind inflated it with every week for years. It could’ve been. But it ain’t. And that’s the most troubling thing. This film had so much potential, and dropped the ball in quite possibly the worst way.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The film opens with a sufficiently creepy/suspenseful orchestral swell. The first shot is of a dead pigeon dangling from a thread. Then the camera tilts to reveal a cluttered room in which sits a ticking metronome. With a picture of an eye on the pendulum.
Okay. Bizarre enough.
As the scene unfolds, we infer that Zelda Rubinstein is the somewhat overbearing mother of Michael Lerner’s oafish, perhaps metally challenged, character, John.
We also discover that Mom is obsessed with snails, while John has a collection of live pigeons – maybe a more easily relatable substitute for human friends.
Then a pigeon escapes and a farcical chase through the apartment ensues.
In another film with different actors, different music and different art direction, it’d be intentional (if tired) comedy. But there is definitely something “off” here. Something unsettling.
Okay, let me just stop right there. I’m not going to do that play-by-play shit. Nor am I going to indulge in the ol’ “here’s the plot, here’s the characters, and by the way, the lensing and cutting and blah blah blah were whatever.”
As it turns out, John works for some hospital with some kind of revolultionary eye-surgery procedure. And contact lenses. Also, his mother is some crazy hypnotist. And when John pisses off some uptight, rich bitch patient, dear old Mom hypnotizes the shit out of him and sends him to seek revenge. For her being pissed.
By murdering her and cutting out her eyeballs.
And when John loses his job at the hospital thanks to pissing off said rich bitch patient, Mommy again hypnotizes the shit out of him and sends the poor guy out for more revenge.
In the form of going to a movie theater and killing the people in the audience. ???.
It’s about this time, however, that things take a turn for the worse. You see, there’s a huge reveal that effectively splits this thing into two films. The one we were watching, and were interested in. And one that, quite frankly, kinda blows.
It’s a cheat. And worse yet, it’s a cheat that doesn’t pass the test. You know what that means, kids. Fucking Detention.
Now, I can’t speak for anyone else (yes, according to IMDb, other people have, indeed, watched this film), but, personally, I was really digging the first movie. The one with Zelda Rubinstein’s voice echoing insane lines of dialogue through surreal scenes of hypnosis. The one with strange and almost Jodorowsky-esque imagery (fucking SNAILS, people). The one where a hospital owned a collection of hundreds of deformed eyeballs. The one with the UN CHIEN ANDALOU-inspired ocular slashings. The one with the interesting story, disturbing themes, rich characters and enough questions to build a rather fierce momentum.
And I hate to be the guy who spoils shit. Really. But there’s simply no way around it if I am to honestly express my complicated feelings toward ANGUISH, and – rather than taking the piss out of some mind-blowing O. Henry – I feel like “ruining” the “twist” here may actually HELP anybody who feels like they might want to check this film out after reading this review. Soften the blow of disappointment and all that.
Yes, kids, the hypnosis movie – the interesting movie – turns out to be just that. A movie. Being watched by a full audience in a megaplex in Culver City. In addition to offering that most obvious of fuckwit reflexive film cop-outs (OMG!!11! TEH MOVIE WE WATCHING IZ A MOVIE!!11! WTF!!11!!!1), this sucks for a plethora of other reasons.
1. No goddamn way would such a weird film attract a wide enough audience to enjoy a seemingly sold-out crowd in a chain theater.
2. It attempts to make some statement regarding the capacity for “brainwashing” of cinema in a laughably trite manner. Fuck you, guy. Really. Fuck you. In the face.
3. It cuts into and damn-near shuts down the movie that was interesting from the beginning. You know, the one that deserved the creepy cover art.
4. It’s lame.
5. It’s totally shitty.
Because – go figure – there’s a killer in the audience. Some Dylan-Baker-looking dude who is unstable enough to let the movie actually hypnotize him into killing the other spectators. And – DUH – he begins his “rampage” during the scene of the aforementioned killing spree in the good movie.
And as this new, stupid movie plays out, the first movie suffers as it adapts to the situation. A couple more interesting things pop up in it (ie: Zelda Rubinstein ordering John’s beloved pigeons to attack him in the movie theatre), but overall, it slows down and loses its sense of purpose. Eventually it all starts to drag even more and get even less interesting until it kind of squeaks into perhaps the limpest climax ever filmed for a 1980s horror movie. It tries to compensate with a severe What-the-Holy-Fuck moment at the very end. But this only further confuses the viewer and serves to remind you (see also: me) that this whole affair could’ve turned out much, much better.
If I’d only found the courage in myself to rent ANGUISH as a youngster, I might have a much different opinion of it. Who knows, perhaps I would’ve found the “twist” to be clever and insightful. It’s definitely well-intentioned, especially for its time, but it doesn’t work. The two narratives, rather than complimenting each other, enable each other into a mutually destructive relationship. Like heroin addicts who mistake a shared, poisonous dependency for love.
The biggest shame is that the first narrative was creepy and weird and could’ve gone somewhere incredibly rewarding. But we never find out how the collection of deformed eyeballs ties in with the hospital’s revolutionary procedure, or how John and his mother fit into that equation. Zelda Rubinstein’s promise of “the eyes of the city are mine” never finds any modicum of fulfillment. I mean, maybe a killing spree in a movie theatre would work for a theatrical audience, but watching the thing unfold on home video, it just feels like a shortsighted gimmick. Sure, the “real-world” killings are handled well and the whole scenario feels very genuine and concrete, but it doesn’t gel with the expectations created by the film’s first half.
And what about the fucking snails, goddammit?
I guess the conclusion I’m meandering to is, when Blue Underground releases ANGUISH on DVD later this month, I won’t be buying it.
But it’s worth checking out for anybody interested in cinematic messes and curiosities. On its own, it is not a great movie. But if you’re like me, and fascinated by the Could’ve-Beens of Film, go ahead and scratch that itch.
However, you’ll probably come away from it wishing you were in that theatre in Culver City, watching THE MOMMY, Dylan-Baker-looking killer or no.