The opening image of Anguish
  • The opening image of Anguish

Since invoking Spanish genre entertainment in my review of Non-Stop, I’ve been thinking a lot about Bigas Luna (Jamon, Jamon), the Spanish writer-director who passed away last year at the age of 67. Luna excelled at the flamboyant stylization that I associate with a particular strain of Spanish filmmaking, coupling deliberately outlandish plots with deliberately show-offy camerawork. “Luna’s point,” Fred Camper wrote of his 1998 film Chambermaid on the Titanic (released in the U.S. as The Chambermaid), “is that one can enjoy [overblown] fantasies and still acknowledge them as false,” a sentiment conveyed by all of his work. Here was a filmmaker who worked hard but didn’t take himself too seriously—even the shallowest movies of his I’ve seen have made me smile.

Of the Luna works I know, I’m most partial to his English-language horror film Anguish (1987) because a large section of it takes place in a movie theater. It’s comparable to Brian De Palma’s work in its over-the-top suspense set pieces and its hall-of-mirrors plot. If you haven’t seen it, I’d recommend saving the rest of this post until you do. You’ll have to rent it, though, as I doubt if any theater will revive it soon, for reasons I’ll explain below.

Anguish begins as a quasi-spoof of psycho-killer movies, in which a timid optometrist (Michael Lerner, an actor I’ve always enjoyed for his resemblance to Randy Newman) murders people and plucks out their eyes while acting under the telepathic control of his overbearing mother (Zelda Rubinstein, best known as psychic Tangina Barrons in the Poltergeist movies). I say “quasi-spoof” because the scary sequences really deliver the goods. Like De Palma, Luna deconstructs the mechanics of suspense filmmaking without sacrificing suspense, acknowledging that sometimes it’s just fun to be scared.

Or perhaps scary movies exert a deeper control over us. Anguish begins with the tongue-in-cheek warning: “During the film you are about to see, you will be subject to subliminal messages and mild hypnosis . . . if for any reason you lose control or feel that your mind is leaving your body—leave the auditorium immediately.” It turns out that Luna doesn’t intend this message for us. About halfway through the movie, he pulls the rug out from under us, revealing that the optometrist and his psychic mother are characters in a movie within the movie, “The Mommy” (directed by one “Anul Sagib”), that the protagonists of Anguish are watching in a Los Angeles theater. As in certain old Looney Tunes, “The Mommy” continues to unfold with running commentary from the theater audience, reminding us of the pleasure of watching horror movies with a receptive crowd.

Eventually fantasy and reality blur, as a crazed gunman starts preying upon the theater’s employees and patrons. In light of recent tragedies, I imagine no theater would want to program Anguish anymore—today the film’s “reality” is closer to reality than Luna could have predicted in 1987. But I bet the effect of a wide-screen frame within a wide-screen frame looks especially cool in a theater, like some sort of M.C. Escher doodle come to life.


Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.