John Pressman (Michael Lerner) is an assistant at an opthalmology lab, and lives with his mother (Zelda Rubinstein) and his cage full of pet pigeons. Today as he has taken one of the birds out to pet it, it wriggles free and he has to chase it around his living room as his mother harangues him; the creature gets stuck behind a cupboard and John is forced to break part of the back of it off to reach the escapee, then places it in the cage. However, pigeons are not his chief interest, as his parent begins to encourage him to do something about his eye obsession - something awful...
Anguish, or Angustia as it was known in its native Spain, starts with a warning that it uses subliminal imagery and hypnotism to weave a spell over its audience, and to prove it about twenty minutes in writer and director Bigas Luna introduces an audience in his film to terrorise, as if the one in the cinema that the actual film was playing was not enough. If you're not following this, then you're supposed to be disoriented so it was all in Luna's devious plan, but the film within a film device was rarely so dementedly implemented. It was as if he really wanted those viewing it to become queasy and dizzy, and for some that's precisely the reaction they had.
Much of this is down to the fact that the killer steals his victim's eyes, so there are shots of him applying his scalpel to his hapless targets guaranteed to make the impressionable feel squeamish, which is what happens to Patty (Talia Paul), a teenage girl watching the film which stars Lerner and Rubinstein (best known as the tiny psychic from the Poltergeist movies) in a modern auditorium. The camera pans over the faces of others present and we see that she is not alone in feeling her stomach turn over, but it is true that Anguish probably operated better when seen in a cinema than when watched on television at home, as the setting particularly demanded it for the full effect.
Nevertheless, it is a pretty weird film when watched at home too, as begins a lengthy sequence of supposed hypnotism where the mother mesemerises her son into stealing every eye in the city, or that's her ambition. So what you get is one of those spirals going round and round as if this was a spoof of a fifties horror movie, images of Lerner revolving at high speed, and closeups of Rubinstein's features as her voice urges the listener to succumb to her will. As this is going on, Patty appears looking most unwell, as if Luna was saying to the audience watching this - not the one in the film, the real one - this is how you should be feeling, don't be afraid to pass out! It's hard to tell how serious he is actually being, as the message seems to be that horror films can have genuine ill effects on their viewers.
Yet this is couched in a film that the "horror screws you up" brigade would absolutely hate to watch, which suggests Luna is pulling a joke that he feels best to appreciate. This is underlined by the fact that in the cinema watching the shocker there is a killer on the loose, which is made even more discombobulating when Pressman goes to a cinema in his film to pick off members of the audience there. As you can see, Anguish is a hard film to describe without sounding as if you're recounting a hallucination, but in spite of these confounding storytelling styles it does make sense when you're watching it yourself. With two killers, one in the film and one in the film within a film, both with mother issues and both under the nefarious influence of... something, you cannot say Anguish was not ambitious, and its relentless gamesplaying is entertaining - as long as you don't feel your head swimming. Music by José Manuel Pagán.