The horror genre is a deep well of emotion and stimulus, one that filmmakers dredge to conjure an experience directly focused on striking at our deepest fears and anxiety; at times for catharsis…and others for an almost masochist pleasure. As such, the platform it provides is a rare and unusual space, and the best creative minds have used it to truly enquire into deeper ideas, socially, politically and psychologically, over the cause of the genre’s history. One such issue that has historically been a site of great exploration is the concept of mental illness, although classically one that is perhaps too simplistically explored considering the complex and mysterious nature that surrounds our understanding of it. Films such as Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, The Witch Who Came from the Sea, and Possession are particularly potent for their foregrounding of the psychology of their female leads, and the tentative link between fantasy and reality expressed within them through a combination of a more experimental, arthouse form and the volatile power of exploitation. However, in 21st century horror, such expressive and creative dissections of mental illness within horror are sadly rare, with Marjane Satrapi’s remarkable The Voices standing as perhaps the most effective and interesting of recent times. Anguish is a film that seeks to directly focus on a female figure dealing with the reality of existing with mental illness, but using it as a backdrop for a supernatural horror concerned with the trauma of loss and the difficulty in reconciling loss. It is within this combination that the film proves interesting…but also ultimately fails, descending into a fugue where the greater potential is lost.

Anguish centres on Tess, a teenager dislocated from her life by an identity disorder that has plagued her young life. Moving to a new town, Tess and her mother attempt to settle into their new life, but a past tragedy of a young teenage girl’s death appears to cling to Tess suddenly, and is haunted by a seeming connection between the two girls. Perhaps Tess is not troubled by an illness of the mind…but an ability of supernatural proportion?

Playing more as a personal indie drama, Anguish is at its strongest early when it doesn’t force proceedings but focuses on the quiet nature of existence and in particular, plays with reflections (Tess and the girl from the past, Lucy; Tess’s Mother and Lucy’s Mother) by contrasting and comparing their behaviours and interactions with the world. Indeed, there are moments early where director Sonny Mallhi beautifully meditates on how the nature of anguish itself isn’t some loud expressive act, but an almost insoluble emptiness that cuts deep inside. Mallhi reinforces this idea through the layering of eerie tone and surreal imagery as the film builds, in such a fashion that rather than feeling like a statement of straight horror, plays more ambiguously. Is this real…or simply the mind of Tess playing tricks with her perception? For me personally, this quiet and suggestive open sets a tone that Mallhi miscues as the narrative builds into the real clash of real and supernatural; from here, the ambiguous becomes lost in a mire of the predictable and ineffective.

The indie tones present within Anguish are, has been noted by others, very reminiscent of It Follows, in terms of its subtlety and focus on morphing the familiar space of the suburbs and the suburban home into a space of omniscient threat and lurking dread, but crucially has none of the impact that made It Follows such a transcendent modern horror. This is a film that features moments of calm and sullen reflection, and it is within them that the heart of the film lurk. Indeed, the most successful moments of tension and fear come from the uneasy and destabilised perspective of Tess. The audience cannot completely trust the images she sees, and connecting this unexplainable, omnipresent fear through the very real fear of being unable to trust one’s own mind is an extremely effective concept. Of course, once the film moves into the realm of straight supernatural plotting, the sense of dislocation and ethereal doubt are undermined by the crushing weight of cliché and melodramatic obviousness, to the point where the mystery is erased by a simplistic problem with an obvious solution, rather than the honesty of facing a reality that has no easy answers and can’t be covered with supernatural excuses that obscure what could have been a truthful exploration of living with illness and the fragility that surrounds such an existence. Indeed, the possession aspect the film ultimately follows is perhaps the weakest element of the piece, derailing the direction and leading the momentum down a path where the originality fades and the jarring tonal contrast is unsatisfying as a horror experience. It becomes neither one style or the other, caught in the flux of both ideas, desiring originality but too scared to move away from the security of what is considered familiar horror ground.

With such an emotionally charged and human focus, the strength of performance was always going to be crucial to the success of Anguish. The central performance of Ryan Simpkins as Tess is filled with honesty and a realistic sense of detachment from the world. Yet like the film as a whole, once she must adapt to the needs of the possession element, it does feel like she comes out of her comfort zone and drops in terms of overall quality. This is a tremendous shame because overall she delivers a subtle, impressive depiction of a youth lost in the swell of an unsympathetic monster that has no form and can’t be stopped like some slasher bogeyman.

Anguish is a flawed attempt to handle supernatural horror through the gossamer of the emotionally charged issue of understands mental illness, and while not completely successful in terms of finding balance or any greater revelation, the tenderness and simple focus of the initial stages are refreshing and the mere attempt to bring these two concepts together is commendable. Ultimately, the complete picture ends up lacking and never truly rises to what could have been a truly emotionally affective work with the potential to challenge conceptions and shed new light on a topic that is sorely misrepresented in the genre as a whole.



Movie Review: Anguish
2.5Overall Score
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About The Author

Matthew Hammond is a full time cinephile, specializing in cult, art house and 1980s cinema. While film is his overwhelming passion, Matthew has been known to enjoy comic books, Sherlock Holmes stories and a good film related T-shirt. Feel free to email me with any questions or comments: