Written and Directed by: Sonny Mallhi
Starring: Ryan Simpkins, Annika Marks, and Karina Logue
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman(@brettgallman)
"Who are you?"
Anguish opens with a jolt, and by that I mean it features both a chair-jumper and a genuine shock to one’s sensibilities. We watch as a Sarah (Karina Logue) and her moody teenager daughter Lucy (Amberley Gridley) bicker. It’s a typical mother-daughter rift, one that’s been slowly fraying with every argument. Their latest showdown is over Lucy’s plan to party with her friends at a nearby cabin in the woods. We chuckle at the thought, assuming she’s certainly going to defy her mother’s wishes, attend the bash, and then, perhaps, she’ll have her skull bashed in by some maniac. We’ve seen this before.
But that’s not what happens; instead, Lucy lashes out, causing her mother to pull over and admonish her. Not content to simply sulk in the backseat, the girl decides she’ll just walk home. Without looking, she leaves the car, only to be plowed into by oncoming traffic, her life tragically cut short. It’s a jarring moment, one that obviously isn’t on the level of Psycho or Scream but similarly functions at knocking the audience off-center by pulling the rug from beneath their feet. You can practically see a pall cast over the film in this moment, which sets the somber, despairing tone for Anguish.
A set of titles during the credits sequence offers a clue about writer/director Sonny Mallhi’s focus here, as we’re informed that millions of teenagers are diagnosed with mental illness, with many of the cases resisting any kind of formal diagnosis. One such case presents itself in Tess (Ryan Simpkins), another disaffected teen whose face is perpetually buried in her hoody. Her mother (Annika Marks) hints at her unstable mind during conversations with the town priest* and a husband that’s deployed overseas, and her actual interactions with her daughter might as well occur over eggshells. There’s a sense that Tess could crack at any given moment, particularly since she won’t be attending school until the next semester begins.
Left to her own devices, Tess skateboards about this almost picturesque slice of Midwestern Americana, taking in the sparse sights and sounds of the sleepy town she’s just moved to. Mallhi allows the audience to also soak in the scene, which is authentically decked out with quaint houses and small storefronts decorated for Halloween. Anyone familiar with podunk, hole-in-the-wall locales will recognize the paradoxical nature of it all: sure, it’s charmingly nice and quiet, but it might as well be tying a noose around a teenager who’d rather be anywhere else. There’s a real hangout vibe to the first half of Anguish, as the audience hovers alongside Tess, waiting to learn the extent of a psychosis that causes unreal hallucinations, such as the sudden, supernatural appearance on handprints on a window.
You don’t watch it with great anticipation, though, which is to say Mallhi captures a genuine dread to what feels like an inevitable descent. It’s also a deliberate one that requires viewers to patiently wait for the director to begin connecting the dots, which becomes more and more obvious once Tess’s own tale begins to intersect with Sarah’s, the still-grieving mother from the film’s prologue. Up until this point, the film feels like a distant cousin to something like It Follows in its willingness to actually focus on its protagonist’s trauma. While Anguish isn’t as rooted in the same universal angst as that film, it’s nonetheless just as pensive and introspective when handling its protagonist’s anxiety and fear. Moody, portentous tracking shots (punctuated by the occasional clumsily-inserted jolt) capture a sort of lingering, melancholy air surrounding Tess and Sarah, a couple of broken souls whose chance meeting offers a chance at reconciliation for the latter—but only at the cost of the former’s soul.
Once Mallhi zeroes in on the crux of the story, Anguish pivots into a possession tale, albeit a slightly unique one that owes less to The Exorcist and more to Audrey Rose. It makes for the rare horror film without a boogeyman manifestation, resulting in an odd, almost jagged climax with an insular sort of conflict. You won’t find the typical possession movie theatrics here; in their place is only a suffocating sense of despair as Lucy’s lost soul clings to Tess’s body, threatening to claim it permanently. While Mallhi offers some supernatural flourishes (such as a glimpse into a Poltergeist-esque netherworld of damned souls), Anguish doesn’t take on the usual, schlock (or even shock) based tenor of a possession movie.
What emerges is a heavy, melancholy fog that everyone—Tess, her mother, Lucy, and Sarah—must fight through. The protracted climax sees them all struggling to come up for air from an inexplicable situation, and it’s a refreshingly human conflict. Logue especially shoulders the agony endured by a mother faced with the impossible situation of having to resolve her grief a second time. Her young co-star Simpkins adequately conveys her share of the titular anguish as well, though the turn of events here may have benefitted from a wider range. Even though she’s ostensibly playing two souls locked in a battle for one body, Simpkins doesn’t modulate her performance as much as you’d perhaps expect during the climax (before that point, she delivers a confidently brooding, nearly wordless performance).
That nitpick aside, Anguish functions well as a low-key mood piece whose horrors are muted in favor of that haunting sense of despair. Even when the film feels resolved, it continues to linger with an epilogue that suggests that some trauma—particularly a collision of souls---don’t wrap up tidily. At first blush, it feels like a riff on the cheap, obligatory “gotcha” codas from other horror films, but something about it feels appropriate here. It’s puzzling perhaps not in its narrative ambiguity but rather in how we’re supposed to take it. On the one hand, it perhaps represents an escape for one soul; on the other, it also signals that the two mothers may never quite be free from their grief. It’s in this moment that the film captures a true, spiritual anguish that won’t relent. This is what it means to leave an audience haunted.
*The priest’s name is “Meyers,” and the film is set in Illinois, but this still doesn’t prevent Mallhi from tossing in a “Carpenter” road sign just to make sure you get the nod.
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