Thursday, December 17, 2015

Anguish: Mothers and Possessed Daughters

Tess’s father has been deployed to Middle East. At least he will be safe there from the malevolent power apparently possessing his daughter. Tess’s young mother Jessica will be the unfortunate one stuck dealing with her erratic behavior. Unfortunately, the teen’s long history of emotional problems will delay a more supernatural diagnosis until it is almost too late. There are indeed trying time ahead in screenwriter-director Sonny Mallhi’s Anguish (trailer here), which opens this Friday in select theaters.

It is easier for Jessica to deal with Tess when her husband is around to teach her how to play guitar and skateboard. The teen is more than a little socially awkward, but it is not her fault. All her life, her brain chemistry has worked against her. She has responded positively to her latest dosage, so her parents hope and pray she has turned a corner. However, things take an ominous turn for the worse when Jessica relocates them to a sleepy burg in Illinois. It seems the spirit of Lucinda, the teenager killed in the film’s prologue, might have some kind of dark hold over her.

For a horror film, Anguish is remarkably grounded and stylistically Spartan. Clearly, Mallhi understands parents and teens are often scarier to each other than anything that goes bump in the night. Of course, Tess’s painful history and awkwardly reserved demeanor make her especially vulnerable to possession. In a way, Anguish is not unlike The Babadook, but the difficult child is older and the beleaguered parent is younger. Yet, instead of kicking around fairy tales tropes, Mallhi taps into the primal fears and puritan anxieties that make classic supernatural horror so unsettling.

Being moody and gritty is all very fine as an aesthetic choice, but it does not give the cast the sort of overblown effects and an exploitative excesses they could hide behind. Fortunately, they are all quite down-to-earth and credible as average, overwhelmed people, especially Annika Marks, whose work as Jessica is uncompromisingly honest. Granted, we sometimes want to shake Ryan Simpkins’ Tess by the shoulders, but that is sort of the whole point. Ryan O’Nan’s Father Myers is also refreshingly sympathetic and decent, even though Mallhi ultimately takes the film in a different direction than the classic Blattyesque priest-versus-evil spirit climax.

Anguish is a very good horror film that is on par with the unjustly under-appreciated The Diabolical and superior to the over-hyped Babadook. Despite some vaguely New Age elements, Mallhi has a good sense of what everyday life is like for God-fearing, military-serving working class people. He also delivers some well-timed jolts in the early going and some serious dread during the third act. Highly recommended for horror fans, Anguish opens tomorrow (12/18) in Los Angeles, at the Arena Cinema and also launches on VOD platforms.