Within a matter of hours, Anguish went from an ambiguous horror title to one of my top horror films of the year. I do my best for you people, but with twenty-something movies releasing per week, a few are destined to fall through the cracks. Lucky for me, “Horror Film Twitter” made sure this heartfelt possession thriller didn’t get buried under J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars hoopla – and with proper reasoning. Rookie director Sonny Mallhi makes a statement with this tightly restrained, yet effectively creepy flick by focusing more on emotion than cheap, unnecessary scares. A good genre movie makes you feel something more than physical chills, and Anguish has that wonderfully uncomfortable feeling about it in the best of ways.
Mallhi sets his stage by introducing us to Lucy (Amberley Gridley) and her mother Sarah (Karina Logue), as they’re driving down a quiet highway. Sarah pulls the car over to lightly discipline her bratty child, who’s just been told she can’t go on a co-ed camping trip. In a fit of teen angst, Lucy flings the backseat door open and starts storming home on foot – right before she’s killed by a passing car.
At this point, Tess (Ryan Simpkins) and her mother Jessica (Annika Marks) take over as the film’s focal point. While exploring her new town, Tess finds a cross planted in the ground that marks where Lucy was struck. She picks up Lucy’s picture and is immediately pulled towards the wooden cross by an invisible force. Lucy’s voice starts haunting Tess’ every move, but Jessica takes the signs as symptoms of Tess’ medical conditions. How are you supposed to believe your daughter’s complaints of possession when she’s already been medically diagnosed with anxiety, dementia, hallucinations, disruptive behavior and other psychotic tendencies?
This is the crux, and most intriguing aspect, of Anguish. For half of Mallhi’s film – which is inspired by true events, apparently – we question whether Tess’ paranoia is indeed happening. From shadowy figures to a cavalcade of hands pressed against her living room window, Tess is subject to horrors that tear her apart from the inside out. Prescribed pills seem to have no effect, and Lucy’s spirit grows stronger the more Tess struggles to shut her out. Tess just crumbles into a ball, unable to stop advancing forces from turning her absolutely insane. These “horrors” drive the film’s first half, leading viewers to anticipate another take on paranormal invasions. The chills are real (Lucy, invisible, letting her breath fog up a window), but then Anguish shifts, becoming more about the mortal questioning of an afterlife, and this transformation lets it evolve into a film that explodes with finality and heart.
When Tess can no longer fight away Lucy’s spirit, there’s a Freaky Friday body switch between the living and the dead. Lucy, not ready to pass on, uses Tess’ body to act out her last wishes. She throws herself from Jessica’s car and sprints to Sarah’s house, where it’s confirmed that Tess no longer inhabits her body. Lucy apologizes for being such a brat, soaks in the life she once had, but eventually realizes how unfair this is to Jessica. What follows are incredibly heartfelt moments of tender love between two mothers, one who’s granted another chance, and the other who now is experiencing her own loss. Sarah, reliving the nightmare of losing her child all over, is forced to tell Lucy that it’s time to move on, knowing full well that her daughter could just remain in Tess’ body despite Jessica’s protest.
Hell, a wholly different horror movie could have played out, where Jessica has to fight off a crazed Sarah who forever wants her Lucy back, but that would have been the generic thriller Mallhi so lovingly avoids. Instead, we get a genre film bursting at the seams with stinging beauty, and a focus on personal relationships that’s twisted beyond perception.
Anguish plays around with James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s idea of a “Further,” where souls wait in a certain type of self-inflicted purgatory – but it does so with a stress on good intentions, not evil body-snatching demons. Tess is a troubled girl, and Lucy’s spirit provides an escape from her daily struggles. Lucy has no malicious intentions, only wishes of seeing her mother one more time before accepting her death. Mallhi’s film is a sweetly chilling piece on having lost, moving on, and accepting the next stages of our lives (no matter in what state we exist). Scares creep in, but this is more about basic human wants, needs and an examination of the unknown, at a far grander level than most genre fare of the same ilk. This is far from an exorcism thriller about twisting heads and a few cheap scares – and for that, we give thanks.
Anguish puts plot before scares and consequently becomes a wholesome, emotionally-charged possession tale that's built on story and substance - not cheap, forgettable thrills.