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Fantasia 2015 Review: Anguish Finds a Beating Heart Among the Undead

By  · Published on July 25th, 2015


Fantasia International Film Festival 2015 runs 7/14–8/4. Follow our coverage here.

Lucy (Amberley Gridley) and her mother, Sarah (Karina Logue), are arguing in the car on the way home. It’s a routine familiar to anyone who’s been a teenager, but as they fight over the girl’s need to grow up and the mom’s desire to hold onto her daughter for a little while longer tragedy strikes giving neither of them what they desperately wanted.

Tess (Ryan Simpkins) arrives in town with problems of her own that go well beyond an occasionally fractured relationship with her own mom, Jessica (Annika Marks). She’s been burdened with severe emotional issues since she was a little girl, and this fresh start – along with daily medication and instructions from her therapist – offers her a chance at an elusive normality. It doesn’t last long though as she soon crosses paths with Lucy’s unsettled spirit leading to a back and forth of will power, grief and love. Oh, and nightmarish glimpses of supernatural terrors.

Writer/director Sonny Mallhi makes his feature debut with Anguish, but he’s no stranger to genre cinema. He’s produced great (The Strangers) and not so great (House at the End of the Street) horror films over the years, and for his first foray into the director’s chair he’s created a story that blends elements of the dark fantastic with a surprisingly emotional center.

There are traditional horror beats here including some highly effective visuals and some overzealous sound effects meant to jolt audiences, but the film just as frequently takes a softer route. We’re allowed time with Tess as she wanders her new town on a skateboard, watching other teens her age interacting and having fun, and while the dialogue is sparse Simpkins’ performance ensures we get to share in this girl’s loneliness. Soft eyes peek out from her wild hair, and they highlight an inner battle with herself that forces viewers to see her as a person in pain rather than simply a teen protagonist in a genre flick.

The first act gives ample time to Tess’ mental state before other characters begin acknowledging the supernatural explanation that viewers have already witnessed, but that shift is handled with an odd lack of grace. One minute the issue is psychological, and the next Tess’ mom considering the idea of possession. It’s jarring to see the characters jump so effortlessly in that direction, but it quickly settles in thanks in part to performances that again draw the focus to the people over the situation.

It’s especially satisfying to see that those people in question are all female. There are male characters here too, but none of them manage to intrude in on the relationships between mother and daughter. Tess’ dad is active military who we see over Skype but is unable to come home. A boy tries and fails to catch Tess’ eye in a playful, dialogue-free scene. The local priest offers spiritual guidance when what matters are the people before him. Even better, the female characters all feel fleshed out in their desires and feelings – there’s compassion and understanding here even as issues of loss and grief plague them all.

As strong as those elements are they do suffer as things come to a cluttered and confusing close. Teases of greater, darker forces at work give way to very little. Unlike something like Insidious, the “other side” is mentioned but never really glimpsed, and attempts to play up the danger emanating from there are somewhat slight and lacking in lasting intensity. It leads to a somewhat low-key ending that doesn’t wholly convince viewers as much as it does the characters.

Anguish highlights four people in various degrees of mental and emotional pain, and while the narrative tissue here is a supernatural one the beating heart beneath it all is as real and affecting as they come.

Fantasia International Film Festival 2015 runs 7/14–8/4. Follow our coverage here.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.