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Anguish (2015)
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by Jay Seaver

"An empathetic possession story that lives up to its title."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2015 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Anguish" lives up to its title and spreads it around, doing an impressive job of mixing jump shocks and genuine human discomfort. Despite placing that sort of emotion front and center, though, it has a much broader range of empathy for its characters, creating an even better connection with the audience it's looking to scare.

It starts out by introducing the audience to Lucinda (Amberley Gridley) and her mother Sarah (Karina Logue), arguing about the daughter spending a weekend at a cabin with friends. It escalates in a way both would regret if it didn't end in the worst possible way. Some time later, another mother/daughter pair arrives in town: Tess (Ryan Simpkins), a withdrawn girl of fifteen who has been showing signs of mental disorders since she was five, and her fairly young mother Jessica (Annika Marks); father Robert (Cliff Chamberlain) is deployed to the Middle East. Despite it being November, Tess will not be starting school until after winter break, so she has time on her hands to explore and discover that perhaps the voices she hears are not entirely in her head.

Tess seems like a heck of a tricky character to play, so introverted that her mother has to remind her about making eye contact and as such not necessarily getting many chances to really interact with others; it's the sort of character that can come across as a bit of a lump. Fortunately, not only does writer/director Sonny Mallhi give her habits that seem to fit, but Ryan Simpkins digs into them and finds a nice balance between having a natural tendency to retreat from the world around her and a strong sense of curiosity. Tess seems like a complete person from the start rather than one who needs to find a missing piece, and that's important, because it gives the audience a strong sense of her when her brain chemistry goes off or the story's possession elements kick in and she may not be entirely herself any more. Even then, Simpkins is not given exaggerated, broad material to play; rather than going all-out with cackling demons, she's got to give the audience reason to believe but the skeptical other characters reason to disbelieve.

The rest of the cast mostly gives Simpkins good support without overpowering her. Annika Marks gives an easily-overlooked performance that seems genuinely lived in; Jessica has been facing the challenges that Tess's disorder presents for her entire adult life and while it's stressful and can nudge her toward despair, she has the tools to deal with it even if this situation is worse and further out of her experience. Sarah's capability when things start getting strange is a bit odd, but Karina Logue handles the depressed build-up to it very well. Amberley Gridley winds up with a smaller role, but a pivotal one, doing a lot to set up Simpkins and revealing a good person underneath teenage anger and frustration. Ryan O'Nan is kind of interesting as the local pastor; it's not often you see this character seemingly backed into recommending exorcists and apparently feeling like this is a part of his calling he'd never expected..

As soon as we're talking exorcists and possession, there's certain horror movie bits the audience expects, and Mallhi gives them to the audience with some skill. He can deliver a shock out of left field or punch of the expected ones; he also does a nice job of taking what starts as a jump and holding it for a bit. He keeps things very tight and on a small scale, and I think part of that is that there's a genuine affection for the small-town characters there; none of them are ever played down or shown as incapable. He and cinematographer Amanda Treyz do a great job of capturing the location, and the sound crew does MVP work in amplifying every bit of tension in the movie.

"Anguish" has a tricky last act; it has moments of making the audience uneasy but loses a bit of the connection to what made the film work so well toward the start. That first two thirds is really good, though, and the end should at least get credit for keeping the focus on these mothers and daughters rather than smothering them under a lot of extraneous material. It makes for a bit of an unusual possession story, but one that comes out well ahead compared to most.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=29294&reviewer=371
originally posted: 07/23/15 03:32:05
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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  DVD: 05-Apr-2016

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