Anguish is Sonny Mallhi’s directorial debut and third screenplay after The Roommate and Crush, two films that typify a brand of wishy-washy studio high school horror that seems oddly placed on the CV of the man who produced hits like The Strangers and Shutter. Anguish shows Mallhi’s most purposeful stride into the horror genre with irregular results.
Tess (Ryan Simpkins) has struggled with mental health issues all her life and in a bid for a fresh start has moved to a new town with her mum (Annika Marks). As Tess’ condition worsens she has to reconcile that the source of her problems may be supernatural, and that the spirit of a dead girl may be trying to communicate with her grieving mother (Karina Logue).
The first half plays out like a solid classic. Simpkins remains a likeable heroine, skateboarding her way through a town constantly bathed in twilight. There’s an atmosphere of melancholy on everything about the picture, from the subdued colouring of Amanda Treyz cinematography to the performances and even the scares. Mallhi’s debut showcases an inability to hold our interest for long and there are a few perfectly constructed horror images that show up how cinematically dull much of it is. Nothing in the film beats the relative classiness of a deserted, though maniacally active, playpark or a dozen pairs of hands polluting an empty back-lit window from the inside. The more manic stuff allows Simpkins time to show off, but threatens the integrity of the film’s conversional, eerie, nature.
The second half delves into the complex situation of having two mothers waiting for their respective child to return via one body. The problem is that by the time the film pulls together, we start to lose patience with how anticlimactic the film is. The casting of Annika Marks and Karina Logue is just as perfect as Simpkins, though just when you think Mallhi will take time to ruminate on the heartfelt horror of the two mothers’ relationship, it seems to be over. The actresses do a damn fine job with what they have, but Mallhi should have spent more time examining the strain and eventual sorrow of this bizarre situation. If he had, there was potential for Anguish to be a powerful look at the role of mothers in the genre.
The subject matter itself is dealt with in a considered way but it still collapses into the pitfalls Mallhi did back in The Roommate by using mental health in irresponsible ways. Back then the dangerous stalker was revealed to be a schizophrenic off her meds. Here, a girl’s troubling issues are linked to an ability to talk to the dead, which- if it hadn’t been for a sincere first half- could have been gross. Anguish is always at its best when it’s not pushing too hard to be a mental health drama or a horror film, Mallhi’s debut is more comfortable when straddling the line between.
Anguish manages a few great images and some scares too, but its power lies in Simpkins, Marks, and Logue who maintain our attentions well into the disappointing second half.
Dir. Sonny Mallhi
Stars: Ryan Simpkins, Annika Marks, Karina Logue