Angst (1983) I came for the horror, stayed for the cinematography

Angst is a rarely seen Austrian film from 1983, and if it weren’t for filmmaker Gaspar Noe claiming it is his favorite film, many of us wouldn’t have heard of it.  [Gaspar Noe often appears on all the “hardest to watch films” lists with the ten minute rape scene in Irreversible. I happen to laud his follow-up film, Enter the Void, as one of the most imaginative and visually pleasing films, not to mention best opening credits to a film. ]

But we are here to talk about Angst. Billed as a “home invasion” flick (that has its own genre now?) and has a woman screaming on the cover of the Blu Ray. Okay, typical. We’ll give it a whirl.

If you want an elevator pitch, it is the love child of Henry: Portrait of A Serial Killer, A Clockwork Orange, Requiem for a Dream and Funny Games. But it’s not really like any of those: it has an astoundingly modern feel to it (despite the clothing worn).

The prologue introduces our unnamed protagonist, walking aimlessly around a street in an upscale neighborhood, trying to pick a house to randomly murder someone. It doesn’t matter who, he just needs to do it. This tells us two things about the film: our protagonist is erratic and batshit insane. We see him using what I believe is to be a body mounted camera, the technique that Requiem for a Dream (and Pi, if we are being fair to Aronowsky) uses so much.

Because he kills an old woman, he is sent back to jail for ten years. He commits some other crimes and then is somehow being released again. The voiceover tells us that a psychiatrist declared him a sadist and that psychologically, he knew exactly what he was doing. Usually voiceovers turn me off to a film, but this one was done well. And now, our killer is being released from prison.  The moment he leaves the premises he tells us, in voiceover, that he needs to kill and torture someone, and he needs to do it right now. Oh, the other thing is that he gets off on it sexually. He stops at a coffee shop to show us how a psychopath eats a bratwurst, which is just as unsettling as you think it is. He ogles some young girls and imagines taking them as victims, but everyone in the place is creeped out by him so he leaves. And no offense to the actor, Erwin Leder, this man was not gifted with society-determined normalcy, he’s gangly with bulging eyes and an overbite only a dentist could love. But Leder is great, and he commits in the greatest sense of the word.

By this point, we know that we’re stuck with this narrator, this protagonist, if you can call him that, and he is reprehensible. Why do we want to go on this journey with him? Because it’s the basic story structure: a character has a need and the film is about fulfilling his need. That’s screenwriting 101. I know, I’ve literally taken Screenwriting 101.

Looking at recent reviews, most often mentioned is the cinematography of the film. If it good cinematography means using sweeping crane and aerial shots, then yes, this is very good. We see our killer close up, and we see him from above walking as an ant among many. By the way, he is never named. You don’t need Screenwriting 101 to see why that is significant.

He gets a taxi with a female driver and immediately starts to undo his shoelace, grunting and acting like…a maniac. The driver senses something is off and drops him off in a rural area, just right before we see that he was about to strangle her with a shoelace.

This doesn’t throw our killer off track, he actually doesn’t care about anything but finding people to torture and maim and kill. At least he has priorities, and there’s nothing vague about the plot of this movie.

Most of the rest of  film does not have any talking, and what fills it is synth music that is all the rage now with horror films (think It Follows.) It’s creepy enough yet enjoyable enough that it keeps things moving. Our killer finds a house deep in the woods, in what looks like a wealthy vacation home. Good enough. There’s more great shots of him moving from room to connected room, disorienting us but showing the repeating nature of the house and how that will come into play later. He breaks in, only to find a mentally and physically handicapped man asking if this man is his father. Oh no, really? We’re going to see him kill a disabled person? This is the film double-downing on its premise. Go big or go home, right?   In fact, what I’ve described so far is perhaps the first 10-15 minutes. The majority of the film is watching him torture, kill, and defile corpses. So why would anyone still want to follow this person?

I think it because the film is presented almost in real time from here on out, and we see every detail that goes into this, including dragging heavy corpses across the floor, then dragging them into a large storm drain, deciding what to do (he acts on impulse and is very unorganized.) A young, attractive blond woman arrives home with her elderly mother; the man in the house is her brother and son, respectively. The killer manages to hide around corners for a while, but then he strikes. first the mother and then the daughter, tying them up. As if that is not bad enough, he ties the daughter up in a strange way: one of her feet is tied to the doorknob, forcing her to stand with her leg up in the air. It’s odd that I found that part especially disturbing. He drags the disabled son, who, at least has mind enough to try to crawl away, up the stairs to the bathroom and drowns him in the bathtub, and comes downstairs to find the mother unconscious, and is upset because he wanted to show her the body of her dead son. “It’s part of the process!” our killer protests in voiceover. Now the process is ruined. Daughter tells him that the mother needs her medication. He finds it and forces her to take it, but no success, she’s dead. He slams her against a wall, discarding her.

An important element of the film, and it’s most interesting choice for the film is that during all the killing and moving things, he narrates in voiceover the story of his horrible, abusive childhood. If it doesn’t evoke sympathy, it evokes reason, a connection of why he is doing what he is doing. This is also why the film doesn’t get boring: you are watching something while hearing another story of the abuse he endured and the way he lashes out.

While he is doing all this, the family dog (a mini- schnauzer) is present, observing him and following him where he goes. And yes, it’s pretty adorable, especially when it hides under a blanket for a bit. The dog is not aggressive, but more inquisitive, as dogs often seem to be. So he is observed in his acts, but the observer is non-judgmental. In fact, the dog follows him around wherever he goes, trying to get attention. The killer ignores the existence of the dog the whole time, right until he is about to drive away, and the dog slips into the car next to him, and he lets the dog come along. At any point, he could have easily killed this small dog. Possibly there is a fondness or a forgiveness.

Meanwhile, the daughter is strong and fights back. She gets out of her restraints and hides in pantry, and here’s what struck me the most: I was annoyed that she would get away, spoiling the killer’s plan. I was on the killer’s side! He had a whole plan! Let him carry through! I suppose that is the strength of the film and why we want to watch this killer: we need to see him win, or the victims win. There is no in between. So far, the victims are down two people, so it is likely they will not win.

The daughter runs out of the house and outside, but he catches up with her in the storm drain, stabbing her repeatedly and then having sex with her dead body. Don’t worry, they don’t show…much. You see his face while it happens, which is not much comfort. He decides to drag the other two bodies, mind you, one is upstairs, to the runoff pipe as well. Here’s where the movie gets interesting and pretty real: Dragging dead corpses down stairs and outside homes is a fucking chore. And our killer flails and grunts and contorts doing it. It’s arguable the most impressive and disturbing thing about the movie.

He finally gets all three corpses into the drainpipe (and so help me, it didn’t look like mannequins, he may have been dragging the real actors.) He has a new plan: he will bring these corpses with him to scare the other people. For him, it’s not even so much the killing; it’s the pain inflicting on others. This guy isn’t just any old psychopath, he’s the most psychopathy that ever lived. I admire anyone that commits to what they set their mind to. He loads the three corpses in the family’s car (luckily the keys were still on the counter) and drives off to….freedom? To live out his dream? He seems unconcerned with being apprehended. He is thinking on pure impulse and primitive needs.

Only he’s so excited and anxious to get out of there, he rear-ends another car in front of some school children. He flees the scene, stopping at the coffee shop he went to at the beginning of the film, right after he left prison. The two young girls are there again, along with a bratwurst. You’ve never seen a man eat a bratwurst so violently. But our killer wouldn’t do it any other way, as he is anti-social in every sense of the word.

The police pull up to the restaurant, probably after sighting his car. The killer goes outside to feed some brat to the dog, and it is unclear if it is because he wants it to start barking or perhaps he does have compassion for it. while the police circle him, several times. Finally, they approach him. Our killer doesn’t seem scared at all. He was expecting this. He’s ready.

The two girls in the coffee shop walk outside with the rest of the patrons. The police ask him to open his trunk. This is his moment, His glory: all he ever wanted: to see the horror on their faces. He opens the trunk just as the camera pans up and away. The End. Bravo.

As I ask with every film, why does this story need to be told? Why should anyone care about the killer? At least, care about his story? I surmise because when we think of someone carrying out the horrible acts on people, we think of the tragedy of the whole. We think of the aftermath. We think of ourselves as lucky. We don’t think about the actual in the moment things that the process requires. How sometimes plans don’t go right, how corpses are hard to move, how quickly like can be taken.

Presumably, none of us are psychopathic killers, and we will never experience this. But the movie allows us, it allows us to be the killer, to know how what it takes. We should take no shame in wanting that, we get the experience without the consequences. We can be someone else. That is the power of horror films.

 

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