Spiritual possession gets the indie treatment in Anguish, a dark, atmospheric horror-drama that aspires to the more minimal art-house leanings of recent unexpected genre hits The Babadook and It Follows but never really matches either in terms of scares, story or craft.The film’s opening, however, does a good job of setting the tone. Teenage Lucy (Amberley Gridley) gets into the car with her mother (Karina Logue). They argue over trivialities like any mother and daughter might, and just as you’re acclimatising to them as the main characters, Lucy gets out of the car in anger and is struck by an oncoming car.
Ryan Simpkins, sister of Insidious and Jurassic World‘s Ty Simpkins, steps into the fray here as Tess, a heavily medicated teenager with what appears to be a host of psychological issues. She moves to the town where the film’s opening transpired with her mother, and during a trip exploring the area, visits the site of Lucy’s accident, where an unseen force pushes her into the dirt and won’t let her get up. Afterwards, her mental problems worsen, bringing with them increasingly vivid hallucinations.
The predictable emergence of a priest at this point marks Anguish‘s turn towards some of its more obvious genre pitfalls, with the suspicion mounting that something supernatural may be responsible for Tess’ downward spiral. However, the film saves itself from bargain-bin purgatory by adding a genuinely fresh spin on the possession subgenre that gives its closing third some unexpected heft. Simpkins is on strong form here as well, bringing vulnerability, ferocity and everything in between in a nicely layered performance. Overall, though, the film’s indie sensibility takes over to a suffocating extent, its glacial pacing and ambling acoustic soundtrack ultimately undercutting the tension rather than cultivating the feeling of slow-burning dread of some of its more accomplished contemporaries.
That being said, Anguish does at least attempt to bring some measure of invention, both in terms of tone and storytelling, to a subgenre that is flooded with repetition, and while its reach exceeds its grasp, it’s infinitely preferable to see something show a bit of ambition and not quite connect than watch another average possession yarn that doesn’t tread any new ground. Ultimately, Anguish is a slow-burning to a fault and a little lacking in killer instinct, but deserves some praise for at least attempting to venture from the beaten track.