(A.k.a. SCHIZOPHRENIA; FEAR)
Austria may not be the most prolific of contributors to the horror genre. But when they do take part, they do so with gusto. Films such as THE HANDS OF ORLAC, PARAPSYCHO - SPECTRUM OF FEAR and the original FUNNY GAMES help back that claim up.
Speaking of FUNNY GAMES, it's often cited as one of the ultimate "home invasion" films. However, there's another Austrian horror film that doesn't get enough recognition. It's also one which is, arguably, the greatest "home invasion" film of them all. Its name is ANGST.
Opening in a grey Austrian prison, the film's first scene introduces us to K (Erwin Leder). His narration explains how he's spent half of his adult life behind bars: 4 years for attempting to kill his mother, and another 10 for successfully murdering a 70-year-old woman.
On this particular day, K is being released on parole. He's managed to fool the prison psychologists, his voiceover informs us, by convincing them that all he ever thinks about are flowers in bloom. However, the truth is he is burning inside with the desire to kill again.
Upon release, he saunters through the empty streets and into the nearest cafe. Here, he eyes up two girls while thinking of the things he'd like to do to them, before deciding he needs to start with something a little easier and - by chance - walks into a taxi being driven by a female (Renate Kastelik). His attempt at strangling the driver with his shoelace goes awry, leading him to fleeing the scene and scarpering into nearby woods.
At the other end of the woods, K happens upon a remote house which appears to be deserted. As he breaks in and scouts the place, his narration remarks that the place will make a good place for him to bring his eventual victims. He doesn't have to wait too long: the owner, an elderly woman (Edith Rosset), soon returns with her daughter Sylvia (Silvia Rabenreither). Together they look after the mother's mentally handicapped son (Rudolf Gotz) - who up until this point had been home alone.
K shares his growing excitement with us as he hides upstairs and bides his time, waiting to strike against his three soon-to-be victims...
Told largely in real-time and utilising extraordinary camerawork from beginning to end, writer-director Gerard Kargl's ANGST is a tour-de-force of terror.
Cinematographer Zbigniew Rybczynski's camera flits restlessly, trying to keep up with Leder - who is in every scene of the film - sometimes opting for a high angle point-of-view, working alongside the persistent monologue to allow us into K's brain by focusing on the back of his skull and peering over his shoulder as he goes about committing his nefarious ills. Wider exterior shots reveal a landscape of isolation and dislocation, as well as building a striking image of a lonely, uncaring land - a visual device that fan Gaspar Noe also employed for I STAND ALONE.
Then there's Leder. A slim man in his early-30s at the time of filming, his taut facial expressions and wide eyes effortlessly convince as a man living on the edge of sanity. As the monologue explains, K's character - based on a real-life Austrian killer called Werner Kniesek, as well as poaching some dialogue from the confession of notorious murderer Peter Kurten - has experienced a lifetime of fear (an abusive mother, an uncaring stepfather, a cruel grandmother etc), to the point that he now obsesses over the notion of eliciting fear in others. He even fears his own compulsions. What Leder so expertly does, with nary a word of actual dialogue leaving his lips in the entire film, is convey both the insanity and fear in spades. The intensity behind his eyes is frightening because it's so plausible. His is a killer who acts on impulse rather than cunning, and makes more blunders than anything else. But, at all times, you never doubt that he is a serious threat to anyone he meets.
Kargl films with a clinical eye for detail and pacing, teasing the trim situation for as much tense build-up as is humanly possible. The atmosphere he and Rybcynski create from the off is icily fraught. Much like in, say, A SHORT FILM ABOUT KILLING, violence is in the air long before actual blood is spilled. When the visceral stuff does come, no punches are pulled: though not excessively gory, the attack scenes are feral in execution, disturbingly authentic-seeming in their portrayal.
All of which is complemented rather sublimely by Klaus Schulze's pulsating electronic score. Truly, this becomes another character of the film - such is its imperative element.
ANGST has never received the recognition it so richly deserves. Mostly due to the fact that it was plagued with distribution woes almost immediately after it was completed. Distributors overseas were reluctant to pick up a film so unforgiving; domestically, the film fell prey to heavy censorship. Kargl all-but disowned the film, blaming its lack of success for ruining his fledgling filmmaking career. He also complained at the time that the finished article was more a product of Rybcynski's than his own. On top of that, Kargl never liked the additional 7-minute prologue he was forced to shoot when distributors moaned the film was too short.
The film almost got its due when Barrel Entertainment began work on a Special Edition DVD several years ago. Alas, they went bust long before their release ever saw the light of day. Occasional DVDs have surfaced in the meantime, and even a French blu-ray, but none of them have been English-friendly.
Thankfully, all of that has now changed. Cult Epics have released ANGST on both DVD and blu-ray in America. Hooray! The blu-ray is reviewed here.
Presented in full 1080p HD in a nicely sized MPEG4-AVC file, ANGST looks remarkable on this region-free disc. The original 1.85:1 ratio is essential, such is the power of the photography, and looks fabulous when enhanced for 16x9 televisions. Colours are drab as they ought to be; blacks are deep, contrast is stable and detail is solid as a rock. The roving handheld camerawork exhibits occasional juddering in some scenes: that's how they were shot, so don't panic.
It's important to note a couple of things here. Firstly, this version is uncut - Kargl had overseen an optically censored version that has featured on prominent DVD releases in recent years (wherein the film's goriest murder scene was darkened to the point that you couldn't see what was going on). Here, it appears as it did upon original release, and remains as potent as ever. Secondly, you get the option of watching the film with or without that infamous prologue. The prologue features a third-person narration detailing K's troubled upbringing and subsequent life of crime. It also suggests that he may be schizophrenic - something not really touched upon in the film itself. As well as showing the shooting of the aforementioned 70-year-old victim, this prologue relies on a montage of mug shots and archive family photos to put its point across (it's also another very obvious point of influence for Noe's I STAND ALONE). The prologue is perfectly good but, in truth, the film plays far better without it. It's unnecessary.
Audio comes in options of German Master HD 5.1, German 2.0 and French 2.0. I sampled all three. The former is easily the best. It's also the one that the excellent optional English subtitles are catering for.
The disc opens to an animated main menu page. From there, pop-up menus include a scene selection option allowing access to the film via 10 chapters.
Bonus features commence with an optional 5-minute video introduction from Noe. Conducted from the back of a taxi, Noe insists that he prefers the French-language version of the film (and its title) because it plays more into his idea that the antagonist is schizophrenic. I disagree: "angst" in Austrian means "fear", and that's precisely what the theme of the film is.
Anyway, an audio commentary track from Kargl sees him in conversation with critic Marcus Stiglegger. It's a fascinating English-language prospect, where they speak more about character motivations and background info (Kurten's crimes, etc) than the technical side. These aspects are covered - the cameras, the lighting, the colour schemes etc - but Kargl seems a little less interested when answering these questions. Even so, it's a fluent and much-appreciated complement to the main feature. Both parties speak perfectly clear English but, in a nice touch, we do get English subtitles here as well.
Leder speaks excellent English during a thoroughly engaging 22-minute interview conducted outdoors during an afternoon of glorious sunshine. He's not just anywhere, by the way - he's in the location where the taxi attack and subsequent woods run took place! He reveals that his character was also based upon a third killer - Fritz Haarmann - and dissects the psychology behind acting in such violent roles. We also learn about why he thinks we should be able to empathise with K, how one of the best camera effects was achieved, and offers some insight into why the old lady's dog survives the film. Fascinating. Kudos to Uwe Huber for such a great interview.
NEKROMANTIK director Jorg Buttgereit then interviews Kargl in German (with English subtitles). This 27-minute featurette looks further into what influenced Kargl, how he managed to work within budgetary constraints, the film's reception and more. Kargl reveals how Leder came fresh from a rather large role in International hit DAS BOOT, which makes his searing performance all the more brave. Buttgereit is a gracious interviewer; Kargl comes across as serious and studied, but no less interesting for it.
A 37-minute interview with Rybczynski is clearly older in origin, but equally great in that the Oscar-winning cinematographer focuses largely on his work with Kargl. He's open about his need to experiment with new styles on the director's small-scale film, and then goes on to elaborate on why the source material was originally a political scandal in Austria. The Polish photographer speaks fluent English and is clearly a highly intelligent, serious gent with opinions on various political subjects.
ANGST's trailer is 3-minutes of well-edited fun that may make some who haven't seen the prologue think they're viewed a cut version.
We also get a trailer for SCHRAMM, so I assume Cult Epics are continuing their Buttgereit love by bringing that one to HD soon too.
Finally, there's a superb 40-page colour collectors' booklet proffering further interviews with Kargl and Leder, as well as a chat with Rabenreither and a wealth of engrossing material related to Kniesek.
The packaging for this release is nice too: A slipcase housing a keepcase, both of which have different cover art.
ANGST is one of the unsung greats of 80s horror, although it transcends its era and simply deserves to be viewed by any fan of disturbing, confrontational cinema. More than that, it's superbly made.
Cult Epics clearly recognise this and they've furnished the film with a stunning release. Let's hope this finally affords the film the reputation it so desperately deserves.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Cult Epics|
|see main review|