1 Hr., 23 Mins.
Angst July 27, 2020
he modern slasher movie often lets us see the world through its killer antagonist’s eyes. Usually, though, we experience their point of view as they’re carrying out a murder. It’s one of the genre’s favorite visual tricks. It was employed to great effect, for example, in the opening of 1978’s “Halloween,” during which we embody its apparently unfeeling “mad slasher,” Michael Myers, as he stalked and then stabbed his older
sister to death with a kitchen knife one evening. This made for a chilling, uncomfortable experience. Gimmickry was narrowly avoided thanks not only to the patient staging of co-writer and director John Carpenter (who also penned the blood-curdling music for which the movie is renowned) but the freaky final reveal. When this mad slasher murdered his sister, he was 6 years old. The POV photography cuts off for a second at the end of the scene. It reveals Myers standing in his front yard in a clown Halloween costume; his face is in a muted rictus and he is still tightly clutching his weapon. The killer POV camera trick, when executed well like in “Halloween,” can be hugely effective. But when it isn’t — which is most of the time (see 1981’s “Blow Out” for a funny parody of the cliché) — it grates.
A movie like Gerald Kargl’s “Angst” (1983), then, might initially be met with some skepticism. It does use the camera as a replacement for its mad slasher’s vision, though not always. (To see a movie more committed to the stylistic choice, see 2012’s “Maniac.”) What “Angst” does instead comes close enough. It has us spend the movie exclusively inside the head of its murderer main character — a rodent-looking man we only know as “K” (Erwin Leder). As the film opens, he is being released early from a prison sentence. (He was locked up for murder.) In the course of the 83-minute movie do we watch him as he pins down a new victim(s) (he settles on a family of three living at a closed-off countryside home) and then proceed to kill them.
There is little dialogue in “Angst.” The bulk of character insight comes from voiceover, through which K monologues on both his life and what he has in mind as he kills. This voiceover works ingeniously. It spells out the bloodthirsty determination of the character with unnerving precision. It also, by reinforcing K's homicidal one-track-mindedness, extends itself to sympathy for the victims instead of K. (I was initially worried about the film offering up some sort of compassion for the killer.) No matter how much K ruminates on his background and what has led him to where he is now, he is extremely aware that his almost vampiric need to kill is monstrous. He nonetheless does not consider putting a stop to it.
Any initial skepticism we might have about the conceit of “Angst” and how it’s dressed up soon vanish. Fundamentally this is a worthless movie, to be sure. I don’t think anything cleanly good, per se, comes from a feature-length cinematization of a pretend serial killer doing simulated serial-killing. But Kargl, who never directed another movie, makes the most of what on the face of it is purely a dramatized provocation. What if you made a home-invasion thriller from the perspective of the invader? Because Kargl works diligently to recreate the insularity and warped views of K’s world, the film seems less intent on cynically shocking. It is more so about "possessing" the viewer in a way more conventionally formatted movies usually do not allow for. It’s a hellacious virtual reality simulation we can’t switch off.
One inevitably does not “enjoy” watching “Angst,” loosely based on the real-life spree of the Austrian mass murderer Werner Kniesek. But many viewers, I think, will get a nauseating thrill out of it. As frequently agonizing to watch as it is, “Angst” also successfully envelops us — it temporarily attaches itself to our nerve endings. K's worldview imprisons us. Kargl, with his proclivity for crooked, asymmetrical photography and his smart deploys of Klaus Schulze’s pulsating and sinister electronic score, makes the film’s frightening reality even harsher — which is also to say more eerily convincing and immersive. I can’t know for sure whether the movie authentically captures what it might feel like to be endowed with the brain of a serial killer. But it feels authentic.
“Angst” is likely to get — and has gotten— comparisons to “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer,” the 1986 psychological horror movie that, true to its title, painted for the viewer a pretty unvarnished portrait of, ahem, a serial killer. “Angst,” like “Henry,” is not an essential viewing, necessarily. But in its commitment to uglifying the psychology and very nature of the mass murderer, it arguably becomes subversively vital. When true-crime stories are recapitulated by the media, there comes a tendency to accidentally mythologize or at minimum make luridly compelling a killer put in the spotlight. Victims are rendered secondary figures, only briefly humanized in the storytelling. Movies like “Angst” and “Henry,” if one ventures to watch them, work kind of like cinematic retorts. They tacitly remind the viewer not to unwittingly minimize the horrors that have to occur for a true-crime story to so much as exist. They’re also scarily efficient horror movies. A