1 Hr., 23 Mins.
Angst August 13, 2020
he modern slasher movie lets us see the world through its killer antagonist’s eyes all the time. Usually, though, we experience their point of view only as they’re carrying out a murder — it’s one of the genre’s favorite scene-length visual tricks. It was employed to great effect, for example, during the opening of 1978’s Halloween, during which we embodied 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, revealing Myers standing in his front yard in a clown Halloween costume. His face is in a muted rictus; 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's infamous for making the "killer POV" trait last the whole movie. It's a claim to fame that it should be mentioned is not entirely true: Unlike 2012's Maniac, the cameras used by this movie are not acting as a pair of replacement eyes. What Angst does instead is, in many ways, freakier. 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 prison. (Unsurprisingly, he was locked up for committing an ultra-violent murder.) In the course of the 83-minute movie we watch him as he pins down and then terrorizes a new victim(s) (he settles on a family of three living at a closed-off countryside home). That's about it.
There is little dialogue in Angst. The bulk of character insight comes from voiceover, a device through which K monologues on both his life and what he has in mind as he kills. This voiceover is ingenious: It spells out the bloodthirsty determination of the character with unnerving precision, in a way standardly delivered dialogue wouldn't be able to. 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 eventually vanishes. Fundamentally this is an inessential movie. I don’t think anything simplistically good, per se, comes from a feature-length cinematization of a pretend serial killer doing simulated serial-killing and nothing else. 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's more so about "possessing" the viewer in a manner more conventionally formatted movies usually don't 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 — temporarily attaches itself to our nerve endings. K's worldview imprisons. Kargl, with his proclivity for crooked, asymmetrical photography and his smart deployments 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 killer. But it feels authentic, which, in this case, is good enough.
Angst is likely to receive — and has received — 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, er, a serial killer. Angst, like Henry, is not a drop-everything-for-this kind of movie, 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 become secondary figures, only briefly humanized in the storytelling (if even that). 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 an engrossing true-crime story to so much as exist. They also function as scarily efficient horror movies. A