To celebrate Halloween this year, Dim the House Lights will be treating our readers to a horror movie recommendation a day for the ten days leading up to everyone’s favorite holiday. So sharpen your knives, carve your pumpkins, sit back and let the terror take over.
From Fritz Lang’s M to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, horror movies about the psyche of a serial murderer are a dime a dozen, but few commit to their subject as intensely as Gerald Kargl’s Angst. Produced in Austria and released in 1983 to little fanfare, the film follows an unnamed psychopath (Erwin Leder in a ferocious central performance) during his first days out of prison and intimately plunges us into his headspace. We hear his thoughts, reminiscence through voice-over, and watch as he carefully selects a new victim before putting his murderous plan into action. Angst bankrupted its director and remains, to this day, the only title on his resume. Thankfully, the film found an audience through home video and has since become regarded as an unsung masterpiece.
Gaspar Noé frequently cites Angst as one of his favorite movies that was highly formative on his own cinematic style, and it’s easy to see why. The first thing that strikes you about the movie is the highly unusual cinematography. The film makes extensive use of fluid crane shots and body-mounted camerawork. For a movie with such a limited budget, the abundance of overhead angles and traveling shots is quite startling. It achieves a level of slickness and visual ambition usually relegated to busier (and more well-funded) subjects and not such a concentrated character-study. Kargl’s camera swoops from rooftops to street-corners and has no apparent limitations. When the camera is mounted to Leder’s body, it doesn’t remain fixed on his chest or back (as is traditionally the case) but actually arches around his entire body while he’s in motion, leading to some of the most disorientating camerawork I’ve ever seen. The film also has a metallic, electronic score by ex-Tangerine Dream member Klaus Schulze that makes the soundscape just as frenetic and memorable as the visuals. Yet, despite all this, the film doesn’t feel showy or indulgent. The style is an extension of the film’s lead character and either patronizingly looks down on its subjects with god-like superiority or regards them intimately with a skewed-eye.
For many serial-killer movies, the lack of motive or understanding is often the most disturbing aspect, but Kargl goes in the opposite direction. Leder’s psychopath explains the reasoning behind all his madness in great detail. He rarely acts randomly and considers all of his options before settling on a final choice. It’s almost like a procedural, but from the serial killer’s point of view. We watch as Leder sits in a cafe sizing up girls at the breakfast bar and listen as he explains why they may or may not make for perfect victims. When he decides to invade a home, we hear the glee in his voice when he first steps foot in the perfect household. While Kargl never makes the psychopath the hero, he makes us, the audience, complicit in his actions which itself is incredibly harrowing.
The way the film spends as much time on the mundane as the macabre also makes for a lot of disquieting moments. Take for instance the film’s core set piece, in which the psychopath invades a family’s expansive country home. The house is so big that the killer easily gains access to the building without detection and hovers in the unpopulated rooms listening while different members of the family arrive home, blissfully unaware of his presence. Kargl’s masterstroke is the addition of a little dachshund who shuffles into the dark rooms and regards Leder with a wagging tail before going back to his owners unperturbed. When Leder finally strikes, the violence is savage but, surprisingly for this genre, Kargl doesn’t dwell on the violence itself as much as he does on the practicality and difficulty of trying to murder a house full of people. It is drawn out, procedural, and, most importantly, messy and chaotic.
The whole thing unfolds in real-time and escalates to almost comic heights, but the sequence never becomes farcical. First Leder ties the daughter up so he can strangle the mother but the mother keeps escaping, so the strangulation continues throughout various rooms and is punctuated by mini-developments such as her false teeth falling out or her being too heavy to knock unconscious and drag. Meanwhile, the daughter is trying to escape and the father, a mute man in a wheelchair, is crawling to her aid. It’s these little moments, these slowly developing subplots in the grand attack, which makes the sequence so realistic and unique. Kargl lets the film breathe in moments between assaults when the killer himself sits down to catch his breath or has to race around the vast estate trying to locate a ringing telephone before one of his victims does. Leder’s interior voice-over continues throughout the entire invasion, describing his first murders as well as his reactions to the events currently happening with a calmness that is in direct contrast to the immediate carnage happening on-screen. And throughout all this, the little dachshund is still trotting around wagging its tail.
There is only one real moment of bloody violence in Angst, but it is extremely effective. Kargl used pig’s blood for added realism, and the sequence (which I won’t spoil) feels like something out of Andrej Zulawski’s Possession in its level of outright hysteria. The scene might be brief, but it necessarily translates the film’s excessive talk and suggestion of ugliness into something very literal. To finally see Leer’s murderer drenched in the blood of his victims successfully breaks any bond we might have with him up to that point. By the end of Angst, Leder looks like a feral animal, a rabid creature in need of its cage, and when the film ends you are thankful to be finally free of his company.
Kargl and co-writer Zbigniew Rybczyński loosely based the film on real mass murderer Werner Kniesek, and much of Leder’s voice over is culled from confession tapes of real serial killers, perhaps explaining why the characterization is so impactful and draining. There’s probably a very good version of this film without the narration, freeing it up to be a dialogue-free invasion shocker in real time, but I suspect something crucial might be lost. The film currently exists in two forms, a 76-minute director’s cut which begins the day the psychopath is released from prison and an 86-minute recut that adds a prologue to fill in all the backstory. I’d argue that the shorter, original cut is the stronger of the two but Angst, in either incarnation, is a visually distinctive feel-bad horror flick you won’t forget any time soon.
Angst is available on home video courtesy of Cult Epics
Directed by Gerald Kargl; written by Gerald Kargl and Zbigniew Rybczyński; starring Erwin Leder; 76 minutes (original cut), 86 minutes (with prologue).