(From now until Halloween, the Canadian Cinephile will be taken over by pure, unadulterated FEAR. No, I’m not commencing an Adam Sandler marathon. I will be reviewing some of the most spine-chilling, bloodcurdling horror movies, with this year’s trip covering those freaky films released prior to 1970. There will be a special focus on Universal’s classic monster pictures, so bring your hot cocoa. It’s going to be a dark and scary ride. Sort of.)
Bert I. Gordon departs from his typical giant monster movie shtick for 1960’s Tormented, a devious little ghost story that features a rather conflicted plot and some haphazard execution. This film was written by Gordon and George Worthing Yates and it revels in the opportunity to branch out, with plenty of psychological horror tropes woven into a rather breezy story.
Tormented is sort of a take on the trend of internal terror, which would come to roost to great efficacy in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Gordon’s interest lies in how he can weave the inner strife of his characters with some sort of physical manifestation, with special effects painting the way forward. As with most cheapies, the effects leave a lot to be desired but aren’t without their own humble charm.
Tormented opens with “the best jazz pianist in the world” Tom Stewart (Richard Carlson) as he’s about to get married to Meg (Lugene Sanders). Unfortunately for the jazzman, his old girlfriend Vi (Juli Reding) shows up with a letter that she intends to use to blackmail Tom into continuing to see her. The infatuated lady plunges to her doom in an unfortunate accident, although Tom could’ve helped her.
This conflicted scene plays out as Vi’s corpse drifts onto dry land and transforms into seaweed right before Tom’s very eyes. Slowly it becomes apparent that her ghost is haunting him, which really puts a damper on his ability to concentrate on his imminent nuptials. To make matters worse, Nick (Joe Turkel) arrives to collect the five bucks Vi owes him.
To put things right out in the open, Tom is a bit of a bastard. He’s obviously been stringing Vi along for a while, which seems peculiar given the fact that he’s getting tethered to Meg. Whether it’s his magic fingers or her inherent lack of self-worth, something has kept her from moving on.
In his desperation, Tom seeks the advice of the housekeeper Mrs. Ellis (Lillian Adams). She has the good sense to head out on the lighthouse to talk to the pestering spirit, but she comes out of the interaction with more questions than answers. Tom keeps losing potential allies along with whatever parts of his mind he has left, so naturally he’s a wreck by the time the wedding arrives.
Also, the director’s daughter stars as Sandy. She’s Meg’s little, little, little sister and she’s around to keep Tom on his proverbial toes. Between the kid and the beatnik Nick, it’s trouble for the protagonist. Turkel is one of the major sources of humour in Tormented. His Nick cranks up a soupçon of blackmail of his own because there’s no good reason not to.
Gordon delivers this warped package with all sorts of matte effects, complete with overlaid heads, hands and whatever else comes to mind. Vi makes the lead-up to the wedding a living hell, pilfering the ring and tarnishing the wedding dress. At one point, Tom sticks her ear-splitting head in a sheet and drops it down the stairs.
Without the loony effects, Tormented would probably be a better flick. But without the loony effects, Tormented wouldn’t be a Bert I. Gordon flick and that matters an awful lot. There’s something absorbing in the way this thing slides off the rails and into all-out folly, especially considering the care of its setup.
Does Tom kill Vi? Yes and no. Is Vi justified in all her ghostly and ghastly actions? Yes and no. These moral struggles bring Tormented to another level beyond that of most comparable fare, particularly when the movie’s final shot arrives and blows everything out of the water. It’s a stellar moment for Gordon, representing what could well be his uttermost achievement in movie-making.
While Gordon’s execution falters and Tormented suffers under the weight of its genre trappings, there’s a good movie somewhere in the rubble and seaweed. The screenplay is shrewd, plus Reding is nice to look at as long as she’s in one piece. And Tom, the conflicted pianist, is hero and heel all in one breath. That’s not a bad way to go.