Tormented (1960) **Ĺ
Now hereís a truly unholy melding of styles for youó try if you can to imagine the consequences of Bert I. Gordon channeling the psychic energy of William Castle! Tormented marked Gordonís first attempt to make a really serious horror film for an adult audience, his earliest departure from the 1950ís giant monster flicks for which he is best remembered today. Itís a ghost story revolving around love gone wrong, but what it resembles more than anything else is the Psycho-influenced movies that Castle was just beginning to make around the same time, with their emphasis on poisonous relationships and obsessive revenge. Whatís most surprising is that, despite a rather loose-jointed story, fairly amateurish direction, and some outrageously hokey special effects, Tormented is really a pretty decent film. At the very least, writer/director Gordon was trying much harder at the creative side of things than he ever did in the 50ís, and he managed to get fairly good (if somewhat overbroad) performances out of his central players, even including his nine-year-old daughter.
Another admirable point about Tormented is that Gordon had both the courage to make his protagonist sort of a prick and the acumen to make his prickishness the driving force of the story rather than just a reason not to like the person weíre theoretically supposed to be identifying with. Accomplished but financially struggling jazz pianist Tom Stewart (Richard Carlson, from The Magnetic Monster and The Maze) has been living for some time on a small island somewhere. On the one hand, this has the effect of cutting him off from the social scene in which he has operated for most of his life, but on the other, it keeps him close to his fiancee, millionaire heiress Meg Hubbard (Lugene Sanders). Then, a week before his wedding, Stewart gets a visit from Vi Mason (Juli Reding), a singer with whom he had collaborated, and to whom he had been romantically attached before taking up with Meg. Itís not entirely clear just how long Tom and Meg have been seeing each other, but in any case, itís a recent enough development that Vi still refuses to accept that itís over between her and the pianist, and she has come out to the island in an effort to win him back. Seeking sufficient privacy to discuss the touchy issues between them, they head over to a dilapidated lighthouse, where Vi tries every trick she knows to pry Tom loose from the Hubbard girl. She seduces, she begs, she cajoles, and when none of that works, she mentions that she still has some letters from Tom in her possessionó and wouldnít Meg just love to read a couple of those? The pair are up on the lighthouse rampart when Vi changes tactics from persuasion to blackmail, and she makes the mistake of leaning back against the railing at the climactic moment of her spiel. The rusted railing gives way beneath her, and Vi finds herself hanging by one hand above a 40-foot drop onto the jagged, surf-swept rocks. She pleads with Tom to take her hand and pull her up, but Stewart is slow to react, and Vi falls to an ugly death. The question is, how much of Tomís hesitation was simple shock, and how much was the realization that Viís accidental death would be awfully convenient right about now?
Over the ensuing week, Tom will be increasingly tormented (like you didnít see that coming, right?) by what appear to be manifestations of Viís vengeful spirit. When he and Meg take a walk together on the beach, a third set of footprints accompanies theirs. He sees what he thinks is Viís body floating out in the surf, but it transforms before his eyes into a pile of seaweed as soon as he brings it ashore. Vi comes to him in dreams and chases him about the lighthouse where she died, vowing that no woman but her will ever have him. Articles of her jewelry keep popping up in places where they have no business being. Disembodied parts of her (hands and head mostly) appear to him and taunt him with threats of exposure. It even looks as though Vi is attacking the impending marriage directlyó the wedding ring disappears just as Tom is showing it off to Megís little sister, Sandy (Gordonís daughter, Susan, whom he also employed in Attack of the Puppet People and Picture Mommy Dead), and Megís wedding dress is ruined when huge masses of seaweed inexplicably find their way into the garment bag in which it was stored. Eventually, Tom becomes so frazzled that he partially confides in his blind housekeeper, Mrs. Ellis (Lillian Adams), telling her that heís been seeing ghostly apparitions and sketching out for her his last meeting with Vió albeit with no mention of either their affair or her subsequent death. Tom says only that they quarreled, and that he has not seen or heard from her since. Mrs. Ellis suggests that Vi might still be on the island, hiding away somewhere and doing her damnedest to disrupt the marriage through trickery. Indeed, she even pays a visit to the lighthouse, on the theory that itís the only piece of shelter on the island which is far enough away from prying eyes for a stranger to stay there unnoticed. While sheís at it, she has her own run-in with Vi, and seems to come out of it believing that something more than a run-of-the-mill stalking is going on after all.
Meanwhile, a lowlife beatnik sailor (no, really) named Nick (Joe Turkel, who appeared much later in Cycle Psycho and The Shining) turns up looking for Vi. He was the one who ferried her over to the island, and she owes him money for the passage. Nick remembers Vi having said something about a Tom Stewart, so he looks him up after a couple of days with no word from his erstwhile passenger, and in doing so, he gets some ideas in his head for a much more lucrative business than hauling people to and from the mainland. Nick initially assumes that Tom is keeping Vi in secret as his mistress, but a surreptitious search of the pianistís beach house discloses no sign of any woman. The way Nick sees it, the obvious conclusion is that Tom somehow found it necessary to murder his girl on the side, and he figures itís worth about $5000 to Stewart for Nick to keep his big mouth shut about what he thinks he knows. So now Tom has both an angry ghost and a blackmail plot to contend with, all on top of a pair of future in-laws (The Space Childrenís Vera Marshe and Harry Fleer, from Shock Corridor and The Unearthly) who make no secret of their only grudging consent to the wedding which is now just days away. And itís going to get a whole lot worse for Stewart before it gets any better.
Bert I. Gordon certainly didnít make it easy to appreciate the charms of Tormented; indeed, to all appearances, most viewers consistently fail to notice them at all. Never a very good director, he was perhaps the earliest known example of a phenomenon which is quite common in the micro-budget market todayó filmmakers who are special effects artisans first and foremost, who evidently started making movies mainly because no one else seemed to want to hire them for the job they really wanted. True to form, Gordon has larded Tormented with his own unique brand of effects, and if you thought grasshoppers crawling around on a photograph of a Chicago skyscraper looked silly, just wait Ďtil you get a load of Richard Carlson having a heated argument with Juli Redingís floating, incorporeal head! (At least this time thereís an excuse for the transparency of the superimposed images that often accompanied the super-cheap matte process that Gordon always favored.) I also have a sneaking suspicion that right from the beginning, Gordon had his eye on an afterlife for this movie on television. Tormented is structured very much like a made-for-TV movie, building to a miniature climax about every fifteen minutes, fading to black, and then jumping ahead in the timeline to start the process over again. For the most part, itís just an odd quirk, but there is at least one point at which this curious practice has done the flow of the movie real damage. One of those mini-climaxes comes when Vi puts in an appearance at Tom and Megís wedding, leading to the one honestly creepy moment Tormented has to its name. But then the scene ends in the familiar television cliffhanger style, and the film lurches ahead to Tom trying to instigate a final showdown with the ghost at the old lighthouse. It never becomes quite clear how we got from point A to point B, and whatís worse, subsequent action will strongly imply that something important has happened during the period that Gordon skipped over.
The awkward structure and heavy reliance on overreaching and ridiculous visual effects are most unfortunate, because they have the effect of distracting the viewer from what is honestly a fairly well-crafted ghost story. The conflict between Tom and the undead Vi is unusually thorny for a junky little B-picture, in that both parties are simultaneously victim and victimizer. Tom, after all, is pretty much a heel. Unable to choose between the fresh-faced and filthy rich debutant out on the island and the more openly carnal appeal of his singer friend in the city, he evidently strung Vi along while keeping her very existence a secret from Meg, until finally the island girl won out. But at the same time, we can see that, whatever Vi may think, Tomís eventual decision in favor of Meg was about far more than the Hubbard millions, and we may justly ask whether a woman who will turn to blackmail to get her way is someone Tom should want to get involved with in the first place. Meanwhile, Gordon is careful to portray Viís death as both an honest accident and one which Tom, had he been faster and more decisive on the draw, could probably have prevented. Vi may be an evil ghost, but sheís an evil ghost with a legitimate grievance. And Tom, though he hardly seems to deserve the scale of persecution (both criminal and supernatural) that he faces here, would never have had any of these problems if he had simply displayed a little moral fiber at any point prior to Viís fall from the lighthouse. Tormented also takes a truly unexpected turn in the final act, as Tom becomes desperate to escape from the snares laid by Vi and Nick, and Sandy accidentally gets caught in the middle. Whatever Gordonís fumbles in execution, he has taken on a hell of a lot more here than he had in Earth vs. the Spider or The Beginning of the End, and he deserves substantially more credit for Tormented than he has received.