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The prolific Bert I. Gordon earned his footnote in '50s film history by creating releasable feature films out of next to nothing except some clever camera tricks. Usually lumped in with the least accomplished efforts to reach movie screens, BIGordon's work is always amusing, and occasionally arresting -- his The Cyclops can boast a genuinely grotesque monster, and his otherwise underachieving Beginning of the End has an action sequence or two that actually make some magnified locusts appear menacing. His pictures in general don't measure up to those by Roger Corman, who cranked out four or five times as many snappy exploitation pictures between 1955 and 1960. But on January first of the new decade, 'free range' low budget producing came to an end in Hollywood. For all feature work the Hollywood guilds required that accounting be kept and residuals paid. Independents like Corman and Gordon could no longer pay their actors in cash and close the books; ultra-cheap moviemaking for wide distribution came to a halt.
As if exiting the scene with Buddy Holly, the glut of monster movies also dropped off because the big studios had entered the game with color and 'scope pictures (The Fly) and some done on an epic scale (Journey to the Center of the Earth, for one). Bert I. Gordon reacted by turning his special effect talents to a slightly more costly ghost story pitched to compete with William Castle's then-popular spook shows. 1960's Tormented is an essentially artless creation with a few hair-raising visual moments.
George Worthing Yates had written four of Gordon's previous pictures, but his screenplay for Tormented is the first one not to deal with giant monsters or shrunken people. Ambitious jazz pianist Tom Stewart (Richard Carlson) is living on a vacation island not far from the house of his fianceé Meg Hubbard (Lugene Sanders). His sexy former girlfriend Vi Mason (Juli Reding) drops in from the mainland to blackmail him back into her arms. Vi dies in a fall from the abandoned, dilapidated lighthouse, an accident that becomes a murder when Tom withdraws his rescuing hand. Almost immediately he is haunted by guilty hallucinations, He pulls Vi's body out of the surf, only for it to collapse into an armload of seaweed. Her watch shows up, and he can smell her perfume. Tom becomes so distracted that Meg begins to worry, as does Meg's precocious 9 year-old sister Sandy (Susan Gordon). Tom's guilty behavior inspires the crooked boatman Nick (Joe Turkel) to try blackmail as well. The wedding is a day away, and Tom Stewart is panicking. Vi's ghost keeps appearing, and she swears that he'll never marry anyone else.
Tormented does not aim for subtlety on any level, so don't expect anything like The Uninvited or The Innocents, in which the role of the supernatural is ambiguous. Just when we think that only Tom can perceive Vi's ghostly presence, everyone can smell or see selected manifestations. Gordon's movie functions more or less the same as Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart in that a murderer falls prey to his own guilty imagination. In this case, an alternate title could be The Tell-Tale Seaweed, Watch, Perfume, Footprints, Phonograph, Disembodied Hand, Polaroid Snapshot, and Talking Severed Head. Tom's hallucinations are a constant annoyance, and are often accompanied by Vi's sarcastic ghostly voice dishing out more grief from beyond the grave. If not exactly frightening, the effects are competently done. Footsteps appear in the sand, and Vi's phantom corpse is magically covered by seaweed. She also appears in a filmy, breeze-blown ghost-dress when Tom to the lighthouse, the scene of his crime. BIGordon's old camera tricks come into play when Vi's disembodied hand crawls on the floor under Tom's piano, like "Thing" from The Addams Family. The film's most memorable shot shows Tom's hand holding Vi's decapitated head by the hair, as it tells him he'll never escape from her clutches. "You belong to a ghost, Tom."
Bert Gordon never had any particular skill with actors, which means that Richard Carlson, who had directing experience of his own, was surely in charge of his own very good performance. Tom Stewart remains so sympathetic that the movie falters when he changes from victim to murdering fiend. As the blackmailer, Joe Turkel (The Shining, Blade Runner) also seems to be performing without much directorial input, and does quite well. Nick the blackmailer is just slimy enough to frighten Tom, without alarming Meg's entire family. Another pleasant surprise is an actress named Lillian Adams, who is given the clichéd role of a blind neighbor 'sensitive' to the weird vibes around Tom. Ms. Adams had a very long career in TV; back here at the beginning of her career she reminds us a bit of Maureen Stapleton.
As unlikely as it sounds, the child actress Susan Gordon, the director's daughter, is excellent. Little Sandy's dialogue has its share of poorly written lines, yet Susan rises to the standard set by Richard Carlson, with whom she shares the most scenes. She had already been in her father's Attack of the Puppet People and was featured as Danny Kaye's The Five Pennies. Her underplaying is impressive -- when Sandy discovers that Tom has committed an act of violence, she's too loyal to him to tell anybody.
Less successful are Lugene Sanders and Juli Reding. Ms. Reding fills out Vi's tight dress to the specifications called for in the script, but neither does particularly well with their dialogue lines. They fared better than the actor playing Meg's father, whose entire vocal performance was replaced by Paul Frees. The dubbing sticks out rather badly.
One successful on-set effects gag shows the flowers in the church wilting, bunch by bunch, as "Vi" barges into Tom and Meg's wedding. Other optical effects are hit and miss, as is par for Gordon. The creeping hand under the piano doesn't match the scene well -- it's too right, and a shadow on the carpet doesn't fall on it as well (see left). To add a lighthouse to the Malibu Beach location, Bert Gordon mattes in a photograph that's not particularly convincing. One angle doesn't work at all. It shows the massive concrete structure rising above the seashore rocks -- but a hole through the rocks under the stone tower blows the entire illusion.
Tormented is a nostalgic favorite for many. Kids that saw it at a tender age remember its 'shocking' scenes as strongly as they do those in Psycho and Homicidal.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Tormented -- "A Terrifying Story of Supernatural Passion!" -- is given a very good disc presentation, with a nicely framed widescreen transfer. The titles are a bit dirty and minor flaws show up here and there, but the show is in mostly excellent condition. I did see what looked liked a few timing errors, on cuts. The sensation of a flash frame revealed a number of errant video fields popping through.
Otherwise, collectors will be pleased with this disc of a picture that has looked terrible on previous releases of questionable copyright status. Is it possible that with new laws, the copyright has been re-established? The encoding of Tormented offered as a throwaway extra on one older disc release looked as if it had been run over by a lawn mower.
Composer Albert Glasser gets the main music credit, but Calvin Jackson's jazz music helps Tom Stewart pose as a professional musician. Vi is heard on a phonograph singing a tune called "Tormented".
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T'was Ever Thus.
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