by Nick Clark
Tormented opens on the image of a roiling sea crashing against a shoreline of jagged rocks, enveloping them only for a moment before receding to reveal their treacherous edges in full. The night is dark, and the moon’s soft light shines dimly on a solitary lighthouse looming over the bay. Within its shadowy recesses, former lovers argue over what the future holds for them: Tom Stewart (Richard Carlson) is about to marry his girlfriend, Meg (Lugene Sanders), and start a new chapter of his life; Vi (Julie Reding), his former lover, insists that he belongs to her instead, and she plans to scuttle the wedding by any means necessary. When they move to the top of the lighthouse to look out on the waters and reminisce, Vi leans on a faulty railing and finds herself dangling over the perilous rocks from the opening. She reaches out to Tom, begging him to save her, and, for a moment, he considers it. But he chooses instead to stand back and let her fall, watching her slip out of view to her death in the darkness below. What at first appears to be a macabre solution to Tom’s problem only serves to complicate his life further, however, and he soon finds himself consumed by the weight of his guilt and the myriad evils he must commit to keep it concealed.
Directed by Bert I. Gordon (known affectionately as “Mr. BIG” amongst B-movie aficionados), Tormented serves as an early stylistic outlier in his body of work. After building a name for himself with effects-heavy monster films films like Earth vs. The Spider and The Amazing Colossal Man, Tormented is almost quaint in its scope as a small-scale ghost story. His use of effects here is comparatively more tasteful and deliberate, employed as manifestations of the protagonist's inner turmoil rather than physical embodiments of contemporary societal fears. Shot by veteran cinematographer Ernest Lazslo (Kiss Me Deadly, Logan’s Run), the film is full of noirish lighting and stark compositions, emphasizing the guilt-ridden dichotomy of its protagonist through deliberate visual poetry. Combined with Gordon’s penchant for inspired opticals, the creative team manages to craft a truly compelling work through their interplay, the cinematic vernacular of a noir film mixing surprisingly well with the occasionally silly but always interesting special effects.
In terms of narrative, Tormented is a California coast version of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the story of a man overwhelmed by the guilt of his crimes to the point of being driven to a desperate, helpless insanity. Tom finds himself literally and figuratively haunted by his choice to let Vi die, with regular hallucinations of her presence invading every facet of his life: a stroll on the beach with his fiancee sees him envisioning an invisible presence leaving footprints alongside theirs, a disembodied hand appears from underneath his piano and steals Meg’s wedding ring, and a bouquet of flowers transforms into Vi’s furious, screaming head. His status as a beloved member of his community allows him some degree of leeway in his increasingly strange behaviors, but even this is compromised when the boatman who brought Vi to the island begins publicly hinting at Tom’s indiscretions. Suspicions begin to form, tensions escalate, and soon nearly every person in Tom’s life finds themselves unable to recognize the man he is becoming.
He eventually agrees to a meeting with the boatman to discuss Vi, but realizes only too late that the man is looking to blackmail him, having already pieced together the nature of her disappearance. Vi’s ghost appears once again to interrupt their discussions, urging Tom to murder the man in order to maintain his innocence. After a moment of deliberation, he bludgeons the boatman to death, not realizing that his fiancee’s little sister has heard the entire ordeal. By the time the wedding rolls around, Tom seems like a shadow of his former self, the weight of both deaths by his hand weighing heavily on his conscience. The little sister readies herself to reveal his crimes, worried for Meg’s safety, but is interrupted by the film’s most genuinely creepy scene. The doors to the church are blown open by the wind, and the invisible presence of Vi proceeds slowly down the aisle, the flower arrangements wilting as she passes by.
With the wedding ruined and his secrets discovered, Tom rushes to the lighthouse with the little sister, terrified by her knowledge and willingness to expose his misdeeds. She loves him, though, and struggles to reconcile the man she cared for with who she now sees him to be. Motivated by the same self-preservation that spurred on his prior crimes, he takes her to the rooftop, mournfully preparing to push her to the same death as Vi to protect his reputation. When the moment arrives, however, Vi makes her final move, shocking Tom to lean against the same faulty railing and letting him fall, just as he did with her. The film ends on Tom and Vi’s bodies being fished out from the bay, her arms draped over his corpse in a final, darkly comic embrace. After all of his efforts, even death can’t provide him an escape from Vi’s wish to control his life, and the irony of the moment is made all the more potent as the camera zooms in on the stolen wedding ring on her hand.
When taken as a whole, Tormented is a fascinating time capsule of its era of filmmaking, a unique cocktail of noir stylings and genre thrills mixed to uniquely distinctive results. With its vivid optical effects and surprisingly thoughtful writing, it stands tall not only as a solid genre film of its era but as one of the best pictures Gordon ever produced. Upon its release in 1960, the film made a modest splash commercially and critically, but its cultural impact was relatively small in comparison to Gordon’s large-scale monster films. Nowadays, most folks know Tormented from its appearance on “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” and it certainly has a place there - some of the filmmaking is rather shaky, and a few of the visual effects haven’t aged as well as others - but it feels wrong to designate the film solely as a “campy B-movie.” Legitimate craft and care went into this picture, and while it may not always be successful in its ambitions, the feeling of authentic creative joy is present from the first frame to last. Like the sea-battered rocks from the opening, the waves of time have certainly eroded and obscured some elements of the film, but the tides inevitably recede, and the compelling core of the narrative will always remain.
You can now watch Tormented on our YouTube channel for free, and watch this space for a special announcement, coming soon!