Director Bert I. Gordon (nicknamed Mr. B.I.G.) was at the helm of some of the most creative and innovative sci-fi and horror films of the last century. Gordon wrote and directed such great B-movies as The Food of the Gods, Empire of the Ants and The Amazing Colossal Man. In 1960, Gordon made Tormented, his take on a simple ghost story. While not as well known as his other films, Tormented is still a big feather in Gordon’s cap.
Tormented is about a jazz pianist named Tom Stewart (played by Richard Carlson from Creature From the Black Lagoon and It Came From Outer Space) who is about to get married to a woman named Meg (Lugene Sanders) on the island where he lives. Unfortunately for him, his ex-girlfriend Vi (Juli Reding) shows up to attempt to stop the wedding. While arguing in a lighthouse on a cliff above the ocean, Vi accidentally breaks through a railing and teeters over the crashing waves below. Tom has a chance to save her, but lets her fall to her death. For the rest of the film, Vi’s ghost haunts Tom in various ways ranging from taunting him with her voice to stealing his future wife’s wedding ring with her disembodied hand. To add to Tom’s problems, the boatman who brought Vi to the island shows up and, knowing that Tom has somehow been responsible for Vi’s disappearance, tries to extort money from him. Tom is tormented both by human and supernatural forces in the days before his wedding and, because no one else can see or hear Vi’s spirit, he wonders how much of the stress and strife is real and how much of it is in his head.
The visual effects in Tormented are dated, even by 1960’s standards, but they fit right in with Gordon’s B-movie history. For example, in one scene Tom carries Vi’s body out of the ocean and sets it on the beach. Before his eyes it turns to seaweed. The effect is accomplished through stop-motion time lapse, putting more and more seaweed on the body until, finally, the body is completely replaced by the vegetation. It’s classic horror cinematography, and it fits perfectly with the look and feel of the film. The ghost scenes are all double-exposure shots, so that Vi’s body is a transparent overlay on the rest of the frame. There’s another scene where Tom is talking to Vi’s bodiless head (achieved through image projection on a prop head) and the effect looks like something from the ‘Haunted Mansion’ at Disneyland. Gordon uses his filmmaking experience to find camera tricks that bring his ghost to life, and he comes up with textbook results.
The script for Tormented is marred by corny dialogue and unlikely situations, but the film is saved by its believable acting. Carlson leads a great cast that turns an otherwise flawed script into a fun movie. Gordon cast his daughter Susan, already a television veteran, as Meg’s little sister Sandy, a fairly important character in the plot of the film. Tormented also features Joe Turkel (Lloyd from The Shining) as the blackmailing boatman and Lillian Adams (from Magnolia and Bruce Almighty) as a blind housekeeper. The experienced cast transforms the uneven script into a very watchable movie.
Tormented doesn’t have many genuine scares, just a lot of creepy moments. It’s an eerie trip into the world of vengeful spirits and resentful ghosts that is more fascinating than frightening. As far as bad movies go, Tormented is one of the best.