Schlock Value: Tormented (1960)
Hey Schlockers! We’re now more than halfway through October with Halloween fast approaching. If you’re anything like me, you’ve been using every bit of spare time you have to cram as many horror flicks into your ears and eyes as humanly possible, so let me add another macabre public domain curiosity to your list. Produced, directed and written by schlockmaster extraordinaire Bert I. Gordon (who was responsible for such classics as The Cyclops, The Amazing Colossal Man, and an abominable adaptation of H.G. Wells’ Empire of the Ants), 1960’s Tormented is a simple ghost story.
No, there aren’t any spooky old castles or creepy houses in this one. Instead, it’s set in a posh little beach community. It stars Richard Carlson, who some may recognize from The Creature from the Black Lagoon and It Came from Outer Space, as a jazz pianist who is about to marry his fiance when an old flame arrives, intent on sabotaging the wedding. Things go awry when she winds up dead, and returns as a jealous ghost bent on revenge. I mean, we’ve all been there, right?
After a ridiculous theme song and some bad noir-esque narration, the film opens atop a lighthouse where Tom Stewart (Carlson) is being confronted by his old lover Vi (TV actor Juli Reding). Despite the fact that Tom is very much engaged to his fiance Meg, Vi’s a jealous ex who is determined to get Tom back by any means necessary. When Vi leans a little too hard on a railing, the steel gives way, leaving her dangling hundreds of feet above the sharp rocks below. Although Tom has an opportunity to pull Vi to safety, he selfishly allows her to fall to her death, hoping this will put an end to the whole affair. But as he is about to learn, things just aren’t going to be that easy. The following day, he surveys the coast with a pair of binoculars and spots Vi’s body as it washes up on shore. He goes to retrieve it, but as he walks back up the beach, her body turns to seaweed in his arms.
Now, things really start to get strange. Over the next couple of days, Tom finds Vi’s watch on the beach, as well as a set of mysterious footprints in the sand. Not long after these occurrences, Vi’s ghost finally appears, and explains that she plans to haunt Tom for the rest of his life. From this point on, Tom can hardly turn around without seeing more evidence of Vi’s spectral hijinks, which include her disembodied hand making off with Meg’s engagement ring, turning on the record player for no reason, and even her disembodied head appearing at a pre-wedding family party.
As if this weren’t enough, a beatnik ferryman named Nick appears, looking to collect the five bucks Vi still owes him for the trip to the island (fun fact: Nick is played by the great Joe Turkel, who viewers may recognize from The Shining and Blade Runner). When Tom quickly pays him off, Nick recognizes that something is a bit off, so he decides to hang around for a while. When he eventually tries to blackmail Tom, Tom kills him. This would all be well and good except Meg’s younger sister Sandy witnessed the whole thing. During the wedding ceremony, when the priest asks if anyone can give a reason why Tom and Meg should not be married, she almost speaks up, but is cut when the church doors mysteriously burst open and the flowers wilt and the candles are snuffed out, effectively putting an end to the whole ceremony.
Defeated, Tom returns to the lighthouse and swears himself to Vi. When he realizes Sandy was nearby and heard the whole thing, he leads her up to the lighthouse’s broken railing, intent on silencing her as well. Fortunately for little Sandy, though, Vi’s work is not yet done. As Tom is about to push Sandy over the edge, Vi’s ghost swoops down and knocks him over instead. The following day, the folks on the island locate Tom’s body, but first, they find Vi who is curiously wearing Meg’s engagement ring, implying Tom is now stuck with her forever.
Overall, Tormented is an enjoyable, if not particularly spooky, little film. Richard Carlson is a particularly effective dirtbag who only becomes more fun to watch as he descends further into a paranoid state, and Juli Reding seems to be enjoying herself immensely as she playfully torments him throughout the film. And as far as child actors in the early ‘60s go, I have to give a lot of credit to Susan Gordon for her incredibly charming performance as the innocent Sandy. She’s absolutely adorable, and you can’t help but feel sorry for her in her scenes with Carlson. The effects work here is admittedly pretty basic (it’s little more than a few superimposed pieces of Juli Reding here and there), but they’re effective.
I only wish Bert Gordon had built up more atmosphere. A beach community may be an unconventional setting for a ghost story, but that doesn’t mean it can’t also be creepy. I also wish there had been a little more substance to the film, rather than just a series of ghost gags. Towards the beginning of the film, Tom is established as “the best jazz pianist in the world” but you’d never know it by the mediocre way he plays the piano in a few scenes. And, unfortunately, outside of Tom, Vi and Sandy, none of the other characters get much to do. Even Tom’s fiance, Meg, is little more than set dressing.
The film is mostly just a series of scenes in which Vi’s ghost appears, does something to freak Tom out, and then disappears without doing much to really move the story forward except to increase Tom’s madness. And at 75 minutes, it just feels bloated. I can’t help but think it could have worked better if it had been trimmed down about a half hour. For what it is, though, Tormented is a surprisingly decent little ghost story that is worth a spot in your next horror binge. There’s plenty of good stuff in it, even if it doesn’t make full use of all of it. You can find it in Mill Creek Entertainment’s 50 Horror Classics box set.