Tormented (1960) on Mystery Science Theater 3000: A 50th Anniversary Horror Movie Review

Tormented (1960) posterProducer-director Bert I. Gordon is most well known for his low-budget 1950s science fiction pics like THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN, EARTH VS. THE SPIDER, KING DINOSAUR, and ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE, but this little seen relic from 1960 is actually one of his better efforts. It is also one of the more entertaining installments of the always enjoyable MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. Joel Robinson (Joel Hodgson) and his robot pals are on-target with their caustic quips and silly asides, but equally important is that the target of their tirades borders perfectly on the cusp of watchability and absurdity. TORMENTED is not without merit; it simply tries too hard, and layers its melodramatic effects on so thick that you would be tempted to chuckle even without the addition of the MST3K commentary.
TORMENTED plays like a hard-boiled homicide story rammed into a horror film.  Jazz pianist Tom Stewart is engaged to Meg, but his old flame Vi (listed in the credits as “VI,” which Joel reads as the roman number for six) refuses to let go, until she conveniently falls off the top of a lighthouse. Unfortunately for Tom, Vi (whose body turns to kelp when he retrieves it from the ocean) returns to haunt him, turning his life into a living hell and generally messing up the approaching nuptials.
The scenario (by veteran George Worthing Yates, whose credits include the excellent 1954 sci-fi effort THEM) is not without interest, wrapped as it is in some moody black-and-white photography and a cool jazz soundtrack. But the whole thing is just a bit over-baked: Tom’s voice-over narration (which Crow likens to Graeme Edge of the Mood Blues, who famously intoned, “Breathe deep the gathering gloom…) tells us more than we need to know, and the supernatural manifestations (though technically competent) are a bit too insistent in their attempts to scare the audience and drive Tom bonkers; many of them would work better as externalizations of Tom’s guilt, but TORMENTED eschews this interpretation, definitely opting for a supernatural explanation.
Tormented: Vi's GhostTORMENTED quickly hits a plateau, with Tom repeatedly voicing his defiance to the unseen Vi, despite the tell-tale signs she leaves: a missing ring, footsteps in the sand, disembodied hands. When Vi finally provides a “free-floating full-torso vaporous apparition” (to quote GHOSTBUSTERS), her pose and flowing white dress are less suggestive of a spook than of a hot and sexy femme fatale, as glimpsed on the cover of a paperback novel; also, the staging is a bit static, as if Gordon were afraid that any movement would have ruined the alignment of the composite elements in the special effects shot.
Things pick up a bit when Vi’s ghost sets her supernatural sights on others. TORMENTED even achieves an occasional eerie shudder, as when Meg’s bridal dress mysteriously turns up covered in seaweed or when several characters note the presence of a perfume that Vi used to wear. There is a nice bit with a seeing-eye dog afraid to enter the fateful lighthouse and a fun if slightly melodramatic scene wherein Vi’s unseen spirit interrupts the wedding ceremony, causing all the flowers in the chapel to wilt.
Tormented Joe TurkelTORMENTED is many ways a competent B-movie. Richard Carlson (THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON) is an old pro who does a decent job with the guilty Tom. Juli Reding has the right look as the vampy Vi. Susan Gordon (director Bert I. Gordon’s daughter) is fine as Meg’s younger sister, an innocent moppet whose presence acts as a continual prick on Tom’s conscience. Joe Turkel (later the creepy bartender in Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING) shows up briefly in a nice turn as a would-be blackmailer, who ironically speaks hipper lingo than jazz-man Tom and suspects the pianist’s affair (prompting Crow to remark “Like there’s never been a sex scandal in jazz before!”). The downbeat ending (SPOILER: Tom and Vi’s drowned corpses end up in a mock embrace on the beach END SPOILER) even elicits crocodile tears from the MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 cast, suggesting they are almost impressed by the heavy-handed attempt at romantic fatalism.
MST3K Tormented headUnfortunately, TORMENTED never achieves the right dreamlike atmosphere to support its special effects. A sequence in which Vi appears as a disembodied head, sitting on a table, is intended as a gratuitous shock (there is no reason for her to manifest in this manner; it’s not as if she died by decapitation), but it comes across as merely funny, especially when Tom picks up the head, wraps it in a towel, and then drops it down the stairs. (Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot recreate the headless scene – to much better comic effect – in one of the host segments.)
With this kind of source material, it is almost inevitable that the crew of the Satellite of Love would have a ball, resulting in one of the better episodes of the always funny MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. Verbal references to “body surfing” while Tom tries to retrieve Vi’s corpse from the crashing waves are worth a chuckle, and there is a running gag about “Sessions Presents”: the over-used establishing shot of Tom’s beach-front cabin suggests a commercial for a K-TEL type record collection of pop hits. During one of TORMENTED’s many lighthouse scenes, Joel notes the echoes of Hitccock, remarking, “An aging Kim Novak recreates this scene from VERTIGO.”
The host segments offer fun as well, such as TV’s Frank (Frank Coniff) wearing a “drinking jacket” that comes equpped with the D.T.’s (i.e., a rubber snake). There is a hysterical bit recreating Vi’s death with a miniature lighthouse and dolls, which stand in for pop musicians that Joel and his robot pals would like to see plummet to their deaths (Kenny Loggins, Michael Bolton, etc). “That felt good,” Joel sighs, when it’s all over. Perhaps the funniest segment is a brief throw-away, with Tom Servo and Crow debating whether Lyndon B. Johnson’s presence on the presidential ticket really helped Kennedy win the White House.

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MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000’s riff on TORMENTED is currently available via Video on Demand through Netflix Instant Viewing. It is also available on DVD as part of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection, Volume 11, which also includes RING OF TERROR, THE INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN, and HORRORS OF SPIDER ISLAND. Rhino’s four-disc box set offers theatrical trailers for several of the films, including TORMENTED. There are interviews with director Bert I. Gordon, his daughter Susan, and co-star Joseph Turkel. Bonus features not directly related to TORMENTED include Mystery Science Hour wrap-around segments, hosted by Mike Nelson as Jack Perkins, and an “MST3K Jukebox” (a compilation of the musical numbers sung by the Satellite of Love crew.”
MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000, Season 5, Episode 14 (originally aired September 26, 1992). Directed by Kevin Murph. Written by Michael J. Nelson, Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, Paul Chaplin, Frank Conniff, Bridget Johnes, Kevin Murphy. Cast: Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, Kevin Murphy, Jim Mallon, Frank Conniff.
TORMENTED (September 22, 1960). Directed by Bert I. Gordon. Screenplay by George Worthing Yates, from a story by Gordon. Cast: Richard Carlson, Susan Gordon, Lugene Sanders, Juli Reding. Joe Turkel, Lillian Adams, Gene Roth, Vera Marshe, Harry FLeer, Merritt Stone.
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One Reply to “Tormented (1960) on Mystery Science Theater 3000: A 50th Anniversary Horror Movie Review”

  1. For those who want to see a straight, un-MST3K version, as a public domain title it is represented on a number of sources. It is the bonus feature on the fascinating MONSTERS CRASH THE PAJAMA PARTY, which is filled with promos for old-fashioned spook shows.

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