Thursday March, 19 2015 at 08:00 PM
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One of the great showmen of the American drive-in's heyday, producer/director Bert I. Gordon tried to live up to his imposing initials: "B.I.G." He made a name for himself in the 1950s by riding the wave of giant monster mania with titles like King Dinosaur (1955), Beginning of the End (1957), The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), and the beloved Earth vs. the Spider (1958).
However, the public's appetite for rampaging monoliths was waning by the decade's end, and full-blown horror was staging a major comeback. Famous gimmick maestro William Castle was making a killing with Vincent Price vehicles like House on Haunted Hill (1959), and even Alfred Hitchcock was about to jump into the fray with his first unabashed "terror film," Psycho (1960). In the interim, Gordon was looking for a way to follow up what would prove to be his final "giant" film of the '50s, Attack of the Puppet People (1958), which marked the screen debut of his young daughter, Susan Gordon. In 1960, both Gordons would team up again for two more films in very different genres: The Boy and the Pirates, a modest children's fantasy adventure, and the considerably darker Tormented, which stomps much further into William Castle territory.
In fact, Tormented was released theatrically by Allied Artists, an independent studio dabbling in spooky fare at the time with titles like the aforementioned House on Haunted Hill and another Vincent Price vehicle, The Bat (1959). The story concocted by Bert and his frequent screenwriter, George Worthing Yates, follows the spectral misadventures of Tom Stewart (Richard Carlson), a jazz musician living in a Cape Cod lighthouse whose plans to marry young Meg (Lugene Sanders) are disrupted with the arrival of his possessive ex, Vi (Juli Reding), who aggressively threatens to ruin his life if he goes ahead with the wedding. When the lighthouse railing gives out and Vi winds up dangling over the rocky sea below, Tom decides to let her fall. Of course, her spirit returns in a variety of guises over the next few days (as a body transforming into seaweed, for example), which puts a serious damper on the wedding plans. The apparitions become more disturbing with Vi manifesting as a severed head and a disembodied hand, and Meg's younger sister (Susan Gordon) witnesses a murderous Tom dispatching an attempted blackmailer. Needless to say, Tom's wedding day does not go well.
A highly memorable film thanks to its outlandish ghost sequences, Tormented still casts a nod back to the heyday of '50s sci-fi monsters with the lead casting of Richard Carlson, a Minnesota-born actor best known as the hero of Universal's two big 3-D monster productions from the '50s, It Came from Outer Space (1953) and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). The World War II veteran had shot to success in the 1950 adventure King Solomon's Mines opposite Deborah Kerr, but it was his science fiction and horror work that would cement his reputation with other titles like The Maze (1953) and his directorial effort, Riders to the Stars (1954).
Also noteworthy among the cast is its ill-fated blackmailer ferryman, Joe Turkel, who also appeared in Gordon's The Boy and the Pirates the same year. A busy character actor, Turkel would reunite with Gordon for a return to gargantuan territory with Village of the Giants (1965), though he had already sown the seeds for his most famous role in 1957 in Stanley Kubrick's war classic, Paths of Glory; of course, he would go on to immortality as the sinister bartender Lloyd in Kubrick's The Shining in 1980. Two years later he would affirm his genre credentials as replicant creator Eldon Tyrell in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982), which would prove to be his penultimate big screen role to date.
Perhaps the most distinctive name here behind the camera is its composer, Albert Glasser, whose brassy, jazzy compositions give Tormented a very different atmosphere from most ghost stories. Essentially Gordon's composer of choice in the '50s, Glasser had worked steadily since the mid-1940s with credits including I Shot Jesse James (1949) and Invasion USA (1952). His work has experienced something of a renaissance among soundtrack fans, with several of his noteworthy scores earning CD releases including a complete release of the Tormented score in 2012. The film itself has also maintained a steady following, oddly enough thanks to its lapse into the public domain with numerous home video labels keeping in circulation. The film also featured in a memorable episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, which certainly dealt a blow to its critical reputation but also earned it several new generations of viewers.
As for Susan Gordon, she would have no further big screen roles outside of her father's films, choosing instead to work on television including a well-remembered turn in "The Fugitive" episode of The Twilight Zone. She retired from acting in 1967, though she made occasional convention appearances and championed her father's work until her death in 2011.
Meanwhile Bert I. Gordon's output slowed down in the '60s, relatively speaking, as he turned out a mere three more films including the bizarre Picture Mommy Dead (1966) with Zsa Zsa Gabor. However, he returned to his busy former days in the 1970s with a diverse string of drive-in stalwarts like the outlandish 1972 occult shocker Necromancy (later spiced up for reissue as The Witching), the frequently reissued and reedited The Mad Bomber (1973), and - proving you can't keep a big man down - delivered a final double ode to his oversized origins with the animal attack favorites The Food of the Gods (1976) and Empire of the Ants (1977).
Producers: Bert I. Gordon, Joe Steinberg
Director: Bert I. Gordon
Screenplay: George Worthing Yates (screenplay); Bert I. Gordon (story)
Cinematography: Ernest Laszlo
Art Direction: Gabriel Scognamillo
Music: Albert Glasser
Film Editing: John Bushelman
Cast: Richard Carlson (Tom Stewart), Susan Gordon (Sandy Hubbard), Lugene Sanders (Meg Hubbard), Juli Reding (Vi Mason), Joe Turkel (Nick, The Blackmailer), Lillian Adams (Mrs. Ellis), Gene Roth (Mr. Nelson, lunch stand operator), Vera Marsh (Mrs. Hubbard), Harry Fleer (Frank Hubbard), Merritt Stone (Clergyman).
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