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cast: Tuppence Middleton, Dimitri Leonidas, Calvin Dean, Alex Pettyfer, and Tom Hopper

director: Jon Wright

91 minutes (15) 2009
widescreen ratio 16:9
Pathé DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 4/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to attend a film-industry trade fair at which new British films were screened for foreign distributors. I turned up on the first day expecting the procession of dodgy gangster films and period dramas that we normally associate with the British film industry but instead I found a schedule dominated by low-budget horror, including Jon Wright's Tormented. Regrettably, while Tormented is one of the first films to emerge from this new wave of British horror, it is also one of its weaker representatives, crippled as it is by uninspired direction and a weak and dysfunctional script.

Tormented opens with a funeral for a hugely unpopular and overweight teenager, Darren Mullet (Calvin Dean). As head girl Justine (Tuppence Middleton) stands at the pulpit to deliver her eulogy, Darren's only friend stands up and loudly denounces everyone present for their rampant hypocrisy. It turns out that not only did Mullet commit suicide, but he committed suicide as a result of being endlessly bullied by the members of a particularly odious clique. A clique led by Bradley (Alex Pettyfer) and a cadre of bitchy girls. One member of the clique, pretty-boy Alexis (Dimitri Leonidas) seizes his chance after the funeral and sets about seducing the head girl, luring her away from her equally prim and nerdy friends and into a world of parties, knee-socks and vicious put-downs. Suddenly, members of the clique start receiving text messages from Mullet's phone. Messages that threaten a bloody vengeance for their heartless transgressions... The clique violently confront the weakest members of the school, believing them to be responsible for the text messages but before long the bodies start to pile up as the vengeful corpse of Mullet returns for his revenge.

Tormented is clearly modelled on American slasher films such as John Carpenter's Halloween (1978), and stories of high school revenge such as Larry Clark's Bully (1991), Michael Lehmann's Heathers (1989), and Brian De Palma's Carrie (1976). However, while Stephen Prentice's foul-mouthed and occasionally funny (watch out for the Tony Blair-style headmaster, and a joke about a full condom) script does its level best to graft American archetypes onto a British setting, Tormented is ultimately a failure. It is a failure because revenge stories, stretching back to the Elizabethan period, have always been fuelled by two elements: the emotional and the sensational. Without a sound emotional basis, the sensational acts of retribution are but empty spectacle. Without the bloody murders and foul misdeeds, the emotional aspects are merely kitchen sink bickering. Tormented lacks both an emotional component and a sensational one.

The sensational aspect should be provided by Wright's direction. A good slasher story lives and dies by the originality and the brutality of its kills and the build-and-release tension of their preambles. Regrettably, Tormented is not in the least bit frightening. Wright makes frequent and incomprehensible use of the old tricks of heavy breathing combined with distorted and trembling camera-work to suggest that someone is being watched but beyond that his box of tricks is essentially empty. Mullet stalks his victims in a perfunctory manner and his executions are lacking in artistry, invention and visceral impact. As a technical piece of horror filmmaking, Tormented is depressingly incompetent, which is unfortunate as Wright clearly knows how to frame a shot and an opening back-to-school montage shows some style.

Of course, one of the reasons why Wright's kills fall flat is because they are entirely lacking in emotional focus. Mullet turns up and kills people but we do not really care about the emotional context of either their deaths or Mullet's vengeance and so what impact the kills might have must necessarily come from Wright's visuals. Under this much pressure to deliver the whole point of the film, Wright is simply not up to the challenge. Of course, it might have been different had he been supported by a decent script...

Stephen Prentice's script is entirely lacking in focus. After priming the dramatic pumps with an opening verbal tirade accusing the film's central characters of hypocrisy, Prentice fails to differentiate the characters sufficiently to allow the audience to form any kind of emotional response to them. To call the film's central clique a cadre of grotesques would be charitable as these characters are entirely one-dimensional in their behaviour and personality. Worse than that, they are interchangeable. Instead of making viewers yearn for the deaths of his characters by making clear exactly the ways in which they are horrific, Prentice is content with relying upon the inherent hatefulness of swaggering upper-class stage school bullies. Given such a paper-thin cast of murder victims, it is impossible to care when one of them dies.

The same problem extends to Mullet the murderer. The script does not actually give him any lines and we never see him before his death except in the flashbacks provided by happy-slapping you tube videos. We see that he is fat. We see that he is unpopular. Why should we sympathise with his decision to murder a bunch of admittedly annoying people? Why should their deaths or his revenge have any emotional meaning?

Even when Prentice actually bothers to flesh his characters out, the results are frequently confused. One of the film's secondary plotlines involves the romance between head girl Justine and bullying pretty-boy Alexis. Throughout a saggy and cluttered second act given over almost entirely to this weak romantic subplot, the script wanders aimlessly between making us warm to Justine for her charmingly awkward lack of cool and making us resent the way in which she ignores her friends in order to spend time with the cool kids. This indecision then climaxes with a bizarrely misjudged ending in which we are told that Justine was to blame for the death of Mullet despite having never spoken to him. She is responsible, the film tells us, because Mullet secretly loved her and she was head girl. However, despite not having attended a school with prefects, I'm pretty sure that head girls are not solely responsible for school discipline and it is hardly Justine's fault if Mullet was obsessed with her. Justine's ultimate fate seems unearned but then in a film that so systematically misplaces its sympathies and dramatic focus, this is nothing new.

The Tormented DVD comes with only one extra but it is a doozy: instead of recording two different commentary tracks to play over the film, some bright spark decided that it would be much more fun to actually film two groups of cast-members watching the film and talking about it. This not only makes for a stilted and self-conscious commentary (despite the weird David Coleman-style earpieces they are all wearing), it also paints the cast in the most unflattering of lights. For example, the strand featuring Pettyfer and Wright is completely dominated by preening meat-bag Hopper playing to the gallery with a series of 'funny' foreign accents. Meanwhile, Calvin Dean is stuck in amongst the female cast members but despite his attempts to join in the conversation and have his say, the other actors largely ignore him, making themselves look cliquish and hateful in the process. Based on the ineffectiveness of Tormented's script and the terrible impression left of the cast by this commentary feature, I suspect Wright would have been better off telling the cast to simply be themselves, if that didn't make the audience wish for their deaths then I don't know what would.

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