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October 2010

The Torment

cast: Giles Anderson, Zoe Richards, Nicholas Shaw, and Francesca Fowler

directors: Andrew Cull and Steve Isles

89 minutes (15) 2009
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
Momentum DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 10/10
review by Paul Higson

The Torment

Checking the screener for Andrew Cull and Steven Isles' The Torment (aka: The Possession Of David O'Reilly) not a lot seemed to be happening. I bounced the disc forward five, ten and 15 minutes in and it all seemed to be hanging cameras, and one man acting shiftily in a room, standing, looking here and there and saying nothing. I continued to skip across the disc, not good reviewer etiquette and not a habit of mine but I had such incredible foreboding and it did not seem to improve. Interiors, man alone, not a word.

In between this rude check and the actual viewing of the film I came across the DVD sleeve design on a local rental shelf. Art, where for art thou? Why push even a bad film out with lazy packaging design? The Torment was therefore the least promising prospect of the month's review package. But as they say, never judge a work by its outward appearance. That is finally where we unreliable and disregarded reviewers come in, panning for gold and turning it in.

The movie claims to be based on a true story but even if that proves to be a lie then the basic set-up, free of supernatural suggestion, is simple enough to be entirely plausible and to have happened. A couple, Kate and Alex (Zoe Richards and Nicholas Shaw) are called upon by a good friend, David (Giles Anderson) who they agree to put up for the night observing his distress at having just discovered his girlfriend is cheating on him. Or at least a betrayal is what perceives to have taken place, though the evidence is no more than a set of intimate (but not pornographic) photographs which, in retrospect, could have been taken by the deeply disturbed David himself. David, perfectly reasonable and sane a fortnight before, is now hearing disconcerting noises and is catching monstrous creatures out of the corner of his eye.

The visions are increasing, more frequent and getting closer and more threatening. David is allowed to stay a second night, and his friends become caught up in the horrors, but is it a shared hysteria, or are there really supernatural creatures that live on the periphery, responsible for most crimes allotted to man, and that rely on our ignorance to them and will kill anyone becoming aware of them. This premise of the dead or demonic preserving their existence by hurrying to them those who become aware of demons is a normally effective device which was effectively employed by Thom Eberhardt in his 1982 film Sole Survivor.

The alternative perceptions (mental breakdown, hysteria, supernatural cause) provide a clever game and the viewer is toyed with repeatedly caught up in a circle of perspectives pushed from one to another. It achieves this because of a finely-tuned script, a considerate shoot and intrinsic post-production. Low-budget, but high standards, the film is immaculately devised. Some of the appeal might be in the treacle-thick appearance of the film which was shot on a Red 4K that, I am informed, shoots raw footage with the exposure, contrast and resolution fixed in post-production.

But that does not exclude other important decisions made around the filming and the role of the camera is important throughout the film. It is possible that in freeing up the DoP on some of his preparatory chores the camera allows for the facilitation of details that normally require a more difficult juggling act, like the timing of the hand-held shots to pick up on details that might otherwise be awkward in capturing. One such example is the shot taken from the inside of a darkened room which follows David through the clear veins in the frosted glass until he collapses against the wall and slides down the wall to the floor. The camera does not move but elides, gently persuading us in casual intrusion on the accursed household.

The camera lilts but whereas this is common in films today and often an irritation to boot, here, combined with the horror noir visuals, it adds considerably creating a dream-like portency. Joining David in following the shuffling sounds outside the building in the middle of the night you find yourself searching as avidly as he for that something that is making them and almost imagining the thing outside before it does fleetingly come into cocky view. The 'creature' comes from a direction not expected and behaves unexpectedly too, it wants you to know it is coming to get you. It is, too, only one of the denizens of the night which loiter in corners.

The fact that none of these monsters immediately appear to resemble the previous suggest that this could well be his ruptured mind, and that this is a mental breakdown, his imagination morphing creatures as uncontrollably as a dream state might. Shadows pulse briefly behind frosted glass suggesting something forming there and, before you know it, you are unsure whether or not you have begun to hallucinate apparitions, too. Whatever you do, do not watch this film on acid... though that could be an experience and a half in itself. Blossoming shadows, a yellow halo of light and a quizzical camera, all add to the ethereal and uncanny standard set by The Torment.

When what might be hysteria kicks in and the three are racing about the building in the dark, great play is made of what exactly is happening and sometimes the solutions are snuck in latterly to keep the viewer on their toes. Frantic and trapped in the hallway, the front door locked, the keys behind them in the dark of the apartment, Alex catches cries out as he too sees something, something again, in the corner of his eye and at that moment the light goes out.

The light switch is whacked back on and David struggles with the door which seems to be fighting him. The three make their way up the stairs, and David will go to the flat of the only other occupant, the pregnant girl Anna (Francesca Fowler), who will also be caught up in the horror. But it is as the three ascend the stairs that the camera pans back to the light switch and it is revealed that it is on an economy saving timer, a landlord favourite, and so removing one possible supernatural action.

Horror cinema today is generally entertaining. No matter what anyone tells you, much of what you will find on the rental shelf is good rather than bad and occasionally even great. No matter what other countries offer in terms of entertainment value and conceptual storytelling, the British horror film continues to have a few tricks up its sleeve. Whether it is the schismatic dual attack editing thrill of The Children or the four-tier chase of The Fallow Field, British horror films are still proving to be innovative in the delivery of thrills, in the technique. Though my highlight from The Torment comes early, it in no way makes the rest of the film anti-climactic.

David's arrival is caught in a single take in the hallway. Alex investigates a knocking at the door, and finds David there. Alex invites him in and they enter the flat leaving the camera in the hallway. The camera is momentarily stranded, loitering. It then, almost swooningly, looks up the staircase to the half-dark of the landing where at this stage we are still unaware of the presence of an upstairs neighbour. The camera then smoothly returns to the ground floor timed for the lounge door opening again for Alex to come out and check the front door is secure.

In this magical moment we are completely thrown as to our status in relation to the unfurling movie. Has the camera become a supernatural spy contemplating mischief or a shy disembodied observer curious about the space? Whichever, the movement is so deliberate that the viewer is dragged into it and becomes one with it. We think what we think at the same time that we try to extricate ourselves from that to consider what we think the camera/ supernatural spy is thinking. You fight not to become part of the supernatural evil stalking them if that is not a decision too premature. The confusion that this stunt brings is one of the joys of the film. Neither does it end there. Director of photography Nic Lawson is a hero and this is very probably the best camerawork found in a British horror film in the last decade.

The claustrophobia is helped along by the fact that the film is shot entirely from within, never leaving the house. If any visual consideration is shown to the world outside then it is through a glass pane, looking out onto the street or into the back garden. This standpoint places the staked interior of The Torment alongside the car of Greg Swinson and Ryan Thiessen's Five Across The Eyes, or the damned dinner party of Don Taylor's The Exorcism. The cast is a very personal four and the only additional body and voice is that of David's girlfriend seen only in the polaroids and heard only in a recorded message. In Repulsion, The Tenant, Jacob's Ladder, Everything Put Together, and [REC], the film channels some of the best horror films (and dramas) ever made, yet at the same time remains its very own beast.

In glimpsing the monsters the film draws on best practice from Val Lewton whereas the story implicated is along the lines of Dreams In The Witch House recently filmed (by Stuart Gordon) as part of the Masters Of Horror TV series and in so doing, also very possibly giving us the most successful Lovecraftian horror film to come out of Britain to date. Cull and Isles additionally take credit for the script and musical soundtrack respectively. Obviously, the screenplay is great but the soundtrack cannot be underestimated for its contribution towards the ambience.

There is only one bought-in piece of music (Grounds For Divorce by Elbow) and it is sensibly diegetic. A pop album soundtrack has no purpose here and would intrude on the atmosphere and be ruinous, and the makers are sensible and intelligent enough to understand that. Much as I would like to continue praising the film that would require revealing too much of it too, and I think it is for you, dear reader, to take the dare and discover the rest for yourself. The Torment is almost certainly the best British horror film of the year.

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