It's the first few days of 2010 (feels weird to write it), and I should probably be looking forward. But it so happened that my first movie of 2010 was something that didn't get nearly enough love or attention in 2009: the entirely fascinating British horror film Tormented, available for a couple more weeks On Demand from IFC Films. Fans of thoughtful, multifaceted horror should give it a try.
Part of the problem may have been that the most obvious way to describe the plot of the film makes it sound ass-boring: bullied kid commits suicide, proceeds to haunt his tormentors from beyond the grave. But the actual premise is quite a bit subtler and more interesting. The movie opens with Justine (the lovely Tuppence Middleton), Oxford-bound Head Girl at a wealthy English boarding school, giving a clearly well-intentioned eulogy for the dead kid. But we then quickly learn a few key facts: (1) Justine doesn't actually remember who Darren was; (2) he was completely and utterly in love with her; (3) his suicide note cites her bullying as the last straw -- a shock to the smart, pretty girl who wouldn't hurt a fly, and didn't even know the kid. Meanwhile, Justine is courted by a charming member of the popular crowd (Dmitri Leonidas), who seems nice enough, but is apparently in thrall to the school's king of the bullies (Alex Pettyfer), and may have played a role in the events that drove Darren to end his life.
I wish Tormented were stronger from a pure horror perspective -- it's often clever, but rarely all that scary. But part of what makes it so interesting is that the whole vengeful ghost angle is almost beside the point, or if you prefer a metaphor for what the movie reveals about its characters. Tormented takes the issue of bullying seriously, not just as an excuse for a series of satisfying kills as the bullies are dispatched. It has formidable insight into the dynamics and impulses that lead to these situations: not just cruelty, but peer pressure, eagerness to please, and self-absorption -- some of these kids are bad seeds, but not all of them, and the adults are often worse. The true climax of the film isn't a chase or a kill scene (though there are plenty of those too), but the heartbreaking explanation for fact number (3) above.
Tormented is keenly observant, and quite real when it needs to be, all the while maintaining a slightly heightened satirical tone. The notes of black comedy do ring false sometimes (I could have done without the ridiculous goths), but these are the sorts of missteps that I can easily forgive in a feature debut this promising. (Irish director Jon Wright is currently developing a supernatural horror comedy called Grabbers.) If you have cable and a couple of hours this holiday weekend, you should check it out.