The title Tormented suggests either low budget horror or an overwrought domestic melodrama. In fact, it is both. A ghost story provides the horror; melodrama enters through the (relatively) realistic responses of the characters to the situation. At the center is brilliant jazz pianist Tom Stewart (Richard Carlson), who allows his possessive girlfriend Vi (Juli Reding) to fall to her death without trying to save her. Her “ghost” then torments him as he prepares for his wedding with Meg Hubbard (Lugene Sanders), a pretty young thing who lives on the island where Tom is summering.
Without making a big deal about it, the film suggests that Vi’s ghost is a projection of Tom’s guilt, the more so since initially he narrates the action, thus placing it within his subjectivity. While he clearly did not murder her, he remains uncertain whether his failure to save her amounts to the same thing. No one else (other than ourselves, of course) ever sees or hears Vi, even when in the same room with Tom when she appears. Secondary, physical manifestations of her haunting, such as an LP with Vi’s recorded voice that Tom shatters in anger, go unnoticed.
This dash of plausible psychology becomes questionable when a second ghost story about a young boy who disappeared from the island years before is introduced. The story is gratuitous and never depicted, but it adds to the eerie ambience and suggests there is something not quite right about the island. Recounted by Tom’s landlady, Mrs. Ellis (Lillian Adams), who believes in ghosts, the story suggests faith in the supernatural might be justified. Mrs. Ellis does not know what happened between Vi and Tom, but she thinks she recognizes he is haunted by a ghost without him expressing the possibility. Her faith is not enough to make Vi’s unwilling spirit appear, however, despite a nearly fatal confrontation, and Mrs. Ellis eventually exits the story.
These clever alternations between belief and skepticism add up to a strained and strange situation, where the ghost story is just the most blatant oddity. Stranger still is the friendship between Tom and Meg’s ten-year-old sister Sandy. When Sandy declares she “loves” Tom, she is presumably expressing innocent affection, but she also suggests seriously that she, not Meg, should be his bride. There is at least one scene where their dealings with each other would raise eyebrows today (though nothing unseemly happens) and for that matter, the threat of violence against her is always there.
The biggest threat is not Vi, however, but a blackmailer played by Joe Turkel, whose appearance in this context conjures up his performance as the bartender in that most ambiguous of ghost stories, The Shining. The bonus appeal of a well-known actor in an early appearance is just one of the wrinkles in Tormented that combine to produce an edgy, surprisingly engrossing hour or so of smart, low budget chills.