Nobody but his she-ghost will ever have him.
Sticking with Bert I. Gordon films (after yesterday’s The Cyclops), here’s another movie he wrote, produced and directed, Tormented (1960). Richard Carlson plays a “piano genius of jazz,” a known but still starving artist who is a week away from marrying a rich young socialite (Lugene Sanders). His previous girlfriend (Juli Reding) has come to the island where his future in-laws have a beach house and where the wedding is taking place, and she demands that he break it off and return to her. No, says Carlson, you must understand that what we had was just fun and now it’s over. But there’s no understanding, and the fun sure is over when Reding threatens to make their love letters public. With a prospective father-in-law who’s not keen on having a musician in the family, publicity like that would ruin everything. Carlson and Reding take their argument to the top of the decrepit lighthouse where they’ve secretly met, and in the midst of her continued threats, Reding leans back on an unstable rail, breaks through, and hangs from one hand. Carlson, recognizing the possibilities, doesn’t lift a finger to help and lets her fall to the rocks and sea below. Come daylight, he spots her body and swims out to retrieve it, but as he lays her on the beach she dissolves into a pile of seaweed.
Thus begins a week-long nightmare for Carlson in which Reding haunts him by appearing in his dreams, as a voice ringing in his ears, as a damp chilly draft and the scent of perfume, as footprints on the sand following him and fiance or walking into the in-laws house, as a levitating hand stealing the wedding ring, and as a head resting on his side table. Since Reding was a singer, her hit record “Tormented” keeps finding its way to his turntable despite Carlson’s best efforts. “No one will ever have you but me,” is her refrain, which slowly drives him mad, and certainly makes him look insane to the people who don’t share his visions.
There’s a blind woman (Lillian Adams), a real estate agent who tells stories of the place just down the beach which has been uninhabitable since the disappearance of and subsequent haunting by a little boy and his dog. She’s quick to sense that something is bothering Carlson, and wonders why her seeing eye dog acts so strangely around the lighthouse but, still skeptical about ghosts, she logically assumes his previous girlfriend is on the island pulling pranks and trying to sabotage the wedding. Someone else wonders about Reding’s whereabouts; the beatnik sailor played by Joe Turkel (“you sure have a nice pad, dad…I heard you’re getting spliced”). Turkel ferried Reding over and comes to take her back to the mainland as she arranged. Initially he just comes asking for his unpaid fare, but this opportunist surmises Carlson did something to her, and blackmails him.
Meanwhile, Carlson’s future sister-in-law, little Susan Gordon (Bert’s daughter and actress in a few of his films), is his best buddy until she witnesses him killing someone. Gordon is cute, precocious and curious and fearful where it serves the story, without ever being an annoying brat. She talks like a grown up, acts as peacemaker between the couple when they quarrel, and asks Adams why it is that the best subjects are “for adults” and labelled “never mind.” That lighthouse, once the favourite haunt of “necking” lovers, as the child so matter-of-factly puts it, is an inviting place for a kid to explore, no matter how many adults warn her away from it. Now that Reding makes it her ghostly headquarters, even flicking on the light to signal when some spooking is going on, it’s set up as the most dangerous place little Gordon could find go. Which of course means she will go, and means we’ll all end up there for the climax, in which the girl’s attacker and saviour won’t be who you think.
As in The Cyclops, special effects are often transparent, and that works perfectly here to make Reding a sheer, billowy apparition. When Carlson argues with her head in his beach house, it’s more funny than scary, as is her hand crawling under his piano, or the wedding dress found covered with seaweed, but there are more disturbing scenes, like the lighthouse railing that refuses to be repaired, the party photo showing a giant Reding in the background, or the way her cloth-wrapped head breaks open into a bouquet of flowers. Then, there’s one terrific ghost movie scene. At the wedding, the priest gets the “speak now or forever hold your peace” part with several present who could drop a bomb. After a long, suspenseful pause and nervous glances, the church doors fly open, driven by a powerful wind that makes its way slowly down the aisle, extinguishing candles, wilting flowers, and also tilting the camera for great shots of the horrified couple as the wind inches closer to the altar and the theremin sings. The priest’s book riffles open to “burial of the dead” and the way he snaps it shut with a shudder and a prayer is a priceless end to a fantastic sequence.
I’m a Richard Carlson fan and enjoyed the way he played this, as a man tortured by guilt, and also trying hard to convince himself that it was an accident and not his fault that Reding died. He’s likable and charming, resists as much as he can, really milks the moments where he’s shocked to see Reding’s jewelry on the beach or the girl’s wrist after he’s tossed them far away, and he turns totally creepy with those who threaten to expose him, especially when they’re loved ones.