Film Masters’ Tormented Pays Tribute to Cult Director Bert I. Gordon

If you are not familiar with the impressively prolific oeuvre of director Bert I. Gordon, Film Masters, the restoration and distribution company formed last year, pays tribute to his micro-budget B-movie glory with their Blu-ray and DVD special edition release of Tormented (1960). It’s a film perfectly representative of Gordon’s output, a low-budget psycho-schlock quasi-horror pic that is so bad it’s somehow all kinds of good. And as they tend to do, Film Masters takes full advantage of the opportunity, with a handsome 4K restoration and a suite of special features aiming to give the recently passed Gordon his due.

The special edition package feels especially timely given Gordon’s passing just last year at the tender age of 100 and his having been working on film production well into his 90s, reportedly even the year before his death. Perhaps no one in film history made as many bad movies for as long as Gordon. He’s an Ed Wood who lasted decades but never got a Depp-Burton biopic, a Roger Corman without the exalted cult status and famous connections. Gordon made hundreds of films spanning seven decades, his filmography boasting titles far surpassing the stark simplicity of Tormented: these include The Amazing Colossal Man, Attack of the Puppet People, Village of the Giants, Empire of the Ants, The Food of the Gods, The Mad Bomber, King Dinosaur,  Earth vs. The Spider, The Cyclops, Picture Mommy Dead, and Satan’s Princess. And scores more in the same pulpy vein.

Those titles conjure up images of nightmare-fueled worlds where creatures run amok and humans grow—and shrink—uncontrollably. Gordon never aspired to anything more or less than making bad films quickly. Along the way, he worked with some real talent, including Ron Howard, Joan Collins, Beau Bridges, and even fellow Kenoshan Orson Welles. It never rubbed off. If a sign of being a bad filmmaker is having your work lampooned on the long-running television show Mystery Science Theater 3000, a show which exists only to savage the very worst of cinema, Gordon deserves a very special kind of status: no fewer than eight—yes, eight!—of his films were the subject of the MST3K cast’s snarky scorn.

When Gordon died last year, a few days before the Academy Awards (where he was of course not mentioned in their lengthy “In Memoriam” segment), his Chicago Tribune obituary would read: “Bert I. Gordon of Kenosha made terrible movies for 60 years. He’s an inspiration.” Both of those seemingly contradictory statements hold true. Gordon never stopped making bad films, but his work serves as an inspiration to no-budget filmmakers everywhere.

Certainly there is no reason to expect any single one of his films to be good in the conventional sense, and yet there is still a special kind of jouissance in watching the familiar-even-if-you-think-you’ve-never-seen-it Tormented. It’s public domain, available on dozens of YouTube channels and scores of other sites across the Internet. It’s available on more than a handful of physical media releases. And of course, it’s been a frequent late-night broadcast. With its inspiration culled—pilfered may be a better word—from Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Tormented is a story of a woman scorned who, in death, simply refuses to be silenced. And, surprisingly, it has something to say.

Richard Carlson as Tom Stewart, wearing a tuxedo and looking concerned, in <em>Tormented.</em>
Richard Carlson as Tom Stewart in Tormented. Photo: courtesy Film Masters.

In a tiny island community off the coast of California, jazz pianist Tom Stewart (Richard Carlson of Creature From the Black Lagoon and It Came From Outer Space) is engaged to good-girl Meg (Lugene Sanders). But his ex-girlfriend, Vi (Juli Reding), a buxom beauty with a feisty streak who won’t take no for an answer, confronts him. Of course, she does so by climbing to the top of the island lighthouse’s outlook and leaning back over its rickety railing. When she—gasp!—falls to her death, her body turns to seaweed and her spirit haunts Tom, following him everywhere, sometimes as a clump of stinky kelp, sometimes as a spectral footprint, and even sometimes as a severed head or hand!

Vi (Juli Reding) lay dead on the beach, her body transforming into seaweed.
Vi (Juli Reding) lay dead on the beach, her body transforming into seaweed. Photo: courtesy Film Masters.

There’s nothing too threatening about spirit-Vi’s shenanigans, though, and any intended horror is at best mild conjecture. It’s not exactly a proto-feminist take giving voice to a silenced woman with a free spirit: Tormented focuses its concerns instead on jazzman Tom’s ambivalence as he embarks upon a life of small-town boredom and family—a theme that makes perfect sense as the conventional patriarchy of the 1950s is about to give way to the free expression of the Swingin’ Sixties. The fun of watching Tormented is looking back at what kinds of fears and anxieties motivated its psychological horror: what greater hell could a man face than that of a woman scorned? And what must a man give up for a life of marital monogamy?

Film Masters’ presentation of Tormented is scanned in 4K from 35mm archival elements and looks perfectly pristine in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Discs are region-free and include English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing (even on commentary tracks and featurettes, a much appreciated and too-rare accommodation). The audio track is DTS-HD/Dolby AC3s and, while the film’s sound design offers no complexity, the audio is pleasantly clear and sonorous, especially given Tormented‘s low-budget production.

Special Features

Film Masters provides a more copious array of special features for Tormented than one might think possible, with a full-length commentary, several newly-produced featurettes, two essays, two related television programs, and more. In sum, they offer a full contextualization—and a savage critique—of a film that might at first glance seem little more than your lesser-than-average run-of-the-mill 1950s B-movie.

Blu-ray and DVD special edition packaging of Tormented.
Tormented Blu-ray and DVD special edition packaging. Photo: courtesy Film Masters.

Audio Commentary by Gary Don Rhodes: film historian-writer-filmmaker Rhodes, a professor of media production at Oklahoma Baptist University and author of The Perils of Moviegoing in America and The Birth of the American Horror Film, offers up a detailed and carefully contextualized commentary track that traces both the big picture of Gordon’s career and the minutiae of Tormented‘s production, cast, and crew. To date, some of Film Masters’ commentary tracks have skewed towards the glib. This disc has the MST3K crew on board to provide the glib; Professor Rhodes has the scholarship, his astute details and clear delivery presenting a bevy of insights not found elsewhere on the disc.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 Version of Tormented: The crew of MST3K was hardly unacquainted with the works of Bert I. Gordon and are in fine form snarking their way through this 1992 episode (shot in television’s 1.33:1 with closed captions). Not only are they keen on taunting the film’s jazz-musician protagonist, breaking into a cappella versions of “Chopsticks” every time he sits at his piano, they also have fun in their own segments, riffing on the film’s lighthouse-death trope by pushing figurines of their least favorite pop singers out of the top of a toy lighthouse (while gleefully mocking a K-Tel hits compilation) and pretending to be (like the film’s antagonist) disembodied heads. Joel and his buddies ultimately salve their trauma by what else but singing a song about happy thoughts. This featurette may undermine any pretense to the art of Tormented, but like any good episode of MST3K, it provides plenty of laughs.

Vi returns to haunt Tom as a disembodied head.
To the delight of the MST3K cast, Vi haunts Tom as a disembodied head. Courtesy: Film Masters.

Bert Gordon: The Amazing Colossal Filmmaker: This eight-minute archival interview features Gordon, shot in front of a green screen, reminiscing about his moviegoing youth in Kenosha, Wisconsin; his first business enterprise as a commercial producer in St. Paul, Minnesota; and his first filmmaking efforts in Haiti and Hollywood. It’s a pleasure to hear this interview in the wake of Gordon’s recent death. Gordon’s interview is supplemented with brief clips, still photos, and promotional posters from his films.

Bigger Than Life: Bert I. Gordon in the 1950s & 1960s: This newly-produced 38-minute appreciation hosted by C. Courtney Joyner covers the first phase of Gordon’s career, where he learned, quickly, to make commercially viable films on shoestring budgets and tight schedules, forgoing aesthetic or narrative quality for cheap thrills and cheeky special effects. His continued success at doing so made him a valuable commodity for studio executives hoping to turn a quick buck without investing too much of their talent or their resources. These B-movies made Gordon a maestro of the matinée movie, his features populated by strange creatures, buxom blondes, bare-chested heroes, mysterious aliens, and tortured souls. To be fair, Joyner’s estimation of Gordon’s oeuvre may be a little more, shall we say, charitable than that of most.

The Spirit is Willing: CineMagic and Social Discord in Bert I. Gordon’s Tormented: This newly commissioned 20-minute visual essay by The Flying Maciste Brothers (Howard S. Berger and Kevin Marr) re-reads Tormented through the lens of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and that of the social context of the era, just as the conformity of the 1950s was giving way to the experimentation and individuality of the 1960s. The former is seen in the dead’s refusal to leave, the latter in the narrative love triangle offering the male lead two love interests, one sexually desirous and adventurous, the other far more chaste and conservative. Illustrated with clips from the film, the Brothers’ take on the film is a challenging and rewarding interpretation ruminating on the protagonist’s dead-but-not-entirely repressed wish for freedom and adventure.

Famous Ghost Stories: This four-minute introduction to a television pilot produced by Gordon is hosted by Vincent Price, who transforms into a poltergeist before promising, for the next week, a tale told by Edgar Allan Poe (which will be Tormented, even though Poe is at best an inspiration for the film) before disappearing into thin air. The series was never greenlit and the pilot never aired.

Trailers: Two trailers are included, the original 1960 “raw” and uncut 35mm version, and a new one re-cut for the 4K remastering of the film by Film Masters (see below).

The single disc is presented in a black jewel case (though the disc itself is not in 4K, as a black case often implies) with a 24-page color booklet featuring two essays. The first, on the production of Tormented by Tom Weaver, focuses on the main cast, including Carlson, Reding, Sanders, Joe Turkel, and Lillian Adams. The second, by John Wooley, former president of the Susan Gordon fan club and a personal friend of the actress, focuses on Gordon, the director Bert’s young daughter, who plays the protagonist’s prospective sister-in-law in a key role.

Whether Tormented, a nearly-forgotten and often-lampooned B-movie known more for its cheesy special effects and dime-store psychology, deserves such an elaborate presentation is up for debate. But once again, Film Masters presents a ghost from the past in new glory, with a handsome remaster and an impressive array of special features to plumb the depths of meaning in a film that might well otherwise be forgotten. This special edition makes for an appropriate elegy to Bert I. Gordon, a filmmaker who worked this particular vein of effects-laden low-budget filmmaking for an entire lifetime, a man who was himself a monument to nothing if not diligence.

Tormented releases on Blu-ray ($24.95) and DVD ($19.95) April 23, 2024 in a Special Edition, available to pre-order from Film Masters.

Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Publisher of Film Obsessive. A professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

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