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Griffith Maloney [Film Festival 07.17.12] horror

Tormented is a carnival of dreamlike horrors and childhood nightmares from the mind of Takashi Shimizu. As mute librarian Kiriko struggles to protect her half brother Diago, a menacing figure in a rabbit suit draws closer and closer. Both siblings will learn a harsh lesson in this rather mediocre horror film: there is no escaping the sins of the past.

The film begins with a wonderfully bloody scene of Diago putting a sick rabbit out of its misery. We are told through the narration from Kiriko that this incident causes Diago to spiral into depression and instead of going to class he now spends all of his time with her in the library. Indeed these half-siblings seem so close to each other that they are nearly isolated from everyone else around them, even their father, who's obsession with finishing his pop-up book about mermaids is so severe he might as well be living on another planet. Diago and Kiriko are the most important people to each other so its only natural that Kiriko is dragged into the horrific visions that fill Diagos nightmares. Nightmares in which he is menaced by a mysterious figure in a huge rabbit outfit and visions of an abandoned building near an amusement park. What's really tormenting Diago and what sins are hiding in Kiriko's past? Well unfortunately none of this promising setup really amounts to much of anything.

Although it delivers some good scares Tormented fails to live up to its potential both as a narrative film and as a product of Takashi Shimizu's fevered imagination. Ju-On: The Grudge is one of the better horror films of the last decade and Marebito is one of my personal favorites so I went into this film with some suitably high expectations. I wouldn't say that this film is without merit, it possess some great style and stunning sound design but it does fall short of the capabilities of the director and the potential of the genre. The various forms of the rabbit suit creature are terrifying and the creepy child like nature of its horror is wonderfully appropriate for the story but one scary monster and some random weirdness does not make an effective horror movie.

The problem with Tormented is two-fold: it has a lack of vertical character depth and it has a nearly non-sensical plot. The actors struggle along as best they can. Former idol Hikari Mitsushima in particular does a lovely turn as our wordless heroine. It may be naive to expect to much character development from a horror movie but we can do better than this. There is not a single moment of internal character struggle in the entire film. We never see anyone come to a realization or make a tough decision. Everything that happens to our characters is either a clunky external narrative, such as voiceover, a nameless doctor lecturing, or a flashback sequence that reveals something important from their past. There is zero self directed forward movement during the course of the film, our characters only react: they never act. Maybe this lack of character could be forgiven if the plot was exceptionally tight but it's not.

You see we're never really told what's going on in Tormented or rather we're told one version of events about an hour into the movie and then the last thirty minutes smashes all of that into pieces while dancing a maniacal jig and then runs off without clarifying the truth of the ending. That sort of thing is unforgivable. An aspect of horror films that is vitally important to the audiences satisfaction is the establishment of reality. The viewer needs to understand, at least by the end of the film, what the boundaries of the real world are or at the very least they need to understand the reality of the events of the film. If it was never explained how Reiko survives Sadako's curse in Ringu or why John Baxter has his visions in Don't Look Now, we'd be left frustrated and angry at the films conclusion. The duty to explain the major plot points of the film lies in the director and it's an important part of the filmmaker - audience contract. Even if the director chooses to allow some mystery to linger, they must acknowledge this within the film itself. Tormented does none of these things and so leaves the audience with a sour taste in their mouth as far as the story is concerned.

Because of this, the early dream sequences with Diago are the strongest sections of the film. At that point the audience is still trying to figure out what is and isn't real, and we're willing to suspend our judgment as we are dragged along with the young boy through frightening dreamscapes. Even these sections aren't flawless though. The shooting style of tormented is haphazard and I couldn't tell if that was the intention of the director and cinematographer or not. The palette of the film is grey and beige, lots of washed out old looking colors and the camera work is mostly boring flat handheld angles. Perhaps it was supposed to contrast with the dream sequences and flashbacks but those aren't that colorful or visually interesting either. I think the most telling moment is when Diago and Kiriko go watch a horror movie. It's clearly supposed to be a sort of cheesy, evil nurse, creepy hospital film but it is shot in exactly the same style as Tormented. They might as well be the same movie. You can certainly still enjoy some of the shock scares and the atmosphere, but the confusing plot and the dull, drab camera work make for a frustrating overall experience.

The one thing that really stands out in the film are the exceptional sound effects. In general Japanese horror films have great sound design but Tormented is something special in this regard. From the wet chittering noises of the rabbit monster to the incredibly visceral sounds of violence and the threatening echoes on the periphery, the audio of Tormented is wonderfully scary. Credit goes to the sound director Yoshikazu Iwanami: a long time Anime sound designer. Tormented is his first live action film and I really hope it's not his last. If you're a real horror fan and aren't bothered by gaping plot holes then it's worth seeing this movie for the clever sound effects alone. Some of the sounds from this picture are going to stick with me long after the movie fades from memory.

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