With horror films it's often a real challenge to separate the good from the bad. Whether a film is terrifying, gripping or tense depends on tiny little details with a large hit or miss ratio. It makes a film like The Torment a bit hard to recommend, but hardened genre fans should take notice. Andrew Cull is a talent to look out for, turning what should by all means be a simple horror flick into a devilish little mind trip.
People seem to love to compare this film to Paranormal Activities. Whether this is fuelled by the production company to boost sales or born from the audience itself is a little unclear, but the comparison is utter crap. The Torment feels more like a mix between Pop Skull and Ils, combining the home invasion theme of Ils with the trip-like paranoia of Pop Skull. While there are slim parallels between this film and Paranormal Activities, The Torment doesn't really belong to the fake documentary movement (even though often advertised as such).
There have been some interesting developments in the British horror scene lately. Take the first five or ten minutes of recent British horror films (Cherry Tree Lane, Salvage, Dread) and you won't even realize you're dealing with a horror flick. The Torment follows a similar route and starts with a young couple dining, when suddenly the doorbell rings. This late hour visitor turns out to be David, a longtime friend of the couple. A rather hazy conversation following his entry reveals things aren't going too well between him and his girlfriend.
David is allowed to stay for the night, but soon enough the couple finds out there's more going on here. It appears David believes he's seeing things, living in constant fear of being followed and haunted by demons. The couple reacts like most people would (thinking David needs some professional help) but slowly starts to turn when a string of mildly alienating events occur. With them the audience is thrown into a dilemma. Believe David's ramblings or immediately subject him to shock therapy.
Cull applies an interesting visual approach. The camera is kept agile and often functions from a first person perspective. For example, when David peers through the curtains the camera keeps ducking and peering along with David. It's not a new approach of course, but it is executed extremely well here. From time to time Cull also takes the time to interrupt for some quality atmosphere shots, often bathed in bright yellows and oranges, proving a good breather in between the more tense scenes.
The soundtrack is another winner. A superb combination of haunting ambient and creepy sound effects, it truly adds plenty of tension and atmosphere to the film. There's a lot more going on than simple noisy sounds contrasted to silence to make the audience jumpy. This kind of auditive artistry reminds me of [rec], showing a similar understanding of how to manipulate and stretch sounds to create an unsettling atmosphere.
With only four characters in the entire film you need some good actors to fill these roles. This is no fake-doc either so you can't mask bad performances as so-called realism either. Luckily all the actors put in a good performance, David in particular is quite adept at translating his paranoia onto the screen. Crucial to the film as the audience is supposed to feed of it to increase the impact of the events.
The strength of the film lies in the gray zone it quite aptly creates. Throughout the film both David's story and the distrust of the couple are fueled in equal amounts. And it isn't until the very last shot that Cull delivers some (not all) answers to his audience. Key to the film is a somewhat strange shot at the very start when David enters the house. With David out of the hallway the camera keeps panning to reveal an empty corridor. There's nothing there, but why is Cull deliberately panning his camera this way? After a moment the camera pans back and follows David inside. It's these little details that increase the paranoia, creating a creepy uncertainty while watching the film.
The Torment is not without flaws though. Some of the more tense scenes are a little too dark. Only lit by cellphones these scenes are tense but slightly too difficult too follow. A bit more clarity would've helped here. Then there's the young couple who are a little too prone to follow David's side of the story. The audience is fed a lot of audiovisual cues to pick up on the David's insanity but the couple is quite quick to believe David's far-out ramblings.
That said, The Torment is one of the most tense and gripping horrors I've seen in quite a while. A true genre film that gets all the details right and creates a perfect sense of distress. Visually exciting and featuring a strong soundtrack, this is what modern horror should be like. Add a sprawling finale and you won't hear me complain at all. Really looking forward to Cull's next film and happy to have found this perfect little surprise. Best seen without prior knowledge of the film though.