A few years ago, the UK Film Council bemoaned the lack of school-based genre films coming from UK producers, asking why it wasn’t possible to emulate Hollywood teen films. I think that there might even have been a project or competition of some kind set up. Tormented looks a bit like a promising competition entry. It has met a mixed response from its target audience, who were initially attracted, but then, presumably because of bad word of mouth, stayed away in droves for its second week when it dropped an alarming 78%. I suspect that the real test may come when it goes out on DVD. There is a strong suggestion that many young people now find cinema prices too high and are waiting for DVD.
I found the film quite interesting as a genre exercise, but I’m not the target audience. I’ve also not seen most of the Hollywood films that provide the generic material here, but I have seen many more British films than the young commentators on IMDB and this certainly affects my reading of Tormented. What’s interesting is that the film studiously avoids direct Hollywood cultural references and comes across as very ‘British’.
The generic mix here is comedy/horror and the narrative model is the ‘revenge of the wronged on his persecutors’. A boy bullied at school commits suicide and returns to execute his tormentors one by one. This is of course, a familiar trope of the Hollywood teen slasher film, but it also has British antecedents. Many UK teens seem blithely unaware of the heritage of British horror – a good reason why the UK Film Council should be concerned to give low budget UK horror a higher profile. The film that I was most reminded of was Theatre of Blood (UK 1973) in which Vincent Price is an ageing Shakespearean actor who murders each of the theatre critics who have given him bad reviews. Each murder corresponds to a Shakespearean scene. That film was a masterpiece. Tormented certainly isn’t, but it does have some neat touches that suggest a scriptwriter (Stephen Prentice) who might know his British horror history. However, the interview with director Jon Wright on BBC Film Network contradicts that idea completely. Wright is a first time feature director with a strong background in music videos. He’s from the 1980s generation who grew up on Hollywood teen slashers and clearly hopes to get into Hollywood filmmaking. He suggests that he was the one to turn a slasher script into a comedy. He does make one telling point – that making a low budget feature is like making short films in that you don’t have much money per minute of film. Tormented is certainly quite conservative in its look but overall, apart from some hoary black and white heavy breathing sequences, it looks OK in high key CinemaScope (shot on the Red One digital camera according to Sight & Sound).
The main reason why it is so difficult to replicate Hollywood high school movies in the UK is that the UK schools system is so segmented and class-bound. It’s rare to find a large comprehensive school which is representative of a the full range of abilities and social class backgrounds in many UK towns and cities. Filmmakers and TV programme-makers have responded by opting for either an independent fee-paying school (preferably with boarders adding to the narrative possibilities) or a rundown inner city comp. The last school based horror/thriller The Hole (UK 2001) went down the private school route, which allowed it to bring in American stars (including Thora Birch). Tormented, filmed in the West Midlands used two schools in the region, a grammar school and a comp in Sutton Coldfield. The school in the film is clearly meant to be a grammar school. For those outside the UK a ‘grammar school’ in the UK is usually, but not always, a selective school (based on merit, not fee paying). Those in wealthy areas often ape the trappings of upmarket independent schools.
The middle-class setting allows more glamorous scenes (a poolside party) and more ‘beautiful’ students, represented here by Alex Pettyfer’s Bradley and some of the cast from the successful E4 TV series Skins. The one touch of subtlety was I thought the casting of Tuppence Middleton as Head Girl (not sure about calling her ‘Justine’ though). She looks and acts very much like a grammar schoolgirl from earlier times and I liked the mise en scène of her very ordinary suburban house. But this may be both the strength and weakness of the film. There are ‘serious’ elements in the film (as well as little realist touches – did I hear a joke about oatcakes, a local delicacy?), including the treatise on bullying, that don’t mix too easily with the overall mayhem and in narrative terms these all refer back to Justine. In some ways, the ending of the film is just too ‘clever’ to fit in with the slasher business.
The two classics of UK horror comedy, An American Werewolf in London (UK/US 1981) and Shaun of the Dead (UK 2004) worked so well because they were both very funny and genuinely scary (Werewolf) or at least highly intelligent about their selected repertoire (Shaun). Tormented isn’t funny enough or scary enough.