United States. Directed by Dustin Mills, 2014. Starring Allison Egan, Brandon Salkil, Jackie McKeown. 50 minutes.
Over at Forced Viewing one of the things we enjoy is discovering ultra-indie, micro-budget, backyard horror filmmakers and championing their work. The Drudgeon raved about a guy named Kevin Strange who made movies with names like Dead Shit and Colonel Kill Motherfuckers; he’s moved on to short fiction since then. At marathons and festivals, I encountered a number of talented directors who chiefly made shorts: Danny DelPurgatorio, Jason Coffman, Ryan Oliver, Corey Norman. Jori was particularly proud of her discoveries, which included a pair of buddies from central Wisconsin doing business under the name Slasher Studios, and another guy out of Ohio named Dustin Mills. His titles were almost as weird as Strange’s: the first two movies of his Jori reviewed were Zombie A-Hole and The Puppet Monster Massacre. It was love at first sight.
Oddly enough it took me almost three years to finally get around to watching a Dustin Mills joint, and whoa, Nellie! Her Name Was Torment makes for one hell of a starting point. Its premise is deceptively simple: a police psychologist, voiced by Mills himself, interviews “Patient 394” (the “Torment” of the title), a young woman arrested for gruesomely torturing and murdering someone. Her answers are rarely coherent. Mills intersperses interview footage with flashbacks to Torment working on her victim (Brandon Salkil).
I expect a lot of people will dismiss Torment out of hand as a barebones exercise in torture-porn. To be sure, Mills sets out to disgust the audience; this is the sort of movie where a character can say “necrophiliacs are generally not monogamous” and mean it seriously. But to dismiss Torment as artless wallowing in gore and filth is to overlook the queer power the film has. Any jerk can point a cheap camcorder at “actors” pretending to torture, main and murder each other and produce a work of artless slime. Hell, The Bunny Game proves that pretending isn’t even necessary.
But Mills produces something genuinely artistic: he combines performance, photography and sound to create a palpable feeling of madness. Insanity wafts from the screen, almost an odor unto itself, like the smell of rot rising from a pile of spoiled meat. Reality distorts and the standard laws of the universe no longer apply. I’ve only seen one other film that can pull this trick off, and it’s the grandpappy of them all: the original ’74 Texas Chain Saw. Egan contributes heavily to this effect with the force of her performance, which is especially impressive considering the audience never sees her face or hears her undistorted voice. (Admittedly, the face is probably the one part of Egan we don’t see.)
There is, however, one flaw, which prevents me from rating Torment as high as I’d like, and it’s an unusual one for me: the effects. Normally duff practical effects don’t bother me, but this time I found myself bugged. In this case, I think they clash with the overall grittiness: for some reason I’ll accept not-quite-successful effects in glossier productions, but here they detracted from the film’s realism. (Mind you, that’s a highly comparative realism based on the work’s internal logic, but hey.) I also would trim a couple of scenes that I felt went on a bit too long, but that’s just me.
Even with that one flaw, Her Name Was Torment remains a remarkable accomplishment in horror filmmaking. Under normal circumstances I’d be somewhat distressed by the inevitable announcement of sequels (Torment 2 and Torment 3 are in development), but instead I can’t wait to see what else Dustin Mills has up his sleeve. He’s clearly a creative force to be reckoned with; ignore him at your peril.