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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


With so many American horror filmmakers seemingly stuck in a rut "rebooting" older horror movies, itís worth noting that some of the most interesting fright flicks are coming from overseas. Case in point: the British film Tormented, which is in select theaters now and also available via IFC Festival Direct. While the movie doubtlessly has a few of the standard horror conventions, it wraps them into something new, with a little more depth than you might expect.

The story takes place at a typical British high school, where a group of popular students takes pleasure in bullying the ones who are less popular or different in some way. Believe it or not, these snobs are the "heroes" of the film. Justine (Tuppence Middleton) is considered the newest member of the cool kids' club, having abandoned her frumpier pals to join the clique. Her admission comes as a byproduct of dating Alexis (Dimitri Leonidas). While Justine is enjoying her newfound social status, an overweight kid named Darren Mullett (Calvin Dead) dies. He was a frequent target of the nasty bullying, and his ghost returns to get revenge on his tormenters one by one. Most of the deaths are preceded by a vile/perverse emoticon popping up on the soon-to-be-deceased's cell phone.

While this may sound like a somewhat generic premise, what sets Tormented apart is the brutally honest depiction of high school bullying. The leader of the cool kids is Bradley (Alex Pettyfer) and under his guidance, the other popular students engage in ridicule and vicious pranks designed to make their peers feel like dirt. Interestingly, though, they often save their worst treatment for each other. Bradley even goes so far as to pull a prank on Justine and Alexis during their first moment of intimacy. It involves a mask and a chainsaw. Plenty of teen-centered movies have shown bullying, but it's usually the "lite" version - the abuse is either unrealistically mild or cartoonishly over-the-top, and almost always used as the basis for a cheap comeuppance. Tormented is fascinating, in part, because it focuses on the bullies and not the victim. We can see how these spoiled, self-absorbed kids get some kind of sick charge from exercising their higher social standing over others. The film suggests that popularity brings with it a sense of power, which some are inclined to abuse.

That intelligent twist is what elevates Tormented to a level above run-of-the-mill horror pictures. Bradley and his crew are genuinely unprepared to become victims themselves. They are appalled by the brutal retaliation Darren unleashes, completely unaware that they are merely taking what they spent so much time dishing out. If the old adage "you can't truly understand a man until you've walked a mile in his shoes" is true, these kids learn to walk in Darren's shoes. I love how, rather than just going for scares, the movie uses blood and gore to achieve something more psychological.

The plot additionally develops some suspense due to the fact that Justine would seemingly be exempt from Darren's wrath, yet as it goes on, we become aware that she has a connection to him. This connection, whether intended or not, may have had the unintended effect of inflicting even more cruelty upon the kid than he was already getting.

Under the stylish direction of Jon Wright, Tormented is a gruesome, edgy, ambitious, and sometimes funny horror tale that doesn't shy away from exploring adolescent cruelty. Normally you'd have to look hard to find an indie such as this, but thanks to IFC Festival Direct (available on many cable systems), it's available in living rooms across the country as you read this.

( out of four)

Tormented is unrated but contains sexuality, bloody violence/gore, and language. The running time is 1 hour and 35 minutes.

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