TORTURE CHAMBER (2013)
I like the films of New Jersey native Dante Tomaselli, they are an acquired taste as Tomaselli does not adhere to a traditional narrative and his films can follow a more dream…or nightmare…like structure at times. I would not call them incoherent, they do have a story, but his style of telling and editing that story is more avant garde. His strong points are his sound and visual design and he achieves a lot with these elements and even if his films are a little hard to follow at times, they do produce some very spooky sequences. His latest film Torture Chamber is no different although it is the closest one of his films has come, so far, to having a more traditional story narrative though, ironically, it also might be his least interesting…though still very disturbing at times.
The story is of Jimmy Morgan (Carmen LoPorto) a 13 year old boy whose religious mother (Christie Sanford) believes has a demon inside and as Jimmy has the ability to burn people and things with his mind, she might be right. After himself being burned in an incident with playmates that got nasty and burning his own father to death, Jimmy is sent to an institution where he wins over a group of children from the burn unit who are all scarred like him and turns them into followers who will do anything he asks…which includes kidnapping, torturing and murdering those who wronged him once he and his disciples escape and burn the institution down. Now no one who has crossed Jimmy’s path are safe, from the mother he blinded, to his priest brother (Richard D. Busser), to his doctor (Vincent Pastore). Jimmy is coming for them all and a cruel fate awaits.
While the film can be very gruesome at times, it is not torture porn as the scenes of torment are few and far between and don’t last long. The camera never lingers for long periods of time on the victim’s suffering as Tomaselli is less concerned with the gross out and more with the creepy visuals which are very effective. As writer, director, producer and sound designer he makes some unique movies and while this flick is definitely in his off-key style, it is also his most basic in structure. The weaknesses here, despite some very disturbing sequences, is lack of character development, poor dialog and acting and since this is the least surreal of his films…though it is still pretty out-there with it’s band of murderous children stalking victims and bringing them back to an abandoned castle to torment…it is more reliant on a more classic narrative style which is not Tomaselli’s forte. You can get away with a more avant garde style in a film that is more surreal to begin with, but it you want to tell a more traditional horror movie story, it needs a bit tighter narrative structure to be effective. Events are shown to us out of order, which makes following the story a bit awkward and also hinders any suspense as we are flashing back and forth. When something more surreal in nature happens, it usually turns out to be a character nightmare and this film may hold a record for characters waking suddenly out of bizarre dreams. So often, that we come to expect it. There are certainly some disturbing and very creepy moments, mostly derived from the visuals, but poor dialog, sub-par acting and the jumpy narrative really kept me from being really drawn in and spooked on a more consistent level, despite the depraved story of murderous children. We also don’t get to know any of the characters well enough to like or become endeared to them and we need to, to care about their fates.
I still liked this film, but to a lesser degree then his Satan’s Playground which was more surreal, but somehow more involving. The film looks great with the combination of Tomaselli’s shot composition and Timothy Naylor’s cinematography. And while it is atmospheric already, we get additional atmosphere from the director’s sound design and the music he wrote with Allison Piccioni and Kenneth Lampi. Again, the weaknesses here is lack of character development and telling a more straightforward horror story that doesn’t benefit from Tomaselli’s offbeat narrative style.
The cast range from good to terrible. A very wide range of performance level. LoPorto and Busser stand out the best with the young LoPorto making a really creepy Jimmy under the scarred make-up and Busser being effective as his man of the cloth brother. Sanford goes a bit over the top as their mother, but the character is a bit unhinged anyway, so it doesn’t standout too intrusively. Pastore is here strictly on a paycheck level and also gets some of the more stilted dialog. Probably cast for his marquee value as an ex ‘Soprano’, he just doesn’t seem comfortable here. Lynn Lowry is pretty awful as Lisa, one of Jimmy’s teachers and thankfully her part is small and Ron Millkie’s Dr. Thompson is only marginally better, but also a smaller role, so damage is minimal. The rest of the supporting players/victim’s are adequate though I have to admit the kids playing Jimmy’s ‘flock’ were sufficiently creepy.
So, while still an interesting film from an interesting filmmaker, Dante Tomaselli delivers a horror that is very effective at times, but not as successful in maintaining our emotional investment with his off-key narrative style. It is his most professional looking and least surreal film to date, but in a way, also his least intriguing and involving for it. I still liked this film to a decent degree. It has some very disturbing and very spooky scenes and visuals, but the sum of the parts is greater then the whole and while it is overall his most mature film as a director, it is, at the same time, his least interesting as a filmmaker. Still a fan and eager to see what he comes up with next. I still believe one of these films from Tomaselli will hit all the right buttons and he might just deliver a future classic.
2 and 1/2 scary masks.