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Deep Cuts: A Woman's Torment
The world of horror is vast. With so many films across the spectrum of budget, studio involvement, quality, availability, and, above all else, pure scare-the-living-s***-out-of-you-ness, it helps to have trained professionals parse through some of the older and/or lesser-known offerings. That's where Team FANGRRLS comes in with Deep Cuts, our series dedicated to bringing the hidden gems of horror out of the vault and into your nightmares. This week we're looking at A Woman's Torment, part psychological thriller, part porn, and all sleaze.
The year: 1977.
The director: Roberta Findlay.
The genre: This one's a bit more complicated. Envision a Venn diagram. Three circles, labeled "Horror," "Porn," and "Domestic Melodrama." At their center, A Woman's Torment.
Roberta Findlay was among the group of filmmakers who pioneered mid-century exploitation cinema, starting in the '60s and leading up through the following decade. Findlay worked with her filmmaker husband, Michael, the duo ping-ponging back and forth between sex and violence in films like The Touch of Her Flesh and The Sin Syndicate, the latter starring a pre-Beatles Yoko Ono. Michael died in a helicopter accident in 1977; in subsequent years, Roberta went more in the direction of straightforward horror with films like Lurkers, in which an Upper West Side apartment building serves as a gateway to hell. (Possibly accurate, cannot confirm.)
The exploitation community of the '60s and '70s made films quickly and on the cheap, a shifting group on the fringe of the film landscape coming together to balance their own desires as filmmakers with an audience's desire for titillating subject matter. (Sometimes these desires were one and the same.) A Woman's Torment was one of four Findlay films directed during one summer in the '70s; all of them were shot, at least in part, in New York's Fire Island, because Findlay was sick of the city and really wanted some beach time. She paid for her working vacation with a variety of film production roles: director, screenwriter, producer, editor, and cinematographer, with stints devoted to acting and music.
The music: There's a scene where a character played piano, and Roberta played piano, so on the soundtrack she went. The acting: The lead actress, bored with life on set, ran off midway through the shoot with a gaffer and never came back. Findlay wrote around her lead's absence where she could. When she couldn't, she would wear the character's dress and wig and light the scene so you couldn't see her face. This is all true.
That lead actress is Tara Chung as Karen, an emotionally disturbed woman who's been sent to live with her sister and brother-in-law in New York. The home life of Frances and Don was far from idyllic before Karen arrived, as Frances is having an affair with her best friend Estelle's husband, Otis — which Don knows about but chooses not to remark on. He's less concerned about the infidelity than about what's going to happen to Karen, whose presence as the Mrs. Rochester of '70s porn — mentally disturbed, sitting in an upstairs room nursing violent thoughts — is seriously cramping his social life. He wants her dumped in an asylum. Frances doesn't. Not because it would be bad for Karen, mind you, but because it would be embarrassing.
This is a world of bougie, middle-class respectability. The two couples at its center drink, eat canapés, and drink some more. No one appears to like each other all that much, for all that they're best friends; at the very least, their social interactions are all fueled by copious alcohol. Estelle hates her husband, Otis. Otis condescends to Estelle. Frances is cheating on her husband, Don, who's willing to dump his sister-in-law in a mental institution if it means he can move to another city for a high-paying promotion. Karen, overhearing her brother-in-law's plans, runs off to the family beach house, where she meets a stranger. They have sex. Then he rapes her. Then she stabs him to death — one of five murders Karen commits over the course of A Woman's Torment. Her arc culminates in a full psychotic break that sees her walk into the ocean, possibly committing suicide.
When Vinegar Syndrome re-released A Woman's Torment on home video in 2017, they included both X-rated and "soft" (R-rated) versions. The latter is a solid option for those who would maybe rather not see extreme close-ups of questionably groomed genitalia. But to watch the tamer version of A Woman's Torment is to miss how the juxtaposition Findlay puts into play results in a film that's downright disturbing.
Karen, disconnected from reality, is surrounded by people who are supposedly sane but nonetheless refuse to acknowledge the reality staring them right in the face: They are not happy. Sex, here, represents not romance or even desire, but an activity that "polite" society partakes in so that they can pretend they have normal, functioning relationships. It's not, for the characters in A Woman's Torment, an activity that's even all that fun. Karen's face, when she experiences sexual pleasure, makes it look like she's in physical pain. Don brings up how to handle Karen's medical situation midway through oral sex like he was bored and just thought he'd bring it (that's Karen's medical situation) up. The film's first sex scene is peppered through with dialogue making it explicitly, undeniably clear that the female half of the equation isn't even close to orgasming, and that the male half doesn't care. "I can't even remember when you last touched me," bemoans Estelle. "Touch you?" Otis responds. "I just made love to you. Or am I hallucinating?" Estelle, delivering one of A Woman's Touch's most biting pieces of dialogue: "No, my friend. You just masturbated inside of me."
The "adult" bits of this adult film are shot in a borderline grotesque way that contributes to the overall horror atmosphere. Findlay herself, in the film's DVD commentary, admits that she "didn't like shooting sex scenes" and put the vast majority of her creative energy into scenes in which characters weren't boning each other. The result is a camera, fixed in place, as the moment plays out. Even in those scenes in which characters are enjoying each other, you're more likely to see an extreme close-up of a body part than a shot of, say, a loving embrace or a kiss. These close-ups were utilized by Findlay in multiple films as a way to fill time on the cheap. "By the time you stare at [the act of sex] for long enough … it becomes totally abstract," Findlay says. "You don't know what you're looking at. It looks like a pole against a totally out-of-focus background. The depth of field is like two inches either way. You don't know what it is. It's modern art or abstraction. I found that a very cost-effective way of shooting."
Sex is meaningless, says the porn film to its audience. It's an empty act used to paper over emptier relationships. And it's not even that hot to look at. Sorry if that's what you were here for.
And it's women who get the short end of the stick. Sex in A Woman's Torment is less an expression of love than a tool of domination. Otis and Don make the money and the decisions in their respective relationships. If Estelle and Frances have jobs, they never talk about them. Otis constantly belittles and gaslights Estelle, calling her "silly" and "irrational" and blaming her for his cheating, if he was cheating, which he's not. (Except he is.) Karen's beach house idyll is interrupted by the surprise presence of an electrician; it's a scenario right out of the cheesiest porn script until a consensual sexual encounter turns to rape. Finding that she can't have pure, plain sexual pleasure without being used by a man for his own ends, Karen doesn't shut her eyes and try to pretend it didn't happen. She murders him then and there.
For Karen, sex and death are intertwined. There are several not-exactly-subtle Hitchcock homages, including two shower scenes, one where Karen fantasizes about being murdered, one where she commits a murder herself. In her more psychologically fraught moments, the soundtrack is filled with bird noises. When a woman takes sexual agency, death can't be far behind.
And it isn't. A nosy neighbor named Mrs. Grudko ("A woman alone is like a foot without a shoe!") gets murdered by Karen, but not before Karen messes with Mrs. Grudko's head by blatantly coming on to her. Karen, at a fever pitch of violence and horniness, murders a pair of young lovers who come into her house to have sex. By this point, the sexual and violent impulses seem to be completely intertwined. Karen appears to get what she wants — an actual, meaningful connection with someone who cares about her — when Otis comes up to the beach house to give her therapy ("therapy" in this case being a code word for sex). But once he's gotten what he wanted, Otis is gone, albeit not before asking Karen to make some coffee for him. He becomes her final victim.
A Woman's Torment is a horror film with porn. It's a porn film with horror, plus some meditation on how contemporary sexual dynamics led to women being taken advantage of. It's a film where the thing we're supposed to like (sex) and the thing we're supposed to be repelled by (murder) are less delicately knitted together than smashed against each other. It's fascinating. It is, by accident or design, one of the most deeply unsexy films ever made.