A WOMAN’S TORMENT (1977)

Sex is a loveless, one-way street in A Woman’s Torment, a particularly effective, dark, and creepy hardcore horror hybrid from writer/director/producer/cinematographer Roberta Findlay (credited here as Robert W. Norman). On one hand, it’s the tale of Karen (Tara Chung), a woman touched by a kind of homicidal hyper-sexuality. On the other, it’s a movie that steers very close to Ice Storm territory in its glance at some bored 70’s married folks whose affairs are half spiteful and wholly empty. While this sounds like an impossible juggling act, both sides of the film are incredibly successful and jibe a lot more naturally than the description would suggest.

The film begins with Estelle Vorel (Jennifer Jordan) and her doctor husband, Otis (Jake Teague), having a round of rather unfulfilling sex. When she asks him to slow down so she can have an orgasm with him, he plows ahead at the same pace and finishes with a quickness. It would seem that his speed is in aid of finishing in time to get to the party being thrown by Fran (Crystal Sync) and her husband, Donald (Jeffery Hurst). As it turns out, Otis is having an affair with Fran which is suspected by Estelle but she is uncertain as to whom the other woman is. Fran is wanting to end the affair which is made difficult by Otis’s drinking and loathsome self-pity that he heaps upon himself as if it were a cheap cologne.

Instead of talking about them, the characters in A Woman’s Torment fuck their issues into the dark. Things that are important get sidetracked so people can have awful sex to dull the pain of their lives. Meanwhile, Karen, Frances’s stepsister, doesn’t even have the luxury of using sex to get out of her own head as her mania seems directly tied to a sexual trauma of some kind. All she does is sit alone in a room in the Compton household and rocks in a chair while everyone talks about her, but never interacts with her. She has been living with Don and Frances for three weeks but has never uttered a peep. When a party guest asks Frances about Karen, excuses are made about her absence. Sensing the negative vibes she is emanating in the Compton marriage, she packs a suitcase and steals away to the family beach house, an edifice in solitude on Fire Island. Once there, Karen becomes more and more untethered from reality and spirals into a bloody, murderous nightmare.

Though it takes many cues from Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), A Woman’s Torment also owes a debt to a few other films from the same era that treated sexual assault as the grim origin for homicidal rage, most notably Matt Cimber’s The Witch Who Came From the Sea, released the year before. A Woman’s Torment finds a real balance between the two extremes of the arty shocks of Polanski’s film and the gritty, grindhouse sex and violence found in Cimber’s. Here, Findlay is able to keep Chung in a netherworld of time and space while constantly cutting back to the soapy dramaturgy which is professionally acted and well-written.

In fact, the supporting character development is so strong, A Woman’s Torment exists in two different cuts. Initially envisioned and shot as a hardcore film for the horror crowd, the softcore cut is the greater of the two versions. And this isn’t because Findlay was as bad as she says she was about shooting hardcore. The reason the softer cut is preferable is because crucial character moments are extended which further enriches both the story overall and Tara Chung’s performance specifically. Whatever may be lost by cutting the explicit moments throughout the film cannot hold a candle to what’s gained in the long run.

And, really, A Woman’s Torment isn’t the kind of sex film one puts on for a fun or romantic date night. In fact, it’s the rare porn that is almost completely at odds with itself. If all genres of film primarily work on singular base emotions, pornography should appeal to the libido in either a natural or intellectual manner. A Woman’s Torment almost works overtime to do neither. A centerpiece sex scene between Michael Gaunt’s doomed, nice-guy lineman and Chung is provocative and begins promisingly hot enough but turns unpleasant and any kind of natural release is immediately doused by Chung’s penetration of him via kitchen knife immediately after he climaxes.

In another instance, a hardcore sex scene between Donald and Fran comes with a great deal of dialogue that would not naturally occur between a couple during a trip to fucktown. As much as small children not related to us nor the issue of friends do run the risk of being buzzkills, it’s doubtful my wife and I would spend any amount of time badmouthing kids in general while in the throes of passion because… well… who the fuck acts that way? But if Roberta Findlay could find a moment to trash kids, women, or sex, she’d pick the right camera position, light it, and shoot the hell out of it like the goddamn pro she was.

But the hardcore version isn’t without some genuinely erotic moments, even if they’re coming from places so dark you dare not even attempt to join Chung in spirit. An incredible sense of sexual frustration and release is achieved in a shower scene as Chung masturbates while thinking about her experience with the lineman. Additionally, Chung’s oral performance in the film’s final moments belies Findlay’s reputation as someone unable to effectively shoot explicit sex scenes. Her perfectly chosen camera positions and employment of specific lenses are what helps accentuate and elevate Chung’s effervescence.

A Woman’s Torment is also helped considerably by its performances. One wishes Tara Chung wouldn’t have wandered off into the ether with one of the film’s gaffers in the middle of production as she’s a tremendous presence. Her decision to flake out (causing Findlay to have to don a black wig for some shots that weren’t completed) is a real, genuine shame. Jennifer Jordan, Crystal Sync, Jake Teague, and Jeffery Hurst are all deeply believable as individual players interlocked in their sad suburban drama. And Marlene Willoughby almost steals the movie in her two scenes as Fannie Grudkow, nosy neighbor who almost seems like she just wandered off of the set of a John Waters picture. Additionally, Walter Sear’s score is perfectly moody as is the haunted and isolated Fire Island location.

To say that this movie is probably closest in spirit to Findlay’s very dichotomous feeling about sex and sexual expression would be an understatement. In it, she gets to examine her own libido and the cultural and societal shame that comes with having such a thing. Whichever cut one watches, A Woman’s Torment is a singular, dark, thrilling, and revelatory work from one of genre cinema’s best to ever do it.

(C) Copyright 2022, Patrick Crain

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