Using John Wayne Gacy as inspiration, ‘Torment’ flips the script on the typical serial killer film.
Editor’s note: this piece contains references to rape and sexual assault
Queer serial killers have fascinated the general public for decades. From Jeffrey Dahmer to Bob Berdella, they raise fascination by essentially acting as boogeymen for males. However, what is rarely discussed is how these people managed to stay active by focusing on queer victims and sex workers. These victims wouldn’t arouse as much attention from the news and authorities. Sadly, this trend continues into modern day as marginalized groups continue to be frequent targets for violence. In the first entry of this column, we’ll be digging into Adam Ford’s Torment, which flips the focus onto the victims that are forgotten and ignored in society. In doing so, Ford creates a powerful film about the dangers of sex work, queerness, and the forgotten victims of the past.
Serial Killers in Film
Films about serial killers have been around as long as the concept of serial killers themselves. There’s a fascination with the subject, with how these people can go to these depths and commit these acts. These films generally focus on the killer, in the process putting some onus on the viewer to identify with and see how these people could get to this point. This weird connection has always thrown me off, as I felt these films spend far too little time on the victims, instead choosing to follow the killer on their crimes and daily life. Also, if the killer is not heterosexual, we are rarely even given insight into the nature of their crimes or attractions.
Extreme horror takes on this subject are different, as they typically remove any sort of identification or empathy with the killer. Extreme horror is a subgenre that (generally) contains excessive violence, gore and dark themes. The subgenre also generally adopts a bleak or realistic view of these concepts. It is, essentially, horror pushed to the limit of content and taste.
Take, for example, ToeTag Pictures’ August Underground, a film that spends time with the killers but never gives a reason for their crimes. They alienate the viewer while displaying the details of the crimes, showing how truly abhorrent these people are. However, the victims are still only seen for short periods of time, with our attention directed to the killers themselves. The victims do exist and we see them more than in previous films. But they still function to drive the killer into a frenzy and provide the violence inherent to the style.
Perspective and Viewer Connection
Torment takes a different tactic than the rest of these films. Directed by Adam Ford and produced by Domiziano Cristopharo, the film takes the crimes of John Wayne Gacy as a starting point. However, it isn’t based directly on him. The antagonist is a killer clown who targets males, but all of the victims in the film are adults (unlike Gacy’s typical underage victims). Torment takes an unflinching look at a gay serial killer; however, he is not the main focus of the film. We only spend very short periods of time with the killer, named John (Matteo de Liberato), when he is alone. The vast majority of the film is spent with victim Jeffrey (Rikki Fiore) as he realizes his situation and tries to escape.
The film opens with Jeffrey waking next to John, who is still asleep, after a presumed one-night stand. One way to view this is that ‘John’ is not a name but instead it implies that the sex was transactional in nature. Either that, or simply a callback to Gacy. Jeffrey smokes a cigarette and walks through the house, looking for money and drugs. He eventually stumbles on a still-living victim (Marco Pielich). Jeffrey is then quickly assaulted and subdued by John. From there, the film dives deep into the extreme horror waters and doesn’t relent until the credits roll.
Shifting the perspective from the killer to the victim changes the tone of the entire film. We generally see whatever the victim sees, to the point where we begin to hear his heartbeat in certain sequences. This makes Torment incredibly difficult to watch at times because we feel just as trapped as Jeffrey. We wait in the darkness with him, waiting to see what new tortures pass through the door. It is a disconcerting effect, one that is incredibly powerful. Viewers empathize completely with Jeffrey since we see this world through his eyes. In contrast, we gain no real insight or connection with John because we don’t spend time with him.
When we do get scenes from the killer’s perspective, it is frequently later contrasted with that of the victim. Early in Torment, John traces Jeffrey’s body with a knife. Each part of Jeffrey is shown in close-up, breaking him down into the fetishized parts that John sees. Later on, John showers and we get a similar breakdown from Jeffrey’s perspective. However, instead of fetishization, it is disgust as the individual parts of John provoke revulsion and misery in Jeffrey. This contrast makes Jeffrey’s perspective more powerful because it highlights the fundamentally different way that they view each other, much like the film itself breaks from the usual perspective of these styles of film.
Another point to consider is the sound and performances. The dialogue is minimal, the sound design is perfect, and the performances are incredible. There are, as far as I can tell, only about three lines of spoken dialogue in Torment. Instead, Ford cuts deep into the wordless sounds of panic and terror. There are no speeches of intent or begging from Jeffrey. Instead, free of dialogue, viewers feel the immediate terror and tension of every second.
This wouldn’t be possible without committed performances, from both de Liberato and Fiore. De Liberato doesn’t overdo it, and in his lucid moments, he can seem tender and concerned. This makes his shift to terrifying cruelty even more effective. Fiore plays a man in peril and out of his depth to an incredible degree of vulnerability. This all adds up to create an almost overwhelming experience that highlights a reality that is often ignored.
The last perspective to touch on in this section is the queer perspective. The film spends a vast majority of its runtime with both leads completely nude. There is a major focus on the naked male body, but importantly it’s never shown in an erotic light. The gaze of the camera seems impartial, except for the aforementioned sections of fetishization and disgust. This is freeing since it highlights the form without necessarily commenting on it. It also points to the nature of the crimes, where nudity and non-consensual sex are foregone conclusions. This makes it more effective and horrifying in the end as Torment and Ford take the homoerotic gaze and twist it around to awful purposes.
Highlighting The Less Dead and Extreme Horror
True crime writers spend a lot of time going on about how serial killers target those that won’t cause a stir. These are mostly marginalized groups that don’t create a stir in the media or with law enforcement. However, as we’ve seen, Torment presents itself almost entirely from the perspective of a marginalized person. Jeffrey is, more than likely, a gay sexworker who happened to come to the wrong home. There were no warnings from the previous evening. As Jeffrey is searching the apartment he shows no concern for his life until he finds the other victim. Jeffrey is completely innocent, and curiosity is what sealed his fate.
No matter the orientation of the viewer, you are placed in the perspective of a trapped, scared, queer person. This allows the viewer to develop more empathy for people they wouldn’t otherwise because the film is extremely effective in arousing sympathy for Jeffrey. The viewer, in a similar position, is trapped and has no choice but to either turn off the film or connect with Jeffrey’s plight. The fact that the film never leaves John’s house (except for brief dream sequences) only adds to this. The shift from killer to victim and from a predominantly straight perspective to a queer one adds layers of subtext that wouldn’t be obvious if the film was played in a straightforward manner.
What makes all of this interesting is that the film is firmly entrenched in extreme horror tropes and ideas. Extreme horror fans tend to seek out whatever they can that the genre provides, and it is a committed fanbase. The fact that Torment is an inherently queer film did not deter viewers. This helps to inspire empathy for queer characters in people who may not have any experience in this matter. The positive reception and rising quantity of explicitly queer extreme horror seem to point to an expansion that brings these stories and themes to audiences who normally wouldn’t seek it out. This then helps bring attention to forgotten victims, the concerns of sex workers and queer individuals, and can be used to start a dialogue.
Torment is an incredibly difficult watch, but also deeply effective. It puts the viewer in the shoes of a queer character, and never relents until the final frame. This film broadens a viewer’s mind to queer concerns, while also highlighting real-life victims that have been forgotten. It destroys the illusion of the mythologized serial killer. It is a film of incredible power, and one that will stick with me for a very long time.
Until next time, stay safe and take care of each other!