When faced with severely limited resources, most DIY horror filmmakers choose to either A) limit their scenes to a single location; B) opt for a "found-footage" scenario to legitimize the use of inexpensive equipment and hastily framed first takes; and/or C) spend all the money on Karo syrup, red food coloring and butcher's leavings, throw them everywhere and hope for the best.
With The Torment of Laurie Ann Cullom, Ocala writer-director Mark Dossett ambitiously eschews those defaults, and bets everything on his protagonist — played by Shannon Scott — carrying the entire film. While there are multiple characters, locations and subplots, this homage to the stalker/"menacer" films of the late '70s and '80s relies heavily on its scream queen, who's onscreen for about 85 percent of the movie's 70 minutes, and alone for the vast majority of that time.
It's an ambitious move for a flick whose production never had more than five people on set at any given time, and it pays off — Dossett's choices and Scott's performance combine to produce something that, while not exactly ready for the multiplex, transcends the usual local-filmmaker output. Torment could hang with much of the stuff associated with the current crop of hip underground New Horror directors that thrive on barely-there budgets and shoestring crews.
Scott plays Laurie, the victim of an earlier, vaguely referenced "attack" who is now living with her mother and coping with a severe case of agoraphobia. She can't bring herself to leave the house; when her mother takes to the road for work, she has her groceries delivered, and the phone, TV and stereo are her only companions. Her condition, widely talked-about around her rural Florida hometown, makes her the ideal target for the local psycho, who enjoys toying with his victims before dispatching them in ways that, to the local Sheriff, resemble bear attacks in their ferocity.
Scott handles the role, and the responsibility, ably. Her performance is neither austere nor over-the-top, but rather natural, as she takes an organic approach to embodying the character. It's not a perfect job — occasionally her reactions and telephone conversations seem a bit forced — but it shows Scott's natural talent and ample potential. (And it was more than enough to earn her the Best Actress award at Orlando's recent Freak Show Horror Film Festival.)
As for auteur Dossett, he acquits himself similarly and nobly. The guy's got skills, as illustrated by a '70s-inspired opening credit sequence worthy of Tarantino's pulpy influences and a closeup-heavy style that works well with this genre, disorienting the viewer and making everything seem important and suspect. Early in the film, he cleverly uses scenes from old cartoons playing on Laurie's TV to foreshadow the coming tension, and references (obscurely and conspicuously) a handful of familiar cinematic crowd-pleasers, such as This Is Spinal Tap, Risky Business and Die Hard, throughout. The first two big scares in the film are also pretty much top-notch, taking cues from the classics but still up to the task of first ratcheting up the audience's nerves, then paying off with a jump.
Some of Torment's elements aren't quite on a par with its best features. The movie seems a bit padded at times to reach the 70-minute mark, most often with phone conversations, exterior shots or extended scenes of pursuit. The small roles of the punk grocery store worker and redneck mechanic are wildly overplayed, and the radio and TV voiceovers created for certain scenes sometimes come off as less than professional. Also, the accompanying sound and music choices are fairly uneven in quality and cohesion. But when they're on — particularly in the third act, and specifically during the first big chase scene — they're nearly flawless.
No, The Torment of Laurie Ann Cullom isn't The Strangers. But it would be unfair to even make the comparison. Torment is a little movie, a tiny one, and it's good not only on its own level, but also several notches above. The best thing about it, though, is the clear emerging talent it showcases, giving indie horror fans some new names to follow and be thrilled by.