Times Staff Writer

“Torment” (citywide) is an ingenious little suspense thriller that deftly upturns the cliches of the lady-in-distress genre.

Swiftly--and with a total absence of predictability--debuting writers-directors Samson Aslanian and John Hopkins trap a wheelchair-bound widow (Eve Brenner) and her son’s fiancee (Taylor Gilbert, a pretty Debra Winger type) in Brenner’s Spanish-style suburban San Francisco home as they are menaced by a serial killer (William Witt).

What gives their predicament an edge is that Gilbert initially believes the intruder is a figment of the older woman’s crazed imagination. Blunt and imperious, Brenner is in fact in the habit of calling the cops on the slightest pretext, and she certainly does display the stubbornness of character that makes logical her insistence on living in a large, isolated house.


The film makers shrewdly don’t ask us to like Brenner’s shrill widow; this all the more enables us to admire her later when, with an unyielding resourcefulness and determination, she means to save her life and Gilbert’s. Gaunt but elegant, Brenner comes through with a dynamic, commanding portrayal that asks no sympathy (and gives precious little in return) and that gives the film unexpected dimensions. Brenner’s widow is also the source of welcome comic relief in the sheer outrageousness of her indomitable spunkiness.

It would spoil the fun to spell out the identity of the character Witt plays so well, but he balances Brenner with his equally bravura defeated middle-ager.

“Torment,” which was photographed with the style and clarity of a major film by Stephen Carpenter, is as tightly constructed as “Blood Simple,” with one crazed yet oddly plausible incident compounding another, but it is not nearly as violent as the Coen brothers’ film.

When Aslanian and Hopkins met several years ago as members of the crew making “The Dorm That Dripped Blood,” which was as awful as its sounds, they must have figured they could do better--and they most certainly have. “Torment” (appropriately rated R for all its discretion in depicting violence) is fun for us and a potent calling card for its makers.