A Triumph Over Adversity: Tortured Obsession (1993)

Too obscure for the history books, Dave charts the remarkable life of director Kelli Lidell and calls upon Schlock Pit pal John Shepphird to shed a little light on her excellent, Utah-lensed revenge movie.

It was in 1963 when, at the tender age of four-years-old, Kelli Lidell first showed signs that showbusiness could be her destiny. Her dad was Johnny Lidell, co-owner of the Checkerboard club in Wisconsin and a man who achieved a modicum of success in the Midwest with a jukebox hit that came in the wake of a recording session with The Jordanaires. A complicated cat with a penchant for heavy drinking, Johnny died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound on Christmas Day 1973, leaving his daughter with a single piece of advice: follow your dreams.

And that she did.

By 1986 Kelli Lidell was on the verge of signing a record deal with CBS. She was also making a good living on the side with voiceover work and had her eye on a role in John Sayles’ Eight Men Out (1988). Regrettably, all these opportunities disintegrated. One night, not far from her home in Salt Lake City, Lidell was rear-ended at speed while stationary at a stop light. Left unable to walk, talk or function with any degree of normality, the course of her life had been irrevocably altered. Four years of intense physical therapy followed at the Stewart Rehabilitation Centre in Ogden, Utah, and, come 1991, Lidell was beginning to resume what could tentatively be described as a regular life. Convinced she was still a few years away from resuming her recording career due to persistent memory issues triggered by the accident, Lidell became active in the Utah film community, taking a variety of roles in a handful of productions. Ranging from more voice work (Little Heroes (1991)) to an assistant director job (The Legend of Wolf Mountain (1993)), it was clear she had an enviable dexterity behind the camera, which made directing seem like a natural progression.

For a moment in time, that’s where the detail in this remarkable story ground to a halt.

Despite my attempts to contact Lidell via a third party, she was ultimately unwilling to talk about TORTURED OBSESSION (1993). Sadly, her heroic co-writer Bryce Beesley, a Salt Lake City native who launched the notoriously conservative state’s first gay-themed lifestyle show on the television channel KCN, has passed. As too has the film’s phenomenal lead actor Tim Iaquinta. As fate would have it, though, both Lidell and Iaquinta served as the location manager and second assistant director, respectively, on Teenage Bonnie and Klepto Clyde (1993) – the fantastic first feature from Snowboard Academy (1997) director and friend of The Schlock Pit, John Shepphird.

“I remember hearing about the production of Tortured Obsession from friends living in Salt Lake,” says Shepphird. “From what I recall, it was so low budget that it was shot on video using the type of Betacam that a broadcast news crew might use.”

“A distributor did, in fact, pick the film up to sell at the American Film Market. Both Kelli and Tim flew out to Los Angeles because my writing partner Steve Jankowski mentioned that he went for lunch with Tim during this time. Kelli actually got her start in the Utah scene by working with a producer called Bryce Filmore. Bryce and writer-director Craig Clyde managed to carve quite a niche making straight-to-video family films. Bryce was our production manager on Teenage Bonnie and we later rented his offices to make I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus in January 2001. What’s unique about Tortured Obsession is that there were very, very few movies like this made within the Mormon communities of Salt Lake in the early ‘90s. Family films, yes. Erotic thrillers? Not so much.”

‘Unique’ is certainly one way to describe Lidell’s sole directing gig – though I’m reluctant to label it an erotic thriller, contrary to the rather lurid design of the VHS cover. At the core of the movie is Frank Sanders (played with stunning intensity by Iaquinta): a clearly unhinged security guard who, after pulling a knife on attractive antique dealers Angela (Leah Keith) and Jaclene (Christi Sims) in an elevator, winds up on the receiving end of a bullet to the gut fired in defence. With his ego in tatters as well as his midriff, Sanders vows revenge on the girls as well as anyone who tries to get in his way.  

We’ve all seen enough shot-on-video films over the years to know that it’s a format that has its limitations. It’s also a medium where there are very few places for filmmakers to hide. With that in mind, Tortured Obsession is an extremely impressive feature. Its weaknesses lie in the inevitable SOVisms (impoverished production values, the odd shaky performance) – but there’s an undeniable degree of technical and stylistic polish here that makes the discovery of Lidell’s picture feel quite special.

Whether Tortured Obsession would have had quite the same impact without Iaquinta is open for debate. A former University of Utah student, Iaquinta became an important figure on campus, educating and offering help to drug users after kicking his own $300 a day cocaine habit at the end of the ‘80s. Thank God he did because his ferocity as Sanders is a revelation. It’s obvious that he and Lidell bring the best out of each other – a declaration enforced by an impactful and stupendous finale.

Judging by the copyright notice on the credits, it looks like Lidell is the rights holder to Tortured Obsession as well. Hopefully her reluctance to revisit her sole directorial credit softens at some point.

It’s a tremendous piece of work.

U.S. video art courtesy of VHS Collector

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