Blu-ray/DVD Review: TORSO (1973)

Its Italian title is The Bodies Bear Traces of Carnal Violence – not quite as extensive as Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, but close – yet for American audiences it’s simply known as TORSO. Named for the dismemberment that arrives later in the film as well as the carnal relishing of the many nude female torsos of its victims, Sergio Martino’s sixth or so entry in the gialli genre is by all intensive purposes his most accessible. In the commentary recorded by Arrow Videos for their latest cannoli import stuffed with delectable features, Martino states that its international cast “could appeal to all European and American countries” – a contribution of both its actors and setting within an international university. Which isn’t to say that TORSON isn’t 100% an Italian film. From its opening shots of fractured and writhing nudes to its excessive savoring of on-screen violence, it’s undeniably clear that this is indeed an Italian giallo; but it’s also much more than that.

Opening with a photo lens snapping shots of a menage a trois (that oddly includes a creepy doll), TORSO takes us to school within the walls of an Art History class at a university set in Perugia. It’s here where we meet our four female undergrads – lead by English actress Suzy Kendall of Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage fame – who decide to escape to an Italian mountaintop villa after a string of student “sex murders” break out around the area. In pursuit is jilted and impotent Stefano (Roberto Bisacco), whose adornment of a black and red scarf – leading the films working title to be Black Like Terror, Red Like Love – raises suspicions that he may in fact be the killer.

And like any great giallo, TORSO is not without its usual suspects. There’s the two aggressive dirt biker students who ideally represent the implosion of America’s counter-culture movement. The Riff-Raff look-alike scarf dealer and the hard jawed Doctor Roberto (poliziotteschi icon Luc Merenda) who is seen perusing his goods (and coincidentally finds himself in the same train car as our vacationing students). Maybe it’s the art history professor who has taken a liking to English student Jane (Suzy Kendall) and her outsider perspective on Italian culture. Or perhaps it’s Stefano, whose constant pursuit of Danni (Tina Aumont from Fellini’s Casanova) frightens her, because in a deafening example of masculine toxicity, “you’ve got to belong to me alone, or to no one!”

Sergio Martino keeps the possibilities endless by inundating scene after scene with a myriad of misogynistic and pugnacious men that – like his use of overlapping frames in All the Colors of the Dark – intersect with the female body to create a kaleidoscope of male aggression. Even before the first victim is strangled and sliced from naval to sternum the male gaze cuts through our victims with a deliberateness. Men salivate at the sight of bare legs and midriffs, cat call at the sound of heels on stone and fill their conversations with lustful (and slim) chances of local erotica. To put it lightly: all men are suspects, and rightfully so.

This is an Italian genre flick that meets its max quota of steamy sex acts and willowy nude bodies that drove young audiences to the theaters like clubs. And while it’s nearly 45 years amongst the canon of gialli, TORSO remarkably (and unfortunately) remains a scathing and revealing film on the escalating and violent privilege that accompanies toxic masculinity. In offering up a throng of young, unescorted men without nary a leash nor muzzle to keep their rabid bite at bay, Martino amplifies the persistent violence to the female body; one that is either butchered or scorned for partaking in or denying carnal pleasures.

Not because these are separate acts with separate consequences, but because they are one in the same. And like its Italian title, their bodies bear traces of carnal violence.

Quite possibly the gravest and glaring intrusiveness into the broad misogyny of its era is its propensity for violent tendencies towards young women. Not just acts that degrade, but ones that lean skewed towards long, drawn out scenes of defilement verse the relatively quick cut butchery of its male murders.

TORSO’s first victim has their throat slit off-screen (I bet you can guess the gender) while the woman waits in sustained fear, only to be strangled and mutilated. The second victim is hassled by a pair of revved up Italians who chase her through a grassy marsh – a scene that atmospherically mirrors the Swamp of Sadness from The NeverEnding Story – only to be smothered by mud before having her eyes poked out (juxtaposed with the eyes of a doll being forcibly pushed in).

Meanwhile, the men are either killed off-screen or dispatched quickly, save for the local scarf dealer who is chased down and crushed by the killers front bumper (a scene of cranial carnage that gives Argento’s Cat O’ Nine Tails a run for its money). The message about its predominately male audience is now abundantly clear; male is money, and the female body is a cheap, expendable porcelain doll. After all, as the killer proclaims, “They were only dolls. Stupid dolls made out of flesh and blood!”

Yet despite TORSO’s proclivities for ultra-violence towards women and scenes of extended cheap exploitative sex, it’s a surprisingly nuanced, engagingly tense and layered entry in a sub-genre that can often feel rudimentary in its storytelling.

That’s because deep beneath the layers of filth and bodies are two films; one a co-ed school slasher and the other a remote home invasion film. While one is constructed as a gateway into gialli with its masked killer, POV shots (often subconsciously veering to the victim’s perspective) accompanied by leather clad hands and lissome bodies, the latter is an exercise in tension. One that plays off the Mia Farrow film Blind Tension in which an intruding killer is unaware of a surviving victim hiding in the upstairs room.

After taking a tumble down a flight of stairs and injuring her ankle in the process, Jane is bedridden and doped up thanks to Doctor Roberto’s timely house call (is he the killer?) As the remaining women descend to the parlor to sensually lounge about and play the piano – in which Danni turns the main theme by the Angelis brothers into a moment of diegetic bliss – a knock is heard at the door. It’s a scene that would be used 10 years later in Amy Holden’s seminal slasher Slumber Party Massacre, in which a pizza delivery guy is revealed standing dead before a doorway of screaming students.

And while both films are separated by immense, bloody strides that often subject them to two different genres (the giallo and the slasher), TORSO feels like a half-breed of both; a wild claim given the directors catalog and the films immergence five years before any definition could but prescribed. Yet just as it moves from the chaotic clutter of its Perugia streets to the isolated abode of its villa, TORSO maneuvers between wearing the gloves of a giallo and the mask of a slasher, highlighting its precarious use of the killer and victims POV as well as its use of third person perspective.

It’s in seeing its scarf-wielding maniac that places it apart from other giallo, and is precisely what turns its standard fare into an engaging testament to tension.

As Jane awakens from her stupor the next morning – painfully inching down the towering flight of stairs – she’s confronted with an aftermath that leaves both her and audiences shocked, forcing her to hide from an unknown assailant. Stifling her breathing, we’re left with anxiety as the killer inches closer to her hiding spot, unaware of the presence of another in the house. Instead of playing the part of the murderer or victim, we’re left in observance, and it’s the films allowance of tension to simply unfold between its two characters that gives its spark of suspense a bucket of gasoline. In understanding the distinction between voyeur and victim, Martino separates the perception and embodiment of anxiety; one we empathize with where the other we willingly undertake as an acceptance of cinema.

As the intruder moves freely within the confines of the villa, a game of cat and mouse unfolds that sees Jane bare witness to the dismemberment of her girlfriends. Arms, feet and hands are sawed clean as the killer bags and buries them in the backyard; his movements unrestricted from suspicion. We jump back and forth between seeing the sole witnesses mortification and feeling our own in seeing such heinous acts committed against the bodies, even if the limbs do look like bloodied mannequin parts. It’s far from the butchery of films like Pieces, but it adds a revolting layer on top of a hack and slash formula in a film that is after all Italian.

Further adding to the tension is possibly TORSO’s most deftly shot scene of restlessness in which our lone survivor attempts to unlock herself from the upstairs bedroom. Using newspaper pressed underneath the door, Jane pushes the key from its lock and onto the ground in hopes of catching it onto her delicately placed trap. As the weekend vacation goes however, luck is not on her side as the key narrowly misses. And unbeknownst to her, the killer has now discovered her presence, and in a bout of psychological trickery places the key on the trap, allowing her to open the door into his arms.

It’s a scene that places it amidst the genres most startling and suspenseful, and from its international student body (a cast that ranges from British to English to Italian that gives the film its fair share of bare-midriffs) all the way to its reductive violence towards women, TORSO enters the early 70’s giallo market with a complete understanding of its place. Martino even demonstrates this by introducing the films art students to a Renaissance painting of an arrow pierced Christ, his body symbolically free of blood. As one student puts it, “he was a painter, not a butcher”, asserting that blood retracts artistic merit.

Except TORSO isn’t quite the trash its blood (and Martino) denotes itself to. Sure, its eye lingers far too long on the flesh, yet its engaging use of locations with a flare for ambiance and eye for tension allows it to rise on the tide of its bloodshed; floating above the sea of giallo that flooded the Italian video market. And like the saying goes, “one mans trash is another’s treasure” and for fans, TORSO manages to cut bone with artistic flourishes, giving it enough recognizable appeal to stand out amongst the debris of its own genre.

TORSO is out now from Arrow Videos in a stunning 2K restoration that’s chock full of special features:

• High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentations of both versions of the film: the 94-minute Italian and 90-minute English cuts

• Original lossless Italian and English mono soundtracks*

• English subtitles for the Italian soundtrack

• Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing for the English soundtrack

• New audio commentary by Kat Ellinger, author of All the Colors of Sergio Martino

• New video interview with co-writer/director Sergio Martino

• New video interview with actor Luc Merenda

• New video interview with co-writer Ernesto Gastaldi

• New video interview with filmmaker Federica Martino, daughter of Sergio Martino

• New video interview with Mikel J. Koven, author of La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film

• 2017 Abertoir International Horror Festival Q&A with Sergio Martino

• Italian and English theatrical trailers

• Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Adam Rabalais.

TORSO is now available to own on Blu-ray from Arrow Video

Gregory Mucci
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