Monday, 1 November 2010

Torso

1973
Dir. Sergio Martino

AKA The Bodies Bear Traces of Carnal Violence

The brutal murders of several college girls plunge the campus into paranoia and terror. Four friends (including Suzy Kendall - The Bird with the Crystal Plumage), who also just happen to be young, free-spirited beautiful women with a penchant for undressing and making out with each other, decide to leave town for a few days until the killer is apprehended. They head for the safety of a secluded mountain-top villa - little do they realise though, that the crazed maniac has followed them to the retreat and fully intends to off them one by lingerie-clad one.

Death is the best keeper of secrets.”

Director Sergio Martino was never content to limit his output to just one genre and since the Sixties he dabbled in projects ranging from horror to westerns, action to sci-fi. His best work though is without a doubt his lurid gialli – works that are often criminally overlooked - such as The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail, Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key and All the Colours of the Dark. Torso, one of his later giallo flicks, is a lean exercise in atmosphere, sustained tension and elaborately stylish murder sequences. Stripping the formula right back to basics enables Martino do away with such hindrances as plot, characterisation and even story. In their place we have a simple tale of imperilled women and the twisted psycho who is stalking them. Scenes of titillating nudity and fairly redundant exposition gradually bleed away once the women reach their villa and the killer starts offing them. Initially unfolding as a seemingly typical, if markedly stylish slasher, Martino really cranks the tension and despite the slight story and seemingly rudimentary execution, he still manages to surprise jaded viewers along the way with some breathtaking style, flair and unexpected twists.


Torso is positively strewn with elegantly fluid camerawork, including sinister point of view shots in which the victims are pursued by a masked assailant. The director also has an enviable knack for composing beautifully assembled shots, filming the cast through and around objects situated in the foreground of the shot and utilising skewed angles to add to the overall creepiness of proceedings – the film really exhibits a dazzlingly chic, art-house look that belies its exploitative subject matter. As mentioned, Martino also manages to subvert expectations on a number of occasions. One of the key massacres for instance, in which three of the main characters are dispatched, isn’t even depicted. It begins when one woman goes to answer a knock at the door and ends when they scream for their lives, realising it’s the killer outside. That we don’t see this massacre – and for a while, don’t even know what the fate of the characters is - only adds to the tension when Jane (Suzy Kendall) wanders downstairs the morning after calling out for her friends and then noticing the furniture in disarray… Another stand out scene features one of the friends stranded in the woods, high on drugs and tripping out, suddenly startled as a mysterious masked figure looms menacingly from the mist, resulting in a taut chase scene accompanied by pounding piano music…


Without a doubt though, the film’s pièce de résistance comes when Jane awakens after a heavily medicated sleep to discover her friends have been butchered and she’s now locked in the house with the killer who is fondling and sawing up the bodies. What follows is a tightly wound, nail-biting game of cat and mouse, as Jane moves as stealthily around the house as her sprained angle will let her, attempting to evade the hack-saw wielding maniac at every turn - including a scene that would later be echoed in Alex Aja's slasher throwback Haute Tension. Martino really ratchets the suspense in this extended set piece; that it plays out mainly without music also adds to the quiet unease, tension and eventual terror it induces.

Characterisation and dialogue are as rudimentary as you’d expect from a film called Torso – indeed several of the characters, particularly lesbian couple Ursula and Katia (Carla Brait and Angela Covello), only exist to take their clothes off and flounce about looking vulnerable and sexy. It’s interesting because their deaths – the only reason such characters usually exist in such films – aren’t even shown. We can therefore conclude that Martino only includes them to up the exploitation ante; the Sapphic sex scene in which not one, but two perverts spy on the girls is voyeur-tastic. Other characters are introduced only to be bumped off – usually in various states of undress - and our main gaggle of girls is sketched with the broadest of strokes; the fact that they are all supposed to be students is stretching it a bit, too. Only Daniela (Tina Aumont) and Jane are afforded any kind of characterisation beyond sexual orientation or promiscuity. Jane is a level-headed, astute American foreign exchange student, and Daniela is constantly feigning off the advances of her overly amorous, possessive and mildly creepy ex, Stefano (one of many red herrings).


Typical of gialli, the film is also peppered with bizarre flashbacks of the killer fondling a doll and pushing its eyes out. All becomes clear of course when the morbid modus operandi is unveiled at the climax, when the killer explains (in a way which killers often do) why he’s been killing people. Of course, none of this seems that important to Martino, who, like his fellow countryman Dario Argento, seems more interested in bombarding the viewer with slickly stylish shots of bloody mayhem and conjuring a slow-burning atmosphere of gothic-hewn dread.

A startling exercise in tension, style and a hidden gem that shows what is possible when horror is effectively stripped back to basics.

TORSO (cert. 18) is available on DVD courtesy of Shameless Screen Entertainment. Also included on the disc is a Shameless original trailer gallery. Watch the trailer for Torso here.

9 comments:

Monster Scholar said...

The poster immediately grabbed my attention. How gruesomely delightful! Loved your comments and will check out as soon as I can. I loved Suspiria. How do you think this film compares?

James said...

Cheers, Monster.
This doesn't really compare to Suspiria, aside from the fact that both are violent Italian horror movies that were filmed in strikingly stylish ways (though Suspiria more so). And where Suspiria was a supernatural horror fantasy, Torso unravels as a twisted psychologically charged giallo.
If you like Italian thrillers such as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Lizard in a Woman's Skin and Bay of Blood, you'll love this.

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Carl Manes said...

Torso is another shining example of Martino's work behind the camera, I expected more gore based on the notoriety the film has achieved, but I was happily surprised to find a great story line and a winning Gialli!

James said...

Alfred, thanks for your kind words - I look forward to checking out your blog on American history.

Yes Carl, the emphasis is more on suspense here; though there are still more than a few moments of blood-letting!

Joe Monster said...

Awesome review, James! I actually felt a little uneasy just reading your descriptions of those tensely sadistic scenes. This is one fairly well-known giallo that has eluded me so far. I will definitely have to remedy that!

the legendary dolly disco said...

just watched Torso and then Night Train Murders and last night Short Night of Glass Dolls, so I was super keen to find your blog! Brilliant! If only I had some time to read it!
Will revisit plenty times I'm sure!

James said...

Thanks! Don't be a stranger!

blogbypaul said...

Great review!