Italian Horror Blogathon: Torso (aka I Corpi Presentano Tracce di Violenza Carnale, aka The Bodies Bear Traces of Carnal Violence)
Sergio Martino’s Torso is one of the exploitation masters more popular movies. And that’ probably because it falls somewhere in-between the traditional giallo and the slasher film that would become popular seven years after its release. It’s not the best Sergio Martino film out there, but it’s an interesting look at a director that straddles the fine line between exploitative trash and legitimately good psychological thriller.
The primary question that swirls around Torso is whether one should consider it a proto-slasher or a traditional giallo. The answer to that question all depends on how one views the two female characters in the film: There’s Jane (Suzy Kendall, who for you Martino fans is essentially the Edwige Fenech of the film) and there’s Dani (Tina Aumont). Both are students at a rather quiet University for international students; however, the school and the community is rocked by when two of the students are found brutally murdered. Dani is a gorgeous art student who gets a strange feeling when she recognizes a red and black scarf that was left on one of the victims. A manhunt begins for the killer (who strikes a couple of more times), and Dani, fearing for her life, leaves the city with Jane and some fellow girlfriends, retreating to a country villa. To the surprise of absolutely no one that is familiar with the slasher subgenre, the killer stalks the girls, turning their vacation from the city into a nightmare.
So how do we answer the question above? Are we watching a proto-slasher or a giallo? The answer lies in the film’s two halves, two female characters, and its different titles. If we follow Dani throughout the first half of the film, then we’re watching I corpi presentano tracce di violenza carnale (The Bodies Bear Traces of Carnal Violence), a giallo with a literal title (that is indeed what happens to the victims) that leaves nothing to nuance. The first half of the film is very much a giallo in that classic sense: a foreigner involved in a murder mystery, black-gloved killer (although unlike most gialli, the killer, albeit masked, is not kept offscreen), sexualized murders, and a killer that has a few psychosexual quirks. So if we think we’re watching a giallo, then we probably think that Dani is the protagonist because it really feels like the film is going to settle in and focus on her since she holds the key (identifying the scarf) to solving the murder.
However, during the second half of the film when the girls get to the villa, the film’s tone shifts. Here, Martino amps up both the titillation and the gore, and it is here that we realize that if we see Jane as the protagonist, then we feel like we’re watching a slasher, for Jane is thrust into a circumstance at the end that can be interpreted as a Final Girl sequence (although there is one moment that makes it a mix of both slasher and giallo). The film’s brusque American title, Torso, is a more apt moniker that gets right to what the second half of this movie is all about: a killer dispatches their victims with a bow saw in an extremely cruel and gruesome fashion.
It was around this time (1973) that the giallo was starting to establish itself as something more than just your basic “Krimi” inspired horror film. Sex = Death trope that became well-worn after only a few years during the ‘80s slasher boom is on full display here, replacing the more languid procedural elements of the giallo. Martino fills the villa with what looks like — with the benefit of ‘80s slasher knowledge — nothing but disposable characters that will be picked off one by one by the killer in a lurid manner (similar to what Bava did a few years earlier in Twitch of the Death Nerve). However, in a stroke of inspiration, Martino shockingly throws us for a loop by playing off those expectations — giving it a different feel than Bava’s film — and disposing of every girl in the villa, with the exception of Jane, in one off-camera moment. The subsequent scene where Jane discovers her friends’ bloody bodies splayed throughout the downstairs of the villa (something we would see in both Black Christmas and Halloween) is played wonderfully by Kendall (her wide-eyed, “holy shit what is happening” look reminded me of Marilyn Burns). The scenes at the villa are more visceral with a final 30 minutes that is essentially an extended (maybe the longest I’ve ever seen) Final Girl sequence that is incredibly tense and one of the best things Martino ever filmed.
A lot of the interest in Torso does indeed stem from it being a precursor to the slasher, which will no doubt pique the interest of hardcore horror fans. But Martino — an unfairly marginalized director, certainly not one of the “big three” of Italian horror but he deserves to be in the conversation in regards to the top five — seems to be up to something more than just mere titillation, and there is definitely more going on in Torso than it simply being a curiosity solely because it can claim “firsties.” As is evident in his other gialli (The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, The Scorpian’s Tail, and Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key), Martino was always interested in going for a psychological effect with his films, no matter how rooted they were in exploitation. With Torso, he does give us some wonderfully eerie and ominous shots of the killer (in particular a long shot of the killer in the foggy woods), but the killer is primarily left off screen during the murders.
It’s a tricky balancing act, too, since so much of Torso feels like Martino’s greatest hits. The structure is a bit all over the place (similar to his other films), and there are some scenes that feel out of place considering the more serious turn the second half of the film takes. I’m thinking specifically of the bizarre ménage à trois — set to an even more bizarrely displacing score by the De Angelis brothers that totally removes any sexuality from the scene — that opens the film, or the hippie party where a couple of groooovy pot-smokin’ college students try to get into the pants of the same girl, only to a get a cigarette butt put out on them for their troubles. Or the gratuitous bits of nudity that would be followed by said nude girls being murdered because...well because they had the audacity to be naked, I suppose. Make no mistake, though, Martino clearly wants us to notice all of the nude college girls, but the film doesn't take the point of view of the killer. It doesn't linger on the violence (the camera lingers very much on their alive bodies, though, with close-ups that are designed to disorientate rather than titillate).
The best example of this is during the film’s brilliant and horrifying Final Girl setpiece: As Jane crouches and hides, she must do everything she can to keep herself from screaming (and in one horrifying scene retching) while having to watch one of her friends get cut up with a bow saw. Martino wisely keeps things uncomfortably quiet during the scene (throughout most of those final 30 minutes, really) as she watches wide-eyed at the horrifying acts being done to her friends taking place right in front of her. The blocking of the scene (the dead body obscured by furniture) and the framing of these shots is quite ingenious in how it suggests the brutality.
One would expect Martino to rub the audience’s nose in the ugliness — to linger on the lurid nature of the violence — however it’s possible to interpret Martino's lingering as a means to implicate the audience in the act of watching. I guarantee had Torso been released in the middle of the slasher glut, people would be talking about what a brilliant postmodern attack it is on the subgenre. I don’t know if a director as well-versed in exploitation cinema as Martino is deliberately rubbing the audience's blood lust in their faces, but it certainly feels like something is going on a more psychological level here, which is a common current running through all of Martino’s films.
Torso is a typical Martino mélange of giallo, exploitation film, and psychological thriller. The first half of the film is the least interesting — mostly because it contains a slog of a mystery and the typical, albeit hilarious, exploitation bits found in other Martino films. It all feels like “been there done that” territory for those familiar with Martino’s work. However, once the film suddenly switches settings to the isolated villa, Torso becomes one of the best and most interesting of Martino’s films. Sure Martino was known as somewhat of a trashy filmmaker, but he was no hack as the the last half of Torso (and his other gialli) proves. If you’re new to Italian horror, I don’t know that Torso is good enough to be in the same league as some of the best gateway gialli by Bava and Argento and Fulci, but for the seasoned fan of the subgenre, the last 30 minutes alone make it essential viewing.
Note: Formatting issues delayed this entry. I don't know why the text in these last two paragraph isn't uniform with the rest of the post, but I couldn't figure out how to fix it. Obviously the screengrabs did something to the text. Oh well. Enjoy the awesome, albeit NSFW, trailer below.