| Among aficionados who love the lower rungs of the horror genre, Sergio Martino’s Torso will always hold a place of no small importance. Like Mario Bava’s Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971), Torso was part of the wave of 1960s and ’70s Italian gialli (sex-and-blood-drenched murder mysteries), but is now best remembered as a particularly acute progenitor of the slasher film. With its knife-wielding psychosexual maniac, cast of nubile college students-cum-murder victims, and seemingly reactionary connection between promiscuous sex and violent death, Torso clearly paved the way for Friday the 13th (1980) and its many, many knock-offs, although it has a certain aesthetic flare that most of its stateside descendents lacked, owing largely to its European pedigree (it was produced by Carlo Ponti, who had worked with David Lean, Federico Fellini, and Michelangelo Antonioni).|
The story takes place around an international university in the small Italian village of Perugia (Franco Zefferilli has used the same location a few years earlier for his 1968 film version of Romeo & Juliet). Director Sergio Martino, who penned the script with his frequent collaborator Ernesto Gastaldi (who previously worked with Mario Bava on the 1963 Gothic shocker Whip and the Body), sets the stage immediately with the opening credits unfolding over a fuzzy-artsy scene of photographed group sex that is punctuated ominously by a man’s hand pushing in the eyes of a creepy doll, an image that will be replayed over and over throughout the film. We are then introduced to a number of students attending the university, most of whom are relatively interchangeable owing to their generic good looks and lack of character. It is not long before one of them is viciously murdered by a hooded maniac after having sex in the backseat of her lover’s car. The killer favors strangulation with a scarf followed by some kind of ritualistic mutilation of the body, the sexual overtones of which are clearly alluded to in the film’s original Italian title I corpi presentano tracce di violenza carnale, which translates literally to The Bodies Present Traces of Carnal Violence. Martino delivers brief flashes of graphic gore, and the speed with which he cuts away probably owes less to decorum than to the obviously shoddy nature of the effects.
As in most gialli, there are plenty of potential suspects, including virtually all of the male students at the university, a professor who is having an affair with one of his students (Roberto Bisacco), and a lecherous scarf vendor (Ernesto Colli) who apparently sold the murder weapon and knows it. After several more murders, some of which follow the ritualistic nature of strangulation and mutilation and some of which appear to be necessary killings to keep the murderer’s identity safe, four students--Jane (Suzy Kendall), Daniela (Tina Aumont), Katia (Angela Covello), and Ursula (Carla Brait)--take off for a nearby villa where they think they will be safe.
Of course, they’re not, and once most of them have been knocked off and there is only one remaining, Torso turns into a surprisingly good thriller, with Martino drawing out lengthy moments of dialogue-free suspense that would have made Hitchcock proud. With the killer in the house sawing up the bodies of recently dispatched victims with a hacksaw, our final girl must try to hide all traces of her presence in the house, including the shoes she left on the stairs. Without any blood or nudity to revel in, Martino dials up some good ol’ fashioned tense filmmaking, aligning us completely with the would-be victim while teasing us with her possible demise.
Having already directed several well-received gialli, including The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1971) and The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail (1972), Martino was clearly well-versed in the genre and knew how to rattle his audience. However, it is hard not to feel like he is slumming during much of the film, relying lazily on shock tactics and a general air of sleazy depravity to maintain interest. Perhaps it is because the underlying mystery in Torso isn’t that compelling, or perhaps he was just tempted to push some boundaries now that his career was fairly well established (as many critics have noted, by this time the giallo was pretty much thematically and stylistically exhausted, resulting in films of increasing gore and perversity and dwindling creativity and innovation). Either way, the result is a gory giallo that pushes all the right buttons, but never quite works until the final third, which is ultimately undone by both a ridiculously verbose talking killer and a last minute mano-a-mano battle that denies the final girl her much-deserved final say.
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
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Overall Rating: (2.5)
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