Arrow Video: Torso (1973) - Reviewed

Sergio Martino was one of the undisputed masters of the giallo thriller, having served up a series of unforgettable offerings including but not limited to So Sweet…So Perverse, The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail, Your Vice Is A Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, and the recently re-released All the Colors of the Dark.  His next picture, originally titled The Bodies Bear Traces of Carnal Violence before being retitled Torso for the North American release, arguably represents the pinnacle of the writer-director’s giallo output and is frequently regarded by Martino as his masterpiece.  

Set within the college university town of Perugia, a sexual predator and serial murderer is lurking amid the campus grounds picking off female students one by one before disposing of their bodies with a hacksaw.  Panicked by the surge in students dropping dead, Jane (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage scream queen Suzy Kendall) flees the scene with three of her friends to the countryside until it’s safe to return.  However, the unsuspecting foursome is unaware the killer they seemingly left behind has been sneakily tailing them and their tranquil and secluded vacation spot is about to become a blood and death drenched nightmare!

One of the most suspenseful offerings in the history of giallo with a grand finale of sustained white-knuckle tension that goes on well over thirty minutes without a break, Torso like What Have You Done to Solange? is hard and heavy psychosexual thriller-fare with moments of still-startling ultraviolence and many unexpected shocks and surprises.  Keeping you guessing the identity of the killer at all times with no safety net to protect our unlucky heroine Jane, Torso flirts frequently with red herrings and misleading clues to keep viewers on their toes with danger seemingly lurking around every corner. 

Also playing heavily on distinctly male scopophilia with the camera zeroing in on the sleazy gazing eyes of peeping toms, locals, and just plain horny old men with suspicion cast on nearly every male character encountered, sex trade and commodification of the female body seems to be a recurring theme in the writer-director’s giallo output.  As with his more user-friendly The Suspicious Death of a Minor years later, that our main female characters find themselves fending off catcalls, stalkers and all other manner of constant unwanted male attention from all sides only amplifies the sense of omnipresent danger.

Visually the film is handsomely lensed by frequent Martino collaborator Giancarlo Ferrando, capturing in wide angled shots the scenic beauty of Perugia and the surrounding countryside when the camera isn’t pushing into tight, claustrophobic close-ups of the actresses’ faces and fear-streaked eyes.  And then there’s that splendid score by the Italian musicians Guido & Maurizio De Angelis, one of the only giallo soundtracks by the pair.  Second to Ennio Morricone or Riz Ortolani’s more striking gialli film scores for deftly skirting between seductive jazz when it isn’t beating on the drums and piano whipping up a tense, nerve wracking atmosphere, their music creates a sense of urgency, unease, titillation and fight-or-flight terror.  Silence is used just as effectively with some of Torso’s most suspenseful moments stemming from near dead quiet ala Hitchcock’s Rear Window where the less you can hear or be heard, the more terrifying the cat-and-mouse game of survival becomes.

Released in the US as Torso nearly a year after premiering in Italy, Martino’s film acquired by showman/distributor Joseph Brenner saw roughly three minutes of gore and additional footage censored out before becoming a popular double-bill with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in the ‘70s drive-in circuit.  Opinions were mixed initially, with some decrying the whole thing as sleazy trash while others praised the technical merits and ability to terrorize genre cinema fans.  Thanks to the ongoing education provided by Arrow Video and becoming accustomed with Martino who is shaping up to be one of the underrated great Italian directors-for-hire, I’m fairly confident in calling Torso one of the quintessential giallo offerings. 
Yes if you’ve seen  a few of these Italian exploitation women-in-peril thrillers (although men don’t fare well either in this), you sort of know what’s ahead.  On the other hand, even already knowing the genre conventions/clich├ęs and stylistic motifs there aren’t many which ratchet up such raw and sustained dread without relief quite like this one, proving once more Sergio Martino is an expert in giallo fare to learn from and respect.  Martino excelled at it and Torso is one of his very best contributions the genre has to offer!

- Andrew Kotwicki