Torso (1973) Blu-ray Review: Sleazy Suspenseful Giallo Goodness

Director Sergio Martino crafts a precursor to modern slasher movies that combines sexploitation with stabbings. And gougings.
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One of the things that make giallo movies arresting is setting. Giallo movies are Italian, and, unsurprisingly enough, tend to be shot in Italy. And it turns out Italy has a lot of picturesque, attractive, and downright beautiful settings for murder and mayhem to take place. Torso, shot in Perugia in 1973, has breath-taking hillside vistas and incredible, ancient-looking city-scapes and plazas which are a decided contrast to the rather transparent exploitative boobs and blood strategy of the film. If nothing else, there's always something worth looking at on screen, whether it be architecture or arched-back Italian beauties in the throes of passion or pain.

Torso has a complicated story - somewhat overcomplicated, really, for what the film offers, but this is another signature of the giallo where twisted psychological motivations form the basis of the obsessive murders. In Torso, some madman is killing co-eds from the local international college, strangling them with scarves, cutting open their chests, and sometimes gouging out their eyes. The police are investigating, interviewing the local scarf merchant and racking up suspects without getting anywhere. Meanwhile, the college students continue to live their early '70s lives, which includes a love-in, much parking of cars under ruins, and, of course, eventual murders.

The heroine of the film is the relatively chaste Jane (Suzy Kendall), an English actress who was brought into the picture for international appeal. She has eyes for her art-appreciation professor, from whose class the murder victims seem to have been selected. She's surrounded with young and nubile young classmates with tangled romantic lives, and any of the men they're consorting with might turn out to be the killer.

There are a lot of plot elements to the story, and numerous red herrings, but they are mostly there to rack up a suspect pool, to show pretty women naked, and then (on occasion) to strangle those women and cut them open. It's a winning exploitation formula. About 45 minutes into the movie, the venue changes when Jane's friends decide to travel to a villa one of their uncle's owns on a hill, and Jane comes up to join them. While there, the girls proceed to sunbathe nude, one pair of them goes all sapphic, and Jane sprains her ankle...just in time for the killer to invade the house.

The killer has many of the trademarks of giallo murderers, in particular, snazzy black-leather gloves. In addition, he wears a plain white cloth mask tight against his face, making him look like a proto-Michael Myers. He murders silently, and despoils the bodies afterwards. The original Italian title for Torso was something like The Bodies Show Traces of Carnal Violence - Torso comes from the New York distributor who needed something catchier to put on his marquee.

As I've described it, most of the movie is pretty pro-forma: stalk and slash murder sequences, naked girls cavorting sequences, and then boring dialogues where either people flirt or the police are stumped. It's all filmed with style and some grace, always taking advantage of the beautiful Italian surroundings. However, once the action moves to the villa and Jane is left alone and wounded to face the murderer, it becomes a genuine suspense story. Jane tries to move through the house silently, so the killer won't realize another girl is there. The villa is remote from the village, and the phone is, of course, cut off. Jane's hurt ankle means she doesn't have a prayer of getting out on her own. After the amusing but silly or dull parts of the first hour of the film, it was a surprising development to have some genuine, effective suspense. Jane goes through more and more desperate plans to get someone, anyone to notice her plight, all while avoiding the notice of her unwitting captor. It's great stuff, which lifts Torso about the sleaze of what came before.

Torso has been released on Blu-ray by Arrow Video, who have done their usual great job with the material, and bonus material. First, the film is presented in two versions - the English theatrical cut, and the original Italian cut, which runs about four minutes longer. You can watch the original cut in English, but some of the sections do not have English dubbing, and so are presented in Italian with subtitles. There's nearly 2.5 hours of video interviews with the director, his daughter, his co-writer, actor Luc Merenda who plays a local doctor who takes a liking to Jane, and author Mikel J. Koven, who writes about giallo, as well as a 47-minute Q&A with the director from a 2017 horror film festival. There's also a full-length commentary track by author Kat Ellinger, who wrote a biography of the director. Included in the booklet are a pair of essays: one by film lecturer Adrian Smith about Joseph Brenner, the film distributor who brought numerous exploitation films to the states, and also gave this movie its English name, and an appreciation of the film's composers Guido and Maurizio De Angelis by critic Howard Hughes.

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