Honestly, I’m the sort of reviewer who thinks that the vast majority of slashers (and many gialli) are better enjoyed as still images than films – being largely an array of stylish, bloody set pieces only loosely linked by some sort of plot – so watching Sergio Martino’s crossover film Torso was an opportunity for me to test my misgivings about this type of catch ’em and kill ’em horror. His other work has been pretty diverse fare in its way, after all, and a who’s who of cult film stars helps to underpin the potential of the film under discussion. Worth a shot, right?
Well, the heady mix of sex and death promised by the film’s subtitle (‘Carnal Horror’) is present and correct straight away, so at least false advertising is not a charge we can comfortably bring against Torso. We’re straight in with the nudity, albeit with some strategic creepy doll placement which not only spares the lady in question’s blushes, but seems likely to be Plot Relevant. Creepy dolls in Italian horror tend to be there for a reason, I find. The opening sex scene quickly turns into a soft-focus tableau, but something sinister is going on in the background. Someone’s snapping away with a camera – an example of voyeurism which will recur throughout Torso. Following this, we’re taken on in time to an art lecture in Perugia, Italy, and a lecture on what the lecturer believes to be the unconvincing torments of arguably an early vision of torture porn, Saint Sebastian, as imagined by artist Peregino: after discussing the finer points of Saint Sebastian’s representation, the largely hot and pouty student body make time for play, which soon gives way to yet more surveillance: this time, a masked figure watches a couple unbelievably manage to get it on in a Mini (and an old Mini, too) before dispatching the lovers in a gruesome manner. Shock ripples through the campus, and as a group of friends try to solve the mystery, it seems as if there’s a large number of potential suspects at hand.
This is possible – and plausible – because, my word, director Martino has made practically all of his eligible bachelors here completely nightmarish. Scrub that; it’s all but maybe one or two of the male characters in the film. The men are by turns sinister, lowering, socially awkward (which on its own would be fine) and completely unable to appreciate that women might have plans of their own which don’t involve accommodating them. Oh, and there’s that whole thing where at least one man is so repressed that he’d rather maim a beautiful girl than accept her on her own terms. This network of weasels pops up throughout the film, and whilst a good share of what they do or say is obviously designed to repel, you can’t help feeling that a lot of the dialogue was scripted and spoken in good faith – it simply happens to sound positively creepy now. Torso also falls into the slasher/giallo trope of trying very hard to be liberated – lots of flesh on display throughout – but ultimately, it still often feels rather arch and prim in that its transgressions need to be paid for with restorative violence. Of course, it’s unfair to criticise a single film for clearly following a generic formula, as Martino intended for Torso, but by the same token, knowing that any boobs on screen will probably be followed up with some sort of assault isn’t necessarily that engaging for the most part, either.
All of that said, Torso does achieve many things which distinguish it against a crowded field of carved-up nubile flesh. It boasts beautiful locations (mind, Italian cities seem to do the hard work by themselves) and some scenes border on the supernatural, in ways beloved of Martino’s near-contemporary Michele Soavi. It’s also an incredibly tactile film, with close attention to small details; whilst the gore FX haven’t aged particularly well, they’re very brief, whilst interesting, unusual shots (such as a woman’s hands palpating mud) show artistic flair. And, after moving all of its pieces into position for benefit of the big whodunnit, the film generates tension very effectively: yes, this takes time, but the closing twenty minutes or so give a good pay-off for all that has come before, resulting in a genuinely gripping finale. I’m not sure I can say that Torso has won me over fully to this style of filmmaking, but certainly, this is an arresting example of its genre, which manages some real surprises, in amongst the various nods to Bava et al.
Shameless Films have gone the extra distance in putting together this Blu-ray edition, splicing hitherto missing footage (subtitled rather than dubbed) into a well-presented, well-packaged release. Alongside the standard Shameless trailers, there’s also an extra feature starring Sergio Martino. You can find out more purchasing Torso here.