Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Sergio Martino's Torso (I corpi presentano tracce di violenza carnale) (1973)

I corpi presentano tracce di violenza carnale (Torso) (1973), directed by Sergio Martino, contains some bold artistic choices by its creative collaborators.
First, who is the main character? There are only two characters within Torso who give a persuasive answer to this question: Jane, portrayed by Suzy Kendall, and Dani, played by Tina Aumont. For the viewer who has seen Torso subsequent to viewing slasher films, such as John Carpenter's Halloween (1978) and its progeny, then intuitively, Jane is the main character. She holds a very iconic position within the third act. However, if Torso is viewed as a mystery or more specifically, a giallo (which its first half certainly appears to be), then Dani is the main character. Dani is the one character who has seen the mysterious killer within the film, and the killer knows it. Hence, the viewer intuitively knows that Dani is the next prospective victim for the killer. In the most uninteresting way, minutes on screen can determine who is the main character, and even a by a few seconds, the viewer can determine its protagonist. Even if Torso does not have a main character, it is not a film driven by an ensemble cast. Some characters are red herrings for the mystery, some are eye candy, and some serve plot devices, such as a victim for a brutal killing, for example. By and far, Torso is a plot-driven film, rendered creatively in sequences with different characters, like a collage.
One of the boldest and most creative moves by Martino and company within Torso occurs at the halfway mark in its violent shift in setting. The expansive setting within the city, which houses the university where Jane and Dani attend, is removed to a villa secluded atop a hill, overlooking a small village below. This one change in setting completely fractures the narrative of the film. The isolated villa with Dani and her two friends, Ursula (Carla Brait) and Katia (Angela Covello), kills any of the mystery within Torso. The narrative becomes focused on this small group of characters at the setting, and the viewer knows as these characters unwind and relax (the narrative also unwinds and relaxes), the more likely they are to become victims of the killer. To be fair, it is fairly obvious to identify the killer by deduction right before the beginning of the third act, so it did not seem that Martino nor his co-screenwriter, Ernesto Gastaldi, really saw this fracture in the narrative as a deficiency in their plot. By the way, when the killer's identity is revealed and in the classic moment where the killer reveals his/her motive, it is truly irrelevant to whom the killer is revealing.Torso has an interesting history. Adrian Luther Smith, author of Blood and Black Lace: The Definitive Guide to Italian Sex and Horror Movies, writes: "The American release proved to be extremely popular on the drive-in circuit and along with Bava's A Bay of Blood probably had a significant part to play in the development of the stalk 'n' slash genre." (p.120, Stray Cat Publishing Ltd., England, 1999.) Craig Ledbetter, editor of European Trash Cinema, writes, "Like most Americans, I first saw this on the lower half of a double-bill with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. While the former went on to fame and fortune, poor Torso still gets no respect. The ironical thing is that "Society" would have you believe that TCM was the goriest of the two, NOT!" (European Trash Cinema, Vol. 2, No. 6, Kingwood, TX, 1992.) The authors of Violent Italy, Daniel Dellamorte and Tobias Petterson, write: "His [Martino's] last giallo, Torso, is mostly remembered for its brutality. None of the previous leading actors [from his previous gialli] take part in this film and it is obvious that Martino had lost interest in the genre at this point. The film lacks the flair and visual style that is so evident in his previous films, and he left the genre for other projects." (p.43, Tamara Press, Malmo, Sweden, 2002.) (Interestingly, the Violent Italy authors note that the giallo peaked in 1972 with twenty two released in theatres in Italy (p.39). According to the IMDb, Torso was released in Italy during the first week of 1973.)
If Torso is truly influential upon the subsequent slasher genre, then it is not solely because of its brutality but also its boldness and creativity. As to whether its boldness and creativity was borne from hearing the death knell of a dying genre and attempting to be as shocking and provocative as possible to draw in the genre's last viewers is unknown. Torso is, however, a terrific film and like a lot of Martino's cinema, it is beautifully and elegantly photographed (by Giancarlo Ferrando) and populated with beautiful people. By far not a shy film, Torso is very provocative and very playful. In a wonderfully lurid sequence, Carol, friend and classmate to Jane and Dani, portrayed by Conchita Airoldi, upon hearing of the murder of her friend, becomes overwhelmed with both fear and grief. She takes a ride from the open-air piazza at the university with two friends to a dingy den somewhere in the city to get high. Carol wants some comfort; her two friends want to sleep with her; and Martino has a beautiful and scantily-clad woman dancing alone in the center of the den. After a fairly bold composition of the woman dancing, Carol tires of her two friends' fondling and she bolts from the den. Martino gets a laugh from the viewer when one of Carol's shunned suitors stupidly crashes his motorbike into the mud. Poor Carol, both dejected and disoriented, continues into the ash-colored and mud-soaked forest alone, where Martino delivers one of his most effective atmospheric sequences. It becomes quite brutal as well. Like most of Torso, there is no consistency in tone to the sequence, but this lack of consistency is not borne from carelessness but playfulness. Torso is daring, perhaps in its creative impetus but definitely in its execution. A personal favorite. Ernesto Gastaldi's contribution cannot be overstated: his screenplay is essential to Torso's success. Gastaldi's body of work is astounding, and he deserves wider praise in subsequent entries. The music by Guido and Maurizio De Angelis is an excellent accompaniment.


Aaron said...

I think I'm in the minority when I say that I'm not a fan of this film at all. I wanted so badly to like it because I'm a Martino fan and I had been highly anticipating seeing it for over a year before I finally did watch it (I first heard about the movie, I think, on Cinema Diabolica), but to me it was just very boring and not very satisfying as either a more traditional Giallo or a slasher. But, you're review is spot-on, though, and you bring up some good points. I especially like what you say in regards to who the lead character is. And out of curiosity, what did you mean by this: "By the way, when the killer's identity is revealed and in the classic moment where the killer reveals his/her motive, it is truly irrelevant to whom the killer is revealing."

The reason I ask is because the reveal of the killer comes completely out of nowhere and didn't make a lot of sense to me, so perhaps I missed something there? Anyway, keep up the great work, buddy, and looking forward to the next review.

Troy Olson said...

That's a great point you bring up in regards to the main character and how the genre you view this as biases who you view as the protagonist. I tend to always look for a "final girl," thus I went with Kendall right from the start (well and because she has her name first in the credits), but I can easily see that a person at the time would look at Aumont as the lead, as she holds the answer to the main clue.

I quite like this film -- its curious mix of slasher and giallo seems way ahead of its time. Great review here.

Emily said...

Great review and one more reminder that I should really see this movie. At Chiller Theater, Martino said this was his easily his favorite of his films.

Hans A. said...

Thnx, lady and gents for your kind words and taking the time to share your thoughts.

Aaron--you're right the killer's identity does come out of nowhere. The killer explains his motive--it's kind of a standard motive for killer's in giallos. Trying not to put spoilers here, so I'm not purposefully being vague. As to your question about what I wrote: does the person to whom the killer reveals have any special relationship to the killer? Does it change the killer's plans at all after the killer makes his revelation? The answers to both those questions is what I was aiming at.

Alex B. said...

I am not very keen on "Torso", I don't like the way it develops. The opening is promising enough and the second murder is amazingly stylish, but it just starts to fall apart for me after that. I guessed the killer's identity halfway through. I'd say killer in "Who saw her die?" had even less motive than here.
I really wanted to like "Torso", but I don't. Suzy Kendall is great but I prefer her in subtler "Spasmo".
Also, what the hell was all that with the girls on a tractor? And that village idiot character - Martino manages to beat old Dario in poor humour here.
It's after Torso that my disappointment with Martino started growing. He just doesn't care for any of his films

Hans A. said...

Alex--I respect your opinion and understand your criticism. Torso is a divisive film (like most of Italian genre cinema). I quite like nearly all of Martino's cinema that I've seen (in every genre). Then again, I am in a very small minority when it comes to my cinematic tastes. I'm going to review another Martino 70s genre picture soon--lesser known but equally divisive. Your visits and your thoughts are always appreciated here, Alex, and thanks again.

lights in the dusk said...

I like this film well enough, but it's not one of my absolute favourites in terms of Italian genre cinema. Like some of the previous commentators, I find the mid-narrative twist from tense giallo to languid stalk n' slash rather disruptive. Although I respect that it was an attempt to try something different and surprise the audience in a way that would have seemed quite daring at the time, the break between the two halves made the development of the narrative and the reveal of the killer's identity seem rather arbitrary.

Some stylish kills though, and a great atmosphere during the final act. I think it is worth noting how much of an influence the final act of this was on the earlier scenes in Alexandre Aja's High Tension (aka Switchblade Romance); some of the scenes with Kendall hiding in the house seemed almost shot-for-shot.

Still, as ever, an excellent write-up with some useful quotes.

Alex B. said...

Ha ha, well I'm usually also in the minority when it comes to film opinions, and I wouldn't claim mine to be the ultimate truth:)
I love a lot of Martino's work but TORSO could have been so much more.
Are you going to review MURDER AT THE ETRUSCAN CEMETERY next? - Cause that's what I'd all devisive! Would love to read about that one.

Hans A. said...

@lights in the dusk (I apologize that I don't know you're first name but I respect the fact if you choose to remain anonymous)--

Thnx for the compliment. It has been rather difficult for me to find real substantive research on Torso, despite the fact that Martino has seen more exposure since the DVD revolution. He's a fantastically erudite and conversant film maker. If I ever got the chance to speak to him, then I have numerous questions to ask him about Torso.

The energy to this film is wilful and haphazard. Combined with the creative talent, the result is kind of unique. I really love cinema where it seems risks are taken, seemingly solely for the sense of taking a risk. This energy translates well to Torso, and it's one of its unique features. If you couldn't tell, I find narratives one of the most uninteresting aspects of a film.

Your Aja comparison is spot-on, despite the fact that I haven't seen HT in quite a while. I hope Aja makes more films with utilizing his European genre influence. Finally, your opinions and insights are always welcomed and certainly appreciated by me, so thanks very much again.

@Alex--I'll be doing an obscure one, Suspected Death of a Minor with C. Casinelli. I have another busy weekend coming up but will get to it as soon as I have free time. I need to embrace and show my love for some of the classics, like Revenge of the Stolen Stars, Italian 80s films, and lots of Bruno Mattei, for example.

Jeremy Richey said...

Hey Hans,
I wanted you to know that I have tagged you in a meme. Feel free to participate if you have time and you would like to.