Cinematic Void January Giallo 2023: Torso (1973)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Cinematic Void will be playing this on Saturday, Jan. 7 at Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, MA (tickets here) with CV’s Jim Branscome in person. For more information, visit Cinematic Void.

Torso is such a simple title. I’d rather call this film by its Italian name: I Corpi Presentano Tracce di Violenza Carnale, or The Bodies Bear Traces of Carnal Violence. Either way, it was directed by Sergio Martino and features none of the cast that he had come to use in his past films like George Hilton, Ivan Rassimov or Edwige Fenech.

It does, however, star Brtish actress Suzy Kendall, who played the lead role of Julia in Dario Argento’s seminal The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. She’s so associated with giallo that she appeared as the main character’s mother in 2012’s ode to the genre, Berberian Sound Studio.

This is a film that wastes no time being strange. Or salacious. A photographer is shooting a soft focus lovemaking session between three women amongst creepy, eyeless baby dolls. By the time we register what is happening, we’re now in a classroom, where swooping pans and zooms refer us to the main cast of the film as we overhear a lecture and later a discussion about Pietro Perugino’s painting of Saint Sebastian. Did he believe in God? Or was he just trying to sell sentimentality? Could an atheist find himself able to translate religion to those with faith?

We cut to a couple making out in a car as a figure stalks them through the eye of the camera, making us complicit in the act of the killer. Quick cuts reveal the white-masked face of this maniac. The man runs after him while the girl doesn’t even care that they had a voyeur watching. As she waits for him to return to the car, but grows impatient. The headlights of the car cast her shadow large across the columns of a bridge. And their light is quickly extinguished by black-gloved hands. The camerawork here is really striking, keeping us watching for the killer, as we’re no longer behind his eyes. His attack is swift and ruthless, juxtaposed against the images of fingers penetrating the eyes of a doll.

The art professor (John Richardson, Black Sunday, The Church) and Jane (Kendall) meet by chance at a church where she challenges him to change his views on Perugino. As she returns from their somewhat romantic afternoon, Jane spies her friend Carol arguing in the car with a man who she believes is married.

Meanwhile, ladies of the evening walk the street, ending up with Stefano, a student who has been stalking Julie. He has trouble performing and the prostitute he’s with tells him that all the men with hang-ups always come her way. That said — even if he’s queer, he better pay the money. He flips out and attacks her, but she makes her escape.

We’re then taken to a hippy party that looks like it’s taking place inside Edward Lionheart’s Theater of Blood. There’s weed, there are acoustic guitars, there are bongos, there are dudes with neckerchiefs, there are motorcycles. Truly, there’s something for everyone. But after leading on two men, Carol just walks out into the mud. They try and chase her, but she makes her escape into the foggy night. We hear her footsteps through the swamp as she walks, exhausted and covered in mud. What better time for our white-masked killer to return? We see glimpses of him through the fog and then he is gone. Whereas in past films Martino ignored the murder scenes instead of story, here the violence is extended, placing the killer and his actions in full view. After killing the girl, he rubs mud all over her body before stabbing her eyes — again intercut with the baby doll imagery. Her blood leaks into the mud as the score dies down.

This scene really feels like what the first two Friday the 13th movies were trying to achieve, but of course several years before they were made.

A police detective is in front of the art class, showing images not of art, but of the crime scene. A piece of cloth has been found under the fingernails of one of the murdered students, Flo. And that same scarf was found on Carol’s body. It’s their duty to report seeing anyone who wore this scarf to the police, who want to cooperate with the students who normally riot and throw rocks at them.

Two of the men in the class — Peter and George — were the last two people to be seen with Carol, the ones who she turned down at the party. Meanwhile, Stefano continues to stalk Jane. The music in this film is so forward-leaning — tones play when the killer shows or during moments of tension.

A man calls Daniela and tells her that if she ever tells where she saw the red and black scarf, she’s dead. Fearing for her life, she tells her uncle, who lends his country home to her and her friends so that they can get away from the city while the killer is at large.

Oh yeah — I forgot the pervy scarf salesman, who the police are leaning on. Right after talking to the police inspector, he calls someone and asks for money to buy his silence. Whoever it is, they bought the scarf from him and wouldn’t want anyone else to know. They’ll also get out of town and head to the country. Coincidence? I think not!

Stefano is all over Dani, telling her that he needs her. She wants nothing to do with him. When she stares at him, she remembers seeing him wear the red scarf. She escapes — slamming the door in his face. She tells Jane that she remembers seeing him wear the scarf — and never again — the day Flo died. The whole time, the creepy uncle is watching the two girls. Jane offers to speak to Stefano, then meet the girls at the vacation home.

The street vendor is flush with cash, creeping along in the dark. A car starts to follow him. We see the black-gloved hands again as the car hits its victim again and again, bright red gore pouring all over the screen.

Jane goes to speak to Stefano, finding only strange baby dolls and letters to Dani asking her to love him and remember the promise that she made as a little girl. Jane is surprised by Stefano’s grandmother, who tells her that he left town.

The other girls are asleep on the train as someone watches them. A strange man enters their train car and sits down.

The camerawork in this movie feels as predatory as the perverts and killers that exist within it. Speaking of pervs, when the girls arrive in the countryside, the local men pretty much lose their minds, particularly over Ursula (Carla Brait, the man wrestling dancer from The Case of the Bloody Iris). She and Katia make out as a peeping tom watches, only for the killer to show up and off the leering man. There’s an amazing scene of the killer dumping the pervert into a well, shot underwater and staring upward as the body falls toward the lens.

Man, every man in this movie is scum. They’re either frightened boys or perverts wanting one chance to knock up a woman or scarred from past sexual encounters. None of them are positive, as even the uncle who gives Dani the villa seems way too interested in her. Every man is a predator at worst and a leering pervert at best.

Jane hurts her ankle when she gets overly excited about breakfast. A doctor arrives — the mysterious man from the train — and he gives her a pill, which knocks her out.

The girls go sunbathing while Jane recovers. Dani thinks she sees Stefano — complete with the red scarf — watching them. They return home and drink champagne, which Jane uses to wash down her sleeping pills.

A few minutes later, the door rings. It’s Stefano — the girls all scream — but he’s dead — the girls scream again — and the killer is behind him, holding the red scarf — now scream even louder! Instead of showing us the murders, Martino switches form, cutting to a ringing bell and Stefano being buried.

Jane wakes up, asking where her breakfast is. She’s obviously slept late as a result of the pills. She walks around the apartment, looking for Dani, Ursula and Katia, only to find a mess. Tossed chairs, bottles of beer and every single one of her friends murdered. Suzy Kendall is amazing in this scene, caught between fear and nausea. Unlike so many wooden giallo performances, she’s actually believable.

She hides as the killer comes back, forced to stay quiet and watch as he saws her friends into pieces. Even the ordinary world routine of the milkman arriving cannot stop the butchering of her friends, with her trapped just feet away.

This final act is completely unexpected, as up until now, the film had played by the rules of the giallo, the large number of victims versus a large number of red herrings.

In fact, this film is so packed with red herrings, even the cast had no idea who the killer was. Martino wouldn’t tell them who it was, so each of the actresses had her own theory as to who the killer was. And in the original script, the killer survived.

Now, instead of that traditional giallo structure as I mentioned above, it is the last survivor — a near prototype for the final girl — against a killer. Throw in that Julie can’t move well due to her leg and Martino has set up quite the suspenseful coda.

Trapped in the house, Julie tries to signal with a mirror, using Morse code. But it totally misses the heroic doctor’s sight. He places a call, but it doesn’t seem like it’s to Julie. She looks out the window and sees the killer coming back.

It turns out that the killer was the professor, who saw a childhood friend die trying to reach for a doll. He compares the other kills to dolls, with only Julie as a flesh and blood person. Everyone else was a bitch or played games with him or blackmailed him. He hacked Ursula and Katia to pieces like dolls as a result. Dani saw him. Carol may have seen him. And he killed Stefano when he saw him in the village. Death, he says, is the best keeper of secrets and then he sees Julie as a doll and tries to hang her. She’s saved at the last second by the doctor.

They battle into a farmhouse, across the yard and to a similar rock where we saw the younger professor watch his friend die. We hear a screen and have no idea who has been killed — but luckily for Jane, the doctor survives.  He discusses whether fate or providence had kept him in town, where he could save her. Perhaps it was written in the stars. Julie replies that Franz, the professor, would have been a realist and called it a necessity. Franz is dead and the dreamers live on.

The more times that I’ve watched this film, the more that I appreciate it and how it flips the genre conventions on their head and moves toward more of a slasher, with many of the giallo elements feeling tacked on somewhat to stay within the expected pieces of the form. A real clue that it’s really a slasher? The killings are more important than who the killer is.

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