Torso Blu-ray Review/Comparison (originally published 2018)
Updated: Jan 29, 2020
A sex maniac is prowling the streets of Perugia, targeting a picturesque university town’s female students. Alarmed at the plummeting life expectancy of the student body, Jane (Suzy Kendall) and her three friends elope to a secluded country villa – only to discover that, far from having left the terror behind, they’ve brought it with them! (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
Sergio Martino’s considerable contributions to giallo cinema are usually overlooked in favour of Dario Argento’s enduringly popular films and the work of other talented ‘jack of all trade’ directors, like Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci, and Umberto Lenzi. But, in terms of sheer numbers, Martino’s canon input is second only to Argento. Beginning with The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (Italian: Lo Strano Vizio Della Signora Wardh; aka: Blade of the Killer and The Next Victim, 1971), Martino made a total of seven distinguished and stylish genre entries: The Case of the Scorpion's Tail (Italian: La Coda dello Scorpione, 1971), All the Colors of the Dark (Italian: Tutti i Colori del Duio; aka: They're Coming to Get You and Day of the Maniac, 1972), Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (Italian: Il Tuo Vizio è Una Stanza Chiusa e Solo Io ne ho la Chiave, 1972), The Suspicious Death of a Minor (Italian: Morte Sospetta di una Minorenne; aka: Too Young to Die, 1975), The Scorpion with Two Tails (Italian: Assassinio al Cimitero Etrusco; aka: Murder in the Etruscan Cemetery, 1982), a made-for-TV throwback Mozart Is a Murderer (Italian: Mozart È un Assassino, 1999), and, right in the middle of it all, Torso (Italian: I Corpi Pesentano Tracce di Violenza Carnale, 1973). Torso is more uneven than Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh and lacks the hypnotizing intensity of All the Colors of the Dark, but it is Martino’s most suspenseful and visually controlled film, as well as a relatively accessible entry point for burgeoning giallo fans that are looking to move beyond the big-name directors.
One of Torso’s more interesting aspects is the way it deals with gender politics. Martino and co-writer Ernesto Gastaldi were tasked with making a sexually-charged, violent thriller and they delivered something particularly shocking for the era. The brutality and lewdness is built into the Italian title (it literally translates to The Bodies Bear Traces of Carnal Violence) and was a central part of the English language ad campaign (“Enter...if you dare the mind of a psychosexual killer”). But, between and beneath scenes of hippies engaging in sleepy-eyed, softcore trysts and bodily mutilations, Martino is genuinely sympathetic towards the female cast. Furthermore, he saturates the movie with the unspoken theme that all men – not just knife-wielding maniacs – pose a danger to women. The heroines are constantly forced to endure relentless lechery, suspicious glances, and direct threats from all manner of strangers, fellow students, significant others, and paternal figures. Martino emphasizes the issue by casting so many men as red herrings that the killer’s identity is rendered a trivial detail (quite a bit of the official Italian advertising actually gave away the killer’s identity). That last point may be an accidental side-effect of sloppy and/or indifferent writing and it seems unlikely that the filmmakers were making a meta statement about misogyny in gialli; rather, they were trying to create an oppressive atmosphere. Still, the concept of oppressive masculinity being the real villain of a giallo movie is an interesting one, considering Italian cinema’s history of, well, oppressive masculinity.
The second act ends with the abrupt, off-screen slaughter of all but one of the students, who finds herself locked inside the villa with the killer as he goes about his business, disposing of bodies, unaware that he hasn’t murdered everyone in the house. Here, Martino earns some comparisons to Hitchcock, in part because he’s trying so hard to evoke Rear Window (1954). Hobbled by a foot injury, Jane sneaks through hallways and hides behind doors and railings while she watches a madman methodically saw her friends into pieces and cart the parts away. Unlike Jimmy Stewart, though, she’s disgusted and horrified enough to look away. I suppose the more apt comparison would be Terence Young’s Wait Until Dark (based on a play by Frederick Knott, 1967), only Kendall’s character isn’t blind. This final act is so perfectly-tuned and suspiciously detached from the rest of the film (even superficial things, like blocking and editing are conspicuously different) that it was probably the impetus of the screenplay and was only expanded when the filmmakers realized they didn’t have 90 minutes of material. This would explain (though not excuse) the patchy, somewhat listless quality of the middle section. Pacing criticisms aside, the practically dialogue-free cat & mouse dynamic of this extended climax is very effective, coming to a head with the most spine-tingling scare in giallo history. It’s too good to spoil here, but I do recommend first-time viewers watch Torso with as large a group as possible, because the scene in question usually elicits a loud crowd response.
Torso fulfills every basic genre requirement to qualify as a giallo, but it also meets nearly every slasher prerequisite – a masked madman driven to kill sexually active/sinful victims, a very specific murder weapon (a scarf), a sex-and-alcohol-fueled college coed holiday vacation, and a woman who outsmarts/outfights and unmasks the killer to become the sole survivor (she gets a little help from a man this time). It did all of this five years before John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and seven years before Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980). Torso even predates two key not-quite-slasher bodycount movies, namely Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (also 1974). The idea of giallo movies being associated with North American slashers isn’t a revelation, by any means. Carpenter proudly admitted that he was inspired by Italian thrillers, especially Argento’s work, and Cunningham reluctantly admitted that he and other Friday directors lifted gore gags from Bava’s Bay of Blood (Italian: Ecologia del delitto; aka: Twitch of the Death Nerve, 1971). In turn, Bay of Blood (which, for the most part, isn’t really a giallo, but a spoof of the tradition) and Argento’s Deep Red (Italian: Profondo Rosso; aka The Hatchet Murders, 1975) are often cited as slasher influences. Unfortunately, due either to its comparative obscurity or the fact that it matches the beats of an ‘80s slasher so precisely, Torso tends to be mistaken for one of Italy’s many post-slasher thrillers these days, like Romano Scavolini Nightmare (aka: Nightmare in a Damaged Brain, 1981), Lucio Fulci’s The New York Ripper (Italian: Lo squartatore di New York, 1982), or Martino’s own Scorpion with Two Tails. The film’s relevance to giallo as a whole, its objective/subjective qualities, and its position in Martino’s filmography are up for discussion, but its relevance as one of the earliest proto-slashers is pretty cut and dry.
The first official North American video releases of Torso were VHS tapes from Prism (the box sported a custom tagline that read “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was kidstuff compared to this”) and Condor Video (a company I’ve otherwise never heard of). It was re-released on VHS in widescreen by Anchor Bay in 2000 alongside its anamorphic DVD debut, which was later reissued by Blue Underground. Blue Underground’s 2011 Blu-ray then acted as both an HD debut and the North American debut of the alternate Italian cut of the film, which runs about 94 minutes, verses the roughly 90-minute import/English language cut. Blue Underground was struggling through some not great early BD transfers at the time, but Torso still stands up pretty well, especially considering that they were working from yet another of those famously inferior Italian scans.
Arrow Video is ensuring that Torso fans will want to buy the movie again (seemingly, each of us owns either the BU disc, the Shameless Screen UK disc, the Limited Edition German disc, or all three) by restoring the film from the original camera negative. The footage was scanned in 2K at L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, then graded and cleaned up by R3Store Studios in London. Both the 94 and 90-minute cuts are presented in the correct 1.66:1 aspect ratio (unlike some earlier DVDs, which were framed from 1.85:1 to 1.70:1, depending on release) and 1080p. I’ve included caps from both this disc (left side of the slider) and the BU disc (right side of the slider) for the sake of comparison.
The improvements between releases are pretty obvious if you’re looking at each cap at its full size. The detail upgrade is moderate in wide shots, but quite healthy both in close-up and extreme close-up (check out all the pores on Suzy Kendall’s face). For the most part, the increased clarity is boosted by more complex tonal levels and subtler contrast. As is often the case, the older transfer is significantly brighter and, as I tend to say (over and over) in these situations, the new, darker version appears more natural and in line with what I assume Martino and cinematographer Giancarlo Ferrando were going for. That said, a few literally flashy shots aside, the BU disc isn’t nearly as blown-out as similar transfers from the period and it arguably has a small advantage during the really dark scenes that occur in the middle of the movie, as well as less crush during a handful of daylight sequences. On the other hand, the restored transfer has a more eclectic palette, which does help separate the elements. Skin tones and neutral hues are are warmer, but not so much as to soften the very prevalent blues. The biggest reason to upgrade is the lack of CRT machine noise. Again, BU actually dealt with the issue pretty well for this release (namely, they didn’t try to cover things up with excessive DNR), but it’s no competition for the Arrow transfer’s real, accurate, and not too snowy grain. The framing is notably different between transfers, but I'm not sure if one is really better than the other.
Arrow has included the option to either watch the Italian cut in Italian or to watch same version with a hybrid English track that includes a few Italian language interludes for the scenes that were not included in the export version. English dialogue was likely never recorded for these scenes. Now I’ll remind everyone that Italian films from the era were recorded without sound, so all tracks are dubbed and the international cast was often speaking English or mixed languages on set. There is no “original” language track. While effects are mostly comparable between the tracks, the dialogue on the English dub is not in great shape. The overall performance is fine, if not a bit flatter than the Italian dialogue, but there are dips in quality, hissy moments, muffled pieces, and a couple of instances of unintended echo. These problems are most prevalent at what seems to be the ends of reels, though this is only a guess. Personally, I still prefer this track, due to Kendall dubbing herself, so I just dealt with it, but the rest of you might want to stick with the more consistent and clean Italian option. Composers Guido & Maurizio De Angelis were largely known for their poliziotteschi music and work on Enzo G. Castellari’s Keoma (1976), a late-in-the-game spaghetti western that featured extensive sung narration. Torso appears to have been their only giallo score, but the music itself isn’t too different from their police thrillers. The score, which alternates between jaunty and intense, sounds roughly the same on either track.
Option to watch the film with either the Carnal Violence or Torso titles.
Commentary by Kat Ellinger – The critic, editor-in-chief of Diabolique Magazine, and writer of All The Colours Of Sergio Martino ( Arrow Books, 2018) supplies a personable, yet jam-packed expert commentary that contextualizes the film, covers Martino’s greater career and the careers of the rest of the cast & crew, and incorporates loads of behind-the-scenes factoids. Ellinger’s tracks and video essays are always informational, but the intimate knowledge of Martino’s life she gained from writing/researching the book means that this one is a little extra special and entertaining.
All the Colors of Terror (34:02, HD) – The first of the brand new Arrow exclusive interviews is with Martino himself. The director discusses the story’s inspiration (turns out it wasn’t Wait Until Dark, but Richard Fleischer’s 1971 rip-off See No Evil, aka: Blind Terror), his other giallo work, production, shooting on location in Perugia, working with the cast & crew, the film’s enduring legacy with younger fans, and more. He’s pretty critical of the final product, but is still proud of the last 30 minutes.
The Discreet Charm of the Genre (34:53, HD) – Actor Luc Merenda talks about his career, his desire for a change of pace from French television when he started taking Italian film jobs, his distaste for violence, and continuing to work with Martino after Torso.
Dial S for Suspense (29:16, HD) – During this mile-a-minute interview, co-screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi recalls his storied working relationship with Martino, as well as the various other nooks & crannies of his career as a writer.
Women in Blood (24:59, HD) – Martino's daughter Federica, who is a director and screenwriter herself, talks about her father’s career and Torso in particular from a critical standpoint, while also discussing how she’d remake the movie for modern audiences (I’m not clear on if this is a hypothetical remake or something she’s actively pursuing). She ends the interview with a story about attending film school alongside Eli Roth, who didn’t realize who her dad was until years later, when he introduced Torso at a film festival.
Saturating the Screen (25:04, HD) – Writer Mikel J. Koven, the author of La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film (pub: 2006), connects Torso to North American slasher movies in a more academic and graceful way than I did in my review, especially when he breaks down and compares the quintessential tropes of gialli and slashers.
Sergio Martino Live (47:00, HD) – An extensive post-movie Q&A with Martino from the Abatoir Film Festival.
Italian and English trailers
The images on this page are taken from the Arrow and Blue Underground BDs, then sized for the page, but due to .jpg compression, they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer. Full-sized .jpg versions can (currently) only be accessed by right-clicking/ctrl-clicking the images and opening them in a new window/tab.