After making his way from sexploitation 'documentaries' to feature films, Sergio Martino dedicated much of his considerable energy to the crowded space between horror and thriller. Directing gialli and other B-movies at the breakneck pace typical of the Italian film industry, the Roman churned out two or more pictures a year throughout the first half of the seventies.
By 1973 Martino was thus a veteran of the giallo despite having worked in the subgenre all of two years. It was certainly an interesting time. In 1971 Mario Bava, the godfather of the giallo, had decisively abandoned procedural elements in favour of lurid violence with Twitch of the Death Nerve (Reazione a catena), although most of his colleagues would not follow this shift for a number of years; and North American filmmakers were beginning to notice Italian horror, resulting in the first slasher, Black Christmas, in 1974.
But I'd be lying if I claimed it's just its place in history that interested me in the first of Martino's 1973 films (and the only one to be released in North America the same year). It's the title. I corpi presentano tracce di violenza carnale (The Bodies Bear Traces of Carnal Violence) distils the contemporary appeal of the giallo to its essentials: blood and sex. It's not all there is to the film: although Martino was one of the sleazier giallo directors - which is saying something -, he was no hack. The promise of I corpi presentano tracce di violenza carnale, anyway, is not quite conveyed by the English rump title Torso - although that moniker is pertinent too, as we shall see.
In the film's opening shot Martino's camera travels from a woman's face down her bare upper body to a doll, whose eyes are gouged out by the man she straddles. Then we go to a ménage à trois between a man and two women, while their partially out-of-focus sex is photographed by an automatised camera. The creepy sex and clinical focus on viewing and recording anticipate the film's themes. It's undoubtedly sleazy, but the music by Guido and Maurizio de Angelis is sufficiently urgent and creepy to drain the scene of all potential titillation.
Cut to a university in Rome, where Franz (John Richardson) lectures on Renaissance art to a mixed group of Italians and American exchange students. Jane (Suzy Kendall) and her friend Daniela (Tina Aumont) reject the unwelcome advances of creepy coursemate Stefano (Roberto Bisacco). Meanwhile, their friend Flo (Patrizia Adiutori) and her boyfriend (Fausto di Bella) are strangled by a masked assailant after making love in a car. Later Carol (Cristina Airoldi), another student, is murdered in a swamp by the same cloaked figure.
When the police seek the help of the student body, Jane is conflicted. She knows that she has spotted somebody in the piazza the previous day wearing the distinctive red-and-black scarf used to strange the victims, but there is a detail she struggles to remember, a detail that might crack the case... After she receives a threatening phone call, she is more than willing to accept Dani's invitation to come out to her uncle's country manor for a couple of days to recover from the shocking events, along with friends Katia (Angela Covello) and Ursula (Carla Brait).
Up to that point Torso is a bog-standard giallo, featuring all the expected elements: a foreigner embroiled in a murder case in an Italian city, repressed memories, a killer in a mask and dark coat. On the trip to the country, however, it becomes something altogether darker and more lurid as Martino amps up both the titillation and the gore. As a murder mystery Torso does not satisfy: Stefano is such an obvious red herring that I began to wonder if Martino might be double-bluffing, while the true identity of the killer is easy to figure out by a process of elimination well before the reveal.
As common in the giallo, the killer suffers from psychosexual hang-ups that don't necessarily make sense, but are disturbing as all hell. And that's where the English title comes in. The killer has a habit of stripping his victims half-naked, groping their naked torso and attacking their chest and eyes with a knife. Martino thankfully cuts to a flashback of a doll's eyes being gouged out to spare us those gory details, although he does not hesitate to kill off several victims at once, shockingly wrongfooting a viewer who expects them to be offed one at a time; and in a scene hinted at by the film's US poster, we watch through Jane's eyes as the murderer saws his victims to pieces. It's bloody violent stuff, but Martino works hard to offset blatant titillation with disturbing subtext.
Torso also parodies left-wing student culture, albeit in the somewhat befuddled and clueless fashion common at the time. As usual in sensationalist coverage of counterculture mockery and leering projection go hand in hand, from a student's pseudo-Marxist dismissal of Perugio as a 'common-sense bourgeois' to a comically overdrawn hippie commune, complete with drugs and free love. For me, though, the peak of the film's humour is a police officer's suggestion that after helping him solve the murders, the students 'can protest and riot when we're a bit reluctant to let you dismantle the state', a line so dated I laughed out loud. Not that rebellious students like me aren't trying to dismantle the state anymore: we are. But the uncomprehending rhetoric dismissing us as lazy troublemakers just ain't what it used to be.