Torso neither achieves the sustained delirium, nor revels in the candy-colored palette, perfected in the peak-period films of Dario Argento or Mario Bava, but that’s not to say it’s simply a cut-rate giallo film. Directed with panache by Sergio Martino with an emphasis on slow zooms and toying with point of view, Torso foregrounds a motif that recurs throughout the genre: the interpenetration of sex, violence, and art. The opening scene takes place in an ornate auditorium, as a professor lectures his distracted students on one of Perugino’s Saint Sebastian portraits. Martino’s camera begins on the arrow-pierced painting, then slinks around the packed lecture hall, isolating exchanged glances and longing looks, hinting at the erotic appeal that can be unleashed by visual depictions of violence. Conversely, as it soon transpires, the sight of scantily clad coeds strutting their stuff around the university town of Perugia may have unleashed the pent-up violence of a crazed killer. Further compounding the indistinguishability between art and violence, evidence from one of the crime scenes is, in a later scene, projected before the students in the same manner as the Perugino. Then there’s the moment when some coeds, striking poses like runway models, ride a tractor around Perugia’s central piazza, a suitably bizarre conflation of sexual and artistic display.
Instead of laying the blame for the crimes squarely on the shoulders of one abnormal individual, Martino and co-writer Ernesto Gastaldi introduce a series of lecherous, potentially criminal types, every one of them ostensibly red-blooded Italian males, who supply a hall of mirrors that refracts the killer’s reductive view of women. Not content with just sticking it to the man, however, Martino and Gastaldi prove equal-opportunity satirists, parodying the sexual revolution’s excesses with a not-so-swinging orgy set in a dilapidated hayloft.
Hoping to remove themselves far from the leering crowd, as well as avoid that old slice-and-dice treatment, American student Jane (Suzy Kendall) and her friend Daniela (Tina Aumont), along with two other girls, retreat to a hilltop villa owned by Jane’s uncle. Wouldn’t you just know, it doesn’t work? The film climaxes with a bravura sequence that runs nearly 20 minutes, containing little to no dialogue: Jane awakens to find her friends have fallen victim to the killer, who, to make matters even worse, still stalks around the villa, doing some not-so-nice things to her friends’ remains with a hacksaw. Martino ratchets up the tension with effortless precision through an expressive score, creatively off-center framing, sinuous camera movement, and looming close-ups. When the killer’s identity is finally revealed, the film flashes back to a childhood memory, revealing the source of his sexual aberration. It’s another of the genre’s stock devices made, in this case, even more laughable by the sight of what’s clearly a mannequin plummeting to its demise, as well as the killer’s subsequent verdict on all women: “Bitches! Bitches!”
A last-minute intervention saves Jane’s life, and so the film seems to shut down rather conventionally. But, even here, Martino slips in a red herring or two: If you look closely at the moment when the hero, Roberto (Luc Merenda), returns to Jane’s side, you’ll notice alternating shots where the figure is shown to be first the killer and then the hero, a subliminal bait-and-switch that blurs the boundary between the two. The equation is made even more explicit a moment later, when Jane compares Roberto’s use of the word “providence” to the killer’s laying the blame for his murders at the doorstep of “chance and necessity.”
Blue Underground continues to provide ample justification for upgrading to Blu-ray. The Torso transfer is a marvel, another significant improvement over the DVD version, akin to their recent release of The 10th Victim. Brightness, clarity, and color saturation have all vastly improved. The image, cropped at 1.85:1 on the earlier DVD, has been corrected to 1.66:1, so that now only the killer's responsible for hacking off heads and limbs. Both the original Italian and dubbed English DTS mono tracks sound vibrant and full.
The optional introduction by Eli Roth runs just under two minutes, and it's a suitably enthusiastic tribute from the man who borrowed elements from Torso for the opening of Hostel: Part II and thankfully doesn't devolve into the same annoying "awesome"-fests that marred Quentin Tarantino's Rolling Thunder label intros. The on-camera interview with Sergio Martino covers his early career in Italian cinema, briefly touches on the inspirations behind Torso, lays out the thinking involved in the film's several title changes, and reveals what he'd do differently today (hint: less of the red stuff). Invite your friends and neighbors over to play the Torso trailer and TV-spot drinking game: Every time the voiceover intones with solemnity the title "Torso!" or suggestively murmurs the word "psychosexual," everyone knocks one back. Pretty soon you'll be hearing that fuzzed-out guitar even with the TV turned off.
At the risk of going out on a limb, let me suggest that Torso is much more than simply hackwork.