Under the auteur theory, sometimes a bad movie is not a bad movie, it’s just exploring themes and preoccupations of a director that just doesn’t connect with you as a viewer. Likewise, an auteur isn’t necessarily a bad director, just someone who makes movies you don’t particularly connect with. While the auteur theory is flawed in the sense that it conflates the work of many identifiable creative forces into one sole vision of the “director”. Under this theory, Val Lewton was not the prime mover of all those great horror films he made in quick succession, it was his directors. Steven Spielberg may have wrote and produced Poltergeist, but that’s Tobe Hooper’s vision on screen. All those Hammer films that bare so many similarities in theme and style? Must be some kind of fluke between a number of different directors. In a medium of collaboration between different artists for different sense, it’s really tough to label a work as a “Film by” a certain director, but it makes discourse easy, so we do it anyway.
After watching all those great gialli brought over to North America by the dearly departed NoShame on DVD, I was certainly ready to throw Sergio Martino into the auteur echelon just below Argento, Fulci and Bava. Here were three great films, The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail, The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh and Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, all in the span of one year, and he had another solid effort, All the Colors of the Dark, during that time too. But then you look further and you find some pretty tepid sex farces, polizi and dramas, and later still some utter trash like The Big Alligator River or Island of the Fishmen. How could this guy go from so many stylish, unified and creative gialli to cashing a paycheque genre to genre. Fulci managed to make each genre his own, but Martino seemed to just like the work. So over the years I’ve struggled with this notion of Martino as an auteur, and after several failed attempts to get into what many dub his finest black glove picture, Torso, I was willing to write the guy off. But with the Torso Blu-ray landing on my doorstep courtesy of Blue Underground, I’m ready to give Heir Martino another chance. Good or bad, where does Torso fit in Martino’s, um, body of work?
After two art students are murdered in graphic, psycho-sexual fashion, with the killer disrobing them and fondling their breasts, the entire campus in Perugia is thrown off kilter. For a group of friends and fellow students, the murders hit particularly hard, and they decide the best way to deal with impending reality that they could be next is to dash off to the country. You’d expect them to maybe sit around and talk it out, or at least keep a low profile as this whole investigation blows over. Instead, the girls draw about as much attention as is physically possible to themselves by romping around in the nude, be it sunbathing or a little sexual exploration, in a small town of bumpkins. It should be a surprise to no one, then, that the killer has no problem finding them and introducing them to his hack saw.
While some of the girls seem to just want to work on their tan, a few of them really could use the solace. Daniella (Tina Aumont, Lifespan, Fellini’s Casanova) was struck hardest by the murders, because one of the scarves found at the murder scene she actually recalls seeing on an acquaintance. She can’t quite pick out his face, but she must be hoping that seeing a lot of boobs outside her cottage may jog her memory. Jane (Suzy Kendall, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage) also comes to the cottage with more baggage than what's inside her bra. You’d suspect she’d feel a little self-conscious about being a fair bit older than the rest of the girls (as the film’s “name” actress, she’s clearly out of place at 30 being lodged in beside all these young college girls), but instead it’s a bit of recurring, traumatic family history that seems to be dogging her. She gets a little more quiet time than she’s asking for when Daniella and the other girls all prematurely meet the killer, leaving Jane alone to wonder what has happened to her friends.
Jane learns the hard way when she sees the killer, dressed in black and wearing gloves that look borrowed from Dario Argento, sawing apart the nubile flesh of one of her fellow artists. It appears he’s putting the limbs in a bag and making off with them. Isolated above the village on a scenic hillside, Jane has nowhere to run and nobody to cry to. And she’s not alone.
Much like the career of Sergio Martino, Torso is a film that is really all over the place. As its blunt American title implies, Torso treats death in a callous, workmanlike manner. We don’t see women in peril, but more just women who’ve already been killed or who never really had a chance. There’s no fear for their lives because you can tell that Martino is just focusing on the body count. This approach is really hard to warm to, and it makes the initial hump of the movie seem very sleazy and exploitative. If you go only by the first act this could easily pass as a Pieces spin-off. Once Torso settles into its pace and presentation, though, it goes from being sleazy to in a way classical.
It’s a weird thing to see the film go from one scene of a woman having her leg viciously shredded from her body to seeing an elegantly restrained sequence of cat and mouse right out of Hitchcock. It’s as if Martino has a few playbooks on his lap and he’s taking pages from each one. When the film evolves from the low rent sleazefest from which it begins is in the third act once all Jane’s friends are gone. It’s as if Martino gets tired of the nudity and the formula and simply does away with all the periphery characters and instead zeroes in on a lead. Kendall picks up the picture and Martino then gives us a show. The moments of Jane’s discovery of all her friends, as the killer lurks always just barely obstructed in the house, and later the show stopping portion where she hides away in her room, that really elevate the film into the hands of a master. Martino makes incredible use of point of view, perhaps the best I’ve ever seen in the genre, causing us as an audience to peek our heads to the side as Kendall does in hopes we might just see a bit more. Or a bit less. The part where the madman walks slowly towards the wardrobe as Kendall hides inside it, and all we see is him vaguely through a slit in the door, is a genuinely nerve-wracking moment. He gets close enough to the door that we lose sight of him for a few moments, and those moments seem like ages as Martino dutifully holds on a point of view that shows nothing but anticipates everything. It’s first class moviemaking.
There’s another grand sequence shortly after, where Jane is left alone in the room and trying to wrangle some method of removing the key from the lock on the other side of the door so she can escape. The camera shots are stylish and calculated, each one revealing just enough to show us what’s happening or to hint at what might come next. Perspective is again masterfully handled where this time Martino allows the viewer to see more than the actress, which only heightens the intensity of the scene. This whole final thirty had me riveted, sitting on edge wondering how Jane would ever make it out of that cottage alive. And to think that for the first hour before it, I kept yo-yoing as to whether I was going to just give up on the picture and its heartless visceral monotony. But like they say in Prom Night, it’s not who you go with, but who takes you home, and by the end of the picture Sergio Martino takes us to Hitchcockian levels of suspense that make his meandering hour beforehand seem like calculated build-up. As a whole I’d say Torso is too uneven to be lobbied in with the greats like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, What Have You Done to Solange? or Don’t Torture a Duckling, but when it’s on, it can stand head and shoulders with them…that is, if Torso had a head!
Torso looks good, if not quite sharp, in 1080p. The film is presented in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio and exhibits that fine grain that characterizes most Blue Underground releases. This one seems to have a bit more of that sort of thing than most Blue Underground releases, and considering the picture is still sometimes a little soft , it’s a wonder whether the Blue executed a little extra sharpening for this film. Then again, sometimes it is fairly sharp, so it could very likely be a focus issue at the hand of the puller, since the film has a very kinetic camera and staging. Static scenes, like establishing shots of the country villa, suffer worse from all the dancing black noise introduced by whatever transfer process Blue Underground utilized. The film has a relatively muted color pallet but those pinks and greys still look very flattering in the HD color space. The added footage from the Italian version (more on that below) seems culled from the same source and integrates fully.
Remember the old days of Blue Underground doing those beefy 7.1 ES/EX tracks? Well, here we get DTS-HD 1.0 Master Audio in either English or Italian. Shame a little more wasn’t done with this, since the music by the De Angelis brothers did a pretty exquisite job with those thumping piano and flute melodies. They’d really benefit from a wider sound space than being smushed in with the dialogue and sound effects. Still, what’s here sound clean, has adequate range and pretty much gets the job done.
Blue Underground is a ways away from their massive special editions of yore, but like clockwork their new releases satisfyingly weave in a video interview or two, along with promotional material, to pay tribute to the fine films they’ve been releasing. Torso has a new interview with Sergio Martino himself, a bunch of promo spots and a couple other little fixings. First of all, the film can be played in either the English language “Torso” version or the “Carnal Violence” Italian version. The Italian version clocks in at three minutes longer, which is occupied mostly in the classroom scene right after the credits. In the shorter English version, this scene starts with the class being dismissed, but in Italian the scene runs significantly longer, and really serves an important function in the film. One, it establishes all the principal characters with a few very accomplished dolly moves with extreme focus pulls between each, and two, it actually sets up the detached methodology of Martino’s film by having the instructor dissect a similar piece of art for his students. Without this sequence, the first act of the film definitely seems to lack purpose or perspective, but with this seemingly superfluous scene appended to the start, the film starts perfectly in context. This is the first time it has been presented here, as previous releases from Anchor Bay and then later Blue Underground on DVD, did not use the sequence. The added bits are in Italian only, and you can watch the Italian cut in English (with the added scenes subtitled) or entirely in Italian. There really was a method to Martino’s madness after all!
Before either version plays, there’s the option of playing an alternate video introduction with Eli Roth. Like a big fanboy he gushes about the film and then talks about how he loved it so much he ripped it off a bunch in Hostel Part II, even going so far as to cast Luc Merenda in a cameo. He doesn’t say anything too interesting or profound (the more I hear this guy interviewed the less credibility I give his work), but it’s nice to at least see another director (if he’s still even calling himself that) talk about his influences.
There’s also a new 10-minute interview with Sergio Martino put together with aplomb by the Red Shirt Pictures crew. Martino speaks in broken English, and amusingly he is presented subtitled. He talks about how he broke into the business, how he got legendary producer Carlo Ponti to back the film, and he talks too about seeing the movie now 30 years later. Stay after the credits for Martino’s amusing riff on some of the promotional material.
Rounding off the disc there are some trailers, TV spots, a radio spot and a poster and still gallery. The promo for the film is pretty memorable, and with Eli Roth already on this disc, you get the sense from the English trailer that continually boasts “TORSO! TORSO! TORSO!” that Edgar Wright got some of his inspiration for his Grindhouse “Don’t” trailer from this one. And again, the menus once again kick ass.
Torso is a calculated and stylish thriller tucked away in the ass crack of all the callous nudity and sleaze of its first two acts. Once Martino zeroes in on his protagonist the film reaches very commendable heights of intensity. The key scene at the start of the Italian cut of the film, presented for the first time ever in North America, is key to getting on Martino’s twisted wavelength, but once there it’s a pretty special journey. The image looks filmic if a bit sharpened, and the audio, presented in either English or Italian, is perfectly adequate. With two versions of the film, press material, a new introduction and an interview, Blue Underground has put together a respectable package for Sergio Martino’s celebrated final giallo. Would I go out on a, um, limb, to recommend Torso? Probably not, but it is a film with some incredibly skillful sequences that, if nothing else, help me again appreciate Sergio Martino more as a pointed artist and not the hack who drowned me in sorrow in The Big Alligator River.
*Because of the quality of the HD format, the clarity, resolution and color depth are inherently a major leap over DVD. Since any Blu-ray will naturally have better characteristics than DVDs, the rating is therefore only in comparison with other Blu-ray titles, rather than home video in general. So while a Blu-ray film may only get a C, it will likely be much better than a DVD with an A.
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Great stuff, this one looks headed for my short list.Thanks for a great review.
I don't own this on any format so BD it is.Such a great movie and with two cuts.Awesome!
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