[Note that this post contains spoilers]
A “psychosexual maniac” is stalking the students of a Rome University class. First, Florence and her boyfriend are murdered by a peeping tom in a lover's lane. Next, Carol (Conchita Airoldi) leaves a party in a marijuana haze after giving a couple of her fellow students the brush off. Though pursuing, they prove all mouth and little action as one crashes his motorcycle and lands unceremoniously in the dirt. It is too late for their quarry, though, as she flees ever deeper into the woods and there encounters the killer. This time, however, at least there is a clue: the distinctive red and black patterned scarf used by the killer to strange Carol.
Another student, Daniela (Tina Aumont) receives a threatening telephone call, warning that to tell the police about the red scarf – which flashbacks reveal she saw around the neck of a fellow student, Stefano, whom the audience has already seen assaulting a prostitute he picked up – would be a bad idea.
The police, meanwhile, go to question the stallholder (Ernesto Colli) who sells the scarves. No friend of the police, he professes to know nothing but then attempts to blackmail the killer, with predictably fatal consequences.
Seeking to get away from the unpleasantness, Daniela and her friends Ursula, Katia (Carla Brait) and Jane (Suzy Kendall) decide to spend some time at Daniela's uncle's hilltop villa in the country. Unfortunately the killer is on their trail...
Taking his later Suspicious Death of a Minor to be more of a poliziotto, Torso / I Corpi presentano tracce di violenza carne was the last classic giallo to be directed by Sergio Martino. Released in Italy at the tail end of 1972, the film nevertheless also seems to indicate a growing dissatisfaction with the filone formula as then extant.
Torso features a different cast from Martino's usual, with the likes of Edwige Fenech, George Hilton, Ivan Rassimov and Anita Strindberg conspicuous in their absence, while the musical duties are assigned to the De Angelis Brothers rather than Bruno Nicolai. Perhaps the most interesting change, however, lies in the dynamics of the film. Though starting off very much as a traditional giallo, the second half of the film has been argued as moving more into slasher film territory by downplaying the traditional whodunnit and conspiracy aspect of the giallo and producing, in the figure of Jane, a prototypical “final girl”.
Whatever the relative merits and / or demerits of these changes, they would seem to have worked with the audience as far I Corpi presentano tracce di violenza carnale's box office is concerned, with the film doing approximately the same business as its two 1972 predecessors, All the Colours of the Dark and Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, combined.
Yet more broken doll imagery - "dolls, just stupid dolls" and some soft-focus lovemaking reminiscent of the opening of Your Vice...
From Torso to Black Christmas and When a Stranger Calls, with the killer on the phone?
The masked, gloved, knife-wielding killer
The thing that I find most interesting about the film, however, is the way it might help illuminate certain aspects of cinematic violence as they might pertain in the giallo.
In a 1993 Film Quarterly article, Devin McKinney attempted to distinguish between two sorts of screen violence. In its “weak” form, characteristic of most mainstream cinema, violence is more likely to be spectacular, throwaway and even pleasurable. In its “strong” form, typically associated with art cinema, violence is more likely to be depicted in a complex and consequential way.
While McKinney's own position would likely disincline him to give a film like Torso the benefit of the doubt – especially when its first half operates broadly in weak violence terms – events at the villa have a stronger edge via the way we are denied the on-screen spectacle of Daniela, Katia and Ursula's deaths in favour of an emphasis on the – thoroughly unpleasant – aftermath and Jane's suitably horrified / terrified reactions.
More generally, one also wonders what the emphasis on trauma within the giallo might mean for McKinney's thesis, in that innumerable genre entries explore the longer-term consequences of a violent act in the past.
While trauma admittedly often serves as little more than pretext for violence as spectacle in some of the better, more thoughtful, aspirational and consequential examples of the giallo – The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Don't Torture a Duckling, The Cat with the Eyes of Jade or The Stendhal Syndrome for example – the balance swings the other way.
A particularly good example here is another hybrid, the much maligned Trauma itself. A large part of the reason for the film's poor reception, I would suggest, was its giallo disavowal of the usual inconsequential pleasures of the more mainstream slasher film. Thus, for instance, when David catches sight of the vulnerable Aura undressing his gaze – and ours – is an explicitly guilty one.
This is not to say that Trauma is an unqualified success; some of the murder set pieces do seem to be intended to be spectacular but fail. This kind of analysis does seem, however, to offer some potential here and more generally in distinguishing between the less aspirational “vernacular” giallo and the more aspirational “auteur” or “art / popular” variants.
Returning to Torso itself, one question that arises is which kind of giallo it is. As a "vernacular" film there is, I would suggest, the matter of which vernacular audience – that in the Italian terza visione cinemas (as I Corpi...) or in the American grindhouses and drive-ins (as Torso), as evinced by the difference between the two versions, the Italian one including an opening monologue on art (overlaid atop a sex scene in an almost Godardian juxtaposition that reminded me of Le Mepris) and some low comedic moments absent from its international counterpart.
Art or commerce?
The consequences of violence
As an auteur film, meanwhile, the issue seems that of exactly who this author might be, of distinguishing between the contributions of Martino and Gastaldi. While not discounting the latter's work, I would suggest that the most successful elements of the film, most notably the extremely suspenseful, largely silent scenes at the villa, belong primarily to the director. Other elements, like the broken dolls and fall-of-man themes, seem more generic / attributable to the writer. The same can be said of the less successful mystery element, with the usual rule of black-gloved thumb applying: if somebody is an obvious suspect, like Stefano, then they are likely just a red herring.
As far as the Psycho-esque element of unexpectedly killing off apparent protagonist Daniela goes, meanwhile, it is worth remembering that Gastaldi and Martino has used the same device themselves in The Case of the Scorpion's Tail with Evelyn Stewart's character.
As ever, the issue is one of the more mainstream critics applying only certain frames of reference and deeming the giallo to be beneath them.
Whatever one thinks of it, Torso thus emerges yet another giallo that manages to be both entertaining and – if one is willing to go beyond “mere entertainment”– thought-provoking.