[This October is "Gialloween" on Daily Dead, as we celebrate the Halloween season by diving into the macabre mysteries, creepy kills, and eccentric characters found in some of our favorite giallo films! Keep checking back on Daily Dead this month for more retrospectives on classic, cult, and altogether unforgettable gialli, and visit our online hub to catch up on all of our Gialloween special features!]
From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, the giallo film was a defining genre for Italian cinema. The giallo, for those unfamiliar, was born from literature; crime novellas published in Italy, and known for their yellow book (in Italian, libri gialli) covers, would focus on pulp fiction detective tales and crime stories. When the giallo style found its way into cinematic form, the genre would be most influenced by the exercise of sensationalized sex and violence rather than the crime procedural or mystery solving.
The giallo, in some forms of film during this Italian wave of horror, finds significantly more depth and complication than otherwise perceived. And there is no better example of the sensationalized and nuanced approach to this style of film than Sergio Martino’s 1973 film Torso. Alternatively known as Carnal Violence, or sometimes The Bodies Bear Traces of Carnal Violence, this film functions as both giallo and a slasher film, wearing its black-gloved-killer roots as well as its highly influenced monster-in-a-mask cinematic horror companion.
How does one describe the kind of giallo/slasher hybrid Martino is crafting with Torso? All of the giallo genre characteristics are present: beautiful women in distress, violent murders seen from the killer’s perspective, Hitchcock-influenced suspense, and overly complicated and confusing stories that often don’t make much sense once the film fades to black. It’s like Slumber Party Massacre without the humor or mysterious killer, with an ending that cares more about the cat-and-mouse storytelling elements than the red-splattered viscera, or, perhaps better suited for its narrative meanderings, an episode of Scooby-Doo where Daphne and Velma go on vacation and are left to solve the case of the black-gloved killer while Fred and Shaggy serve as insufferable chauvinists who treat women as sex objects.
Martino’s film shifts in the execution of its tone, starting as something erotically charged and transitioning into something murderously violent. And that continues, gratuitously, repeating throughout the first 60 minutes of this film without much resolve; and then, in the final 30 minutes, the film morphs into a completely different monster, an artfully composed and tension-filled example of ingenious and creative filmmaking.
It’s perhaps fitting that both the titles Torso and Carnal Violence serve as such pitch-perfect designations for Sergio Martino’s film, with both the obvious sensationalized nature of its themes and the subtle examination of its place within the history of cinema. The titles of many gialli are often attempting to be insightful, albeit confusing, observations; films like The Black Belly of the Tarantula, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Seven Blood-Stained Orchids, or The Killer Reserved Nine Seats provide as much observation as they do confusion. Something as simplistic as Opera, Blood and Black Lace, Blade of the Ripper, or Torso seem like easy thematic observations of the events pending. However, the giallo film is often never easily categorized to just one straightforward feature component.
The opening scene of Torso could be the best description of the kind of giallo you are about to experience. A slow-flowing jazzy score opens onto the writhing, close-up naked bodies of three people. The camera slowly pulls away to reveal the first full image of the film, the framed bare breasts of a woman. Then the camera moves away from this sexualized image and onto a pale toy doll with shining black eyes. The hand of one of the naked bodies then plunges two fingers into the eyes of the doll, pushing the eyes into its head.
This blend of imagery continues to define the sleazy yet strange tone that Torso is pursuing. And it’s interesting to compare the film’s beginning 60 minutes in regards to its persuasive title, Carnal Violence, as the description is very much self-aware of what it’s trying to convey with all of its indiscriminate character images and narrative conversations.
The carnal compositions are glaringly obvious throughout the film as random moments of nudity are introduced at every turn; the bodies of women laying nude and bronzed by the sun in one scene are countered by another image of women laying nude and stained with blood in a later scene. The female body is lusted over by grotesquely insecure men, descriptively talked about while they walk the university streets of Perugia. Later, these descriptive conversations about the female body are acted upon by a masked killer as he watches, primarily a woman in one scene, have sex with a man. In another scene, the masked killer watches a group of women undress through a window, lingering over their every move.
Martino, through the camera lens and narrative design, lusts over the cast of female characters. The cast is one of the exceptional pieces that compose Torso. British actress Suzy Kendall, who starred in Dario Argento’s giallo masterpiece The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, plays Jane, a character who spends the majority of her time hiding from the masked killer in an upstairs bedroom. American actress Tina Aumont, from notable films like Texas Across the River and Fellini’s Casanova, is captivating in a supporting role.
The violence throughout the film is the standard bright red gushes pushed through rubbery skin structures, typical of the giallo characteristic. While the brutality, with shining silver knives, rusty-looking hacksaws, and even the front end of a car, are all simple building blocks that compose this film as a horror genre piece. But it’s not these slaughter spectacles that highlight what Martino is doing, it’s in the process of how this horror happens, through the vessel in which these awful things occur.
The black-gloved killer moves and operates like a horror slasher character, peeping into windows like Jason Voorhees in 1980’s Friday the 13th, brandishing his weapon like a young Michael Myers in 1978’s Halloween, emotionless to the viscera like Leatherface in 1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Martino forces the viewer to spend time with the evildoer, watching the fantasy unfold before the terror begins. And, in 1973, Torso was knocking on the front door of films like 1974’s Black Christmas as one of many influential benchmarks set by the giallo film movement.
These elements—the lurid lustful nature Martino entices, the peeping killer who kills with gory glee—are but gratuitous checkmarks fulfilling the criteria of giallo films. For those familiar, these elements, creatively stylized yet also somewhat rudimentary considering much of everything this film does with its violent carnal desires, have been done before. What separates Torso from its counterparts is done in the final 30 minutes of filmmaking. In the finale the film transitions into an artful and suspenseful thriller, you can feel the influence of Hitchcock and Argento.
As Jane plays quiet mouse and the black-gloved killer plays stalking cat, it's undoubtable that films like 1967’s Wait Until Dark, the Audrey Hepburn-starring film about a deaf woman terrorized by a trio of thugs looking for a valuable doll, or 1971’s See No Evil, the Mia Farrow-starring film about a blind woman pursued by a maniac in her country home, serve as influences for the tension-filled design. The finale is wonderfully controlled, with Suzy Kendall’s character tiptoeing upstairs while bumping into objects, letting the killer realize they are not alone and offering time for them to toy with their prey. In the most memorable moment of the film, while Jane is trying to escape a locked room, the tension is peaked and the twist is so beautifully done I could envision a midnight screening of this movie and hear the entire audience gasp and cheer with delight.
Torso is such an interesting example of giallo stylings, and specifically how giallo cinema can embrace and embody so many different characteristics. It can be a sex-fueled erotic exploitation piece, a suspense-filled drama, and an example of bloody murder obsession. It’s all of this, sometimes separately, sometimes at the same time. Torso, or Carnal Violence, or The Bodies Bear Traces of Carnal Violence, however you want to describe it, has positioned itself as one of the best examples of what it means to be a giallo film.
Keep an eye on our online hub throughout October for more of our Gialloween retrospectives!