The horror…: “Torso” aka “I corpi presentano tracce di violenza carnale” or “Bodies bear traces of carnal violence”

April 14, 2015 § Leave a comment

If there exists a club wherein sexually frustrated straight men curl up in the corners of rooms and angrily decry all those ‘bitches’ who won’t put out, “Torso” would be the initiation film shown to each new recruit. This is not to say that the male makers of this 1973 giallo film, director Sergio Martino being chief amongst them, would themselves be members of this club, but that woefully misguided male-centric sexual frustration is nonetheless the fuel on which this movie and its central killer run; that and the leering gaze which would go hand-in-hand with the rage of the entitled male who can’t get laid nearly as easily as he believes he should. Now, it would be a gross oversight to think that this sense of frustration makes “Torso” unique. The great majority of slasher films post-“Psycho” are similarly sexually-charged and many of the best and worst entries in the subgenre involve a man emptying his vast reserves of wrath on the female gender, whether consciously or not, only, in “Torso” the killer explicitly verbalises this sense of frustration and the kind of illogical misogyny that goes with it; the kind that finds a guy calling a girl a slut because she’s not interested in sleeping with him. This pre-climactic moment of reiterating one’s motivation – as though to fend off the creeping sense that zero logic therein resides –  is deeply ridiculous from a simple narrative perspective and deeply cheap from a psychological standpoint, but it at the same time highlights the senselessness of his crimes by showing the disparity that exists between the nature of the childhood ‘trauma’ that haunts him into becoming a murderer and the nature of the butchering by which he is presumably attempting to restore some sort of cosmic gender justice. The fact that his campaign of terror is terminated by the reckless valour of another leering male – albeit a non-malicious leerer – crowns the picture with a very paternalistic cherry. This being said, the film seems to demonise the very sexualising, womanising gaze that it itself assumes by portraying most of its male characters as horny and lewd and with sex on the brain. The camera almost seems to say, ‘mmm, yeah, look at that sexy ass, see how it moves…I’m sure you creeps out there would love to tear those shorts right off.’ How hypocritical. Within the first ten minutes, several men, by way of their apparent desire to absolutely devour the women around them, are posited as potential suspects. The only men who don’t come across as a little dirty in the mind are the police and the professor whose lecture opens the film proper.

It’s Perugia in the early seventies; summer is in swing and the university is buzzing with students, which means that sex and drugs abound. Someone has begun killing people, mainly students, and the focus of the violence seems to be on the female victims, on their breasts and their eyes both of which tend to be mutilated. Initially it seems that the film will follow an Argento-esque procedural/investigative narrative mode, but “Torso” is far more lurid than that, quickly losing interest in law enforcement and instead becoming enamoured of a group of sexed-up young students and their adventures while dropping in on the gloved killer whenever a kill is around the corner, always forewarned by a slow (and genuinely creepy) keyboard motif. The opening two and a half minutes waste no time whatsoever in positioning the film firmly within the realm of tits and ass exploitation, only a little classier that its grungy American counterparts. To be honest, these luridly staged images of threesomes that may or may not be depictions of a porno shoot or a decadent sex party or both – while recalled in the film’s final sequence – have no real narrative place. Yes, some of the eventual victims are seen in this opening credits sequence, but the where the killer actually fits into all this is fairly unclear. Admittedly, this is not the kind of film that is interested in having its plausibility challenged or proved. One can simply assume – after the fact – that it takes place from the killer’s point of view and let it rest there. In any case this brand of giddy expressionistic abandon confirms, at the very least, that this film “Torso” will provide the visual swagger, the directorial peacocking by which Italian giallos and their direct predecessors stand apart from other forms of slasher flick.

Eli Roth, director of “Hostel” and other mid-2000s horror pictures and a name partner in what could be called the ‘Tarantino-Rodriguez-Roth grindhouse geek-out club’, considers “Torso” to be a masterpiece, not that his word means particularly much, though it means enough that someone should heed his recommendation, see the film and write about it. In favour of Roth’s ‘masterpiece’ assertion, towards the end of the film, is a fifteen/twenty minute stretch of near-peerless filmmaking that is bound to excite any filmgoer who appreciates assuredly visual storytelling. The sequence in which Jane, disabled by a sprained ankle, wakes from her sleep to find herself locked in a large country villa and surrounded by three dead friends is probably worthy of praise similar to the kind heaped upon the opening ten minutes of “There Will Be Blood” or the celebrated heist in “Rififi.” Admittedly, these two examples are far more powerful than anything Martino manages to achieve in “Torso”, but within the film itself, the sequence is a standout block of cinema, partly because of its technical execution but also because this type of movie often seems more invested in providing scares and blood splatter than it is in sustaining tension. On this note, the film’s first murder already hints at the fact that suspense is as important to this director as payoff. The patience, the timing and the way in which Martino’s framing in this sequence seems to withhold and conceal visual information, Suzy Kendall’s refreshing, breath-holding portrayal of the rare character in a horror film who actually has intelligent instincts, and the relative absence of the relatively bombastic score, all these add up to produce what is arguably the scariest sequence in a film that doesn’t ever feel quite as sordid or gruesome let alone as frightening as either title would suggest.

The horror…: “Lizard in a Woman’s Skin”

October 26, 2014 § Leave a comment

It may not be as widely and religiously paraphrased as those two straitjacketing maxims ‘show, don’t tell’ and ‘write what you know’, but consume enough film criticism (both amateur and otherwise) and the act of cheating one’s audience will surely be decried and advised against in due time if not frequently. Of course, the idea of a filmmaker wilfully betraying the implicit trust of a film’s audience might initially appear mean and in poor faith, but if this is an absolute sin, how many passable, good or even great pictures could be considered successful simply on the back of unfair narrative practices? To use an obvious, almost blah example, could the untimely, almost cynical killing-off of Marion Crane in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” be called cheating? Much has been said about the general expectation – at that time in the history of cinema viewership – that Janet Leigh, being a recognisable name, a star, and the clear narrative and emotional focus of the first half hour of the film, would be expected to remain a significant narrative and emotional focus, or at least visually present, for the remainder of the film. Had she been portrayed by a no-name performer, Marion’s death would almost certainly not have been one quarter as scandalous as it turned out to be. And even with the knowledge that Janet Leigh was not quite the drawcard that an Audrey Hepburn or Elizabeth Taylor would have been in that role, she was a big enough screen presence such that it would have been perfectly reasonable for an audience member to expect, even subconsciously, that she should not suddenly cease to exist, or that if she did, that she do so with a little more dignity and glamour. It’s undeniable that Hitchcock predicted the impact that the sudden screeching death of a Hollywood star would have on an audience’s psychology, an audience who – by decades of perhaps inadvertent, perhaps calculated conditioning – had come to place their entire sense of security in that of their leading ladies and leading men. Hitchcock knew this, and he exploited it, and boy did it cause a stir. And while the seismic cultural shockwaves were not always received with positivity, “Psycho” was an overall sensation, not to mention it’s being an enduringly effective thriller; it was the Master of Suspense taking his habit of audience manipulation to its logical extreme.

Running wholeheartedly with the idea that narrative deceit, that is to say, manipulation which is not a result of a viewer simply failing to heed or notice ‘hints’ and ‘clues’ present in a film, is not an absolute no-no and can in fact be a desirable theatrical experience, giallo maestro Lucio Fulci crafted, with 1971’s “Lizard in a Woman’s Skin”, a film whose cinematic form seems to flirt fitfully with the psyche of its central character Carol Hammond, played by Audrey Tatou lookalike Florinda Bolkan. The result is a pleasantly giddy murder mystery with an ending whose expository clunk might annoy whilst, at the same time, a small area in the navel flutters from the knowledge that the film has been one devious, mendacious ride. Like most of the best giallos, this film, about a young woman from money and influence whose homicidal dream about a neighbour/debauched party girl manifests itself stab-for-stab in a real killing for which she categorically denies any responsibility, feels more like a thriller than a horror picture because of its at times consummate craftsmanship to the point of sleekness and its weirdly elegant mode of genre filmmaking. From the very first image, it is clear that this picture will not adopt the apparent observational neutrality of something directed by Rohmer, opting instead to drift in and out of fantasy, misperception and blatant falsehood. In fact, it’s possible that Fulci decides to not simply drift but to wholeheartedly fashion his cinematic language in such a way that it is entirely in service of one particular character’s selective memory, scheming, hopes and dreams, and very possibly their self-delusion and even psychosis. It’s a bold move; one which, as implied earlier, could, probably did and probably still does leave many viewers feeling violated and unsatisfied.

So is “Lizard in a Woman’s Skin” a horror picture and if so, from what exactly is the horror derived? In some ways it doesn’t quite adhere to modern concepts of horror cinema which feature either the traditional supernatural entities or humans that seem to be supernaturally malicious. By its end, this particular Lucio film deviates from most giallos by way of its very tight body count and sets itself apart from most horror films by the nature of its central crime, by the very fact that it has a central, inciting act as opposed to running on the palpable threat of an unpredictable series of acts. What may very well be presented as the fairly straightforward whodunit that it very well happens to be is dragged into the realm of horror by revelling in the mindscape of someone deeply fearful, deeply anxious and prone to terrible violence as a result of it, however momentary the violence. Not to compare it unduly to what many consider the quintessential modern horror film, but “Lizard in a Woman’s Skin” in a way prefigures the manner in which filmic language is used to suggest character psychology as being the predominant narrative perspective in “The Shining.” As is the case with that movie, one can only wonder how often – if ever – Lucio Fulci presents ‘objective’ reality in “Lizard in a Woman’s Skin”, that is to say, the kind of omniscient reality that audiences are privileged with when, for example, dramatic irony is being utilised. It seems that the horror in Fulci’s picture is not really the murder with which the film commences but Carol’s experience of it, her memories, her nightmare, her realisation, her self-deception. This being said, the film has a very shaggy quality about it as do most giallos what with its seedy, pulpy tone and the use of sometimes poorly synchronised dubbing of the kind common to Italian films from that period. In addition, some of the performances feel like one-take compromises and there is a distinctly tits-and-ass feel about it, which is probably not coincidental seeing as it was distributed by American International Pictures with its unabashed dedication to motion pictures with exploitative elements. This shagginess is perhaps the one element of the film which might allow a viewer to grudgingly accept, in hindsight – or realise in the moment – that the images and the sounds that Lucio presents are questionable in their trustworthiness. By the same token, it’s probably also the reason that the formal consideration applied by Fulci to “Lizard in a Woman’s Skin” might go unnoticed by the casual viewer or disregarded by the cinephile. Not that either Fulci or the film itself seem to two shits about it.

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