I corpi presentano tracce di violenza carnale
***½/**** Image A Sound B Extras B
starring Suzy Kendall, Tina Aumont, Luc Merenda, John Richardson
screenplay by Ernesto Gastaldi and Sergio Martino
directed by Sergio Martino
**½/**** Image B Sound A Extras B
starring Tom Atkins, Bruce Campbell, Laurene Larson, Sheree North
screenplay by Larry Cohen
directed by William Lustig
by Jefferson Robbins Slasher movies are concerned with not just murder, but with its root cause--not motive, really, but motivation. There has to be a detonator, or else stalker-horror is what its most strident critics accuse it of being: all body-count, no brains. The films have leeway to be less concerned with motive than, say, those Ustinov-as-Poirot adaptations, where the whole cast learns whodunit while seated for tea and cakes in the third act. (I sort of miss those; I wish "mystery" hadn't been usurped by "thriller" in the moviemaking lexicon, and in part I blame Jonathan Lynn's 1985 Clue.) But they have to successfully allude to a trigger point, some match to the killer's keg of gasoline.
Sergio Martino's Torso, a giallo distributed in his homeland as the more suggestive Carnal Violence or longer variations thereof, puts the killer's motivator up front: pure sex. From the soft lensing and might-as-well-be-a-porno score by Guido and Maurizio De Angelis that accompanies the disrobing of beautiful Perugia student Flo (Patrizia Adiutori) in the first thirty seconds, sex is the film's mode and modus. So erotic is this presentation that we at first think Torso might end up as a simple sex romp, albeit an artsy one--for a while it's hard to tell that there are three people in the scene. The click of a hidden camera intrudes and indicts the viewer, and this interruption, paired with a doll's disfigurement, intimates the giallo eye-trauma motif that Lucio Fulci brought to an art form. Dissolve to (in the Italian version) a hygienic 1478 representation of the pierced and martyred Saint Sebastian, explicated for a class of attentive Perugia co-eds by handsome art professor Franz (John Richardson). Perhaps the saint is the "torso" of the title. The painting--by Perugino, an artist who later mentored Raphael--teases in its turn with the thought that we've signed up for a slasher movie that may not show any blood.
From there, our suspects and potential victims are all introduced in the piazza--not in clusters, as might happen in a U.S. thriller when the busload of vacationing collegians pulls into the dusty town of bug-eyed rednecks, but in knots and whorls of observed and observers who group, dissipate, collide, and realign. This is a minor triumph of Martino's staging and screenplay, written with Ernesto Gastaldi. Our expectations of the genre, at least from a remove of forty years, are shuffled and thrown up in the air. Some characters, introduced early and with force, come to serve no purpose at all in the resolution. "Chance and necessity" are a mantra, and ultimately the key to understanding that there is no pattern to be identified, however much we seek one. If there's a discernible centre to this early chaos, it appears to be Dani (Tina Aumont, a ringer for Rachel Weisz), who sees or suspects much of the larger picture as her classmates fall to a strangler and she finds herself stalked by classmate Stefano (Roberto Bisacco). She's certainly more aware of her surroundings than blithe American exchange student Jane (Suzy Kendall), who strikes up a friendship/flirtation with Franz--a man strangely sensitive to compliments about his eyes.
With impotence implied in the opening ménage à trois and Flo the very first murder victim, the unmanned, violent Stefano is the obvious receptacle for our suspicions. Or is it the creepy scarf vendor (Ernesto Colli)? Or the handsome traveling doctor, Roberto (Luc Merenda)? Or Dani's Uncle Nino (Carlo Alighiero), who's breaking off an affair with student Carol (Conchita Airoldi)? Oh, forget it ... they're all suspects, and our best guesses at who'll be the Final Girl are similarly just shots in the dark. Martino's not even happy confining the death to the beautiful Perugia setting, removing Dani, Jane, and two other gorgeous pieces of chaff (Carla Brait and Angela Covello, as lesbian lovers Ursula and Katia) to an isolated Abruzzo retreat, where they're further preyed upon. With all these stabbings and tits soaked into the Italian psyche, no wonder Amanda Knox couldn't get a fair shake.
Martino is working some things out here, about the intersections not only of sex and death, but of art and culture as well. Franz regards the Renaissance paintings in his curriculum--in their time high expressions of religious faith--as static and passionless, studies in "lyrical indifference." (Stefano tries to expand this point into a political argument.) Jane, by contrast, is swept up in them. The winkingly-named carabinieri Inspector Martino (Luciano De Ambrosis) usurps Franz's classroom to warn the students of their peril and projects a blood-spatter slide from one of the murders. It's evidence from a brutal death, he tells them, "not a product of abstract art." The inspector also casts the students as their own worst enemies in their disrespect of authority, addressing the radicals-vs.-government divide of 1970s Europe. One student is slaughtered as she staggers away from a rural squat where young bohemians smoke pot, dance, and mate--a victim of contemporary libertinism. The bystanding men who are not murderers--every single one of them--are still leerers, catcallers, whoremongers, and objectifiers. Again, the indictment of the gaze; and it's profoundly male. No one escapes.
Of course, much of this depth and leeway for commentary would be set aside when the giallo was finally exported to American shores. We kept certain things: the hobbling injury, the killer's nightmare-born power to chase down his prey without ever breaking into a run, the victim-slut and virginal Final Girl dichotomy. Those last two elements carry the most weight in our slasher flicks, establishing death as punishment for bad behaviour and cluelessness rather than a side effect of "chance and necessity." Nihilism and formless chaos are so Old Europe, n'est-ce pas? (Michael Myers of John Carpenter's Halloween aside--he's well and truly an ambassador of the Void.)
Psychologically, the American slasher villain is something less than his Italian forebears. The stateside killer is largely an antihero carrying some vestige of audience sympathy, not a bane to be reviled and expunged. He can be molded, though, to fit many templates, as William Lustig's Maniac Cop goes to prove. Once a shoot-first policeman in the Dirty Harry mold, hulking Matt Cordell (Robert Z'Dar) is transformed once he's betrayed by the system he serves and disfigured by vengeful convicts. Invulnerable and thought dead, Cordell seeks righteous payback. His only missteps are the civilians he murders for no reason at all, on the streets of the most underpopulated New York in cinematic history.
Maniac Cop is both a late entry in the slasher lineage and a late-coming satire of the hero-cop action genre, arriving the same year Die Hard made its protagonist a guy who, while not necessarily perishable, was eminently beat-uppable. Cordell's primary drive--or at least the purpose he's endowed by his hopeful accomplice, police file-clerk Sally Noland (Sheree North)--is to root out corruption and punish street thugs. Other working-class conspirators, such as prison mortician Dr. Gruber (Erik Holland), help to prop up the damaged Cordell as a thumb in the eye to tainted police bosses (Richard Roundtree among them). These represent the Clint Eastwood fanbase, rooting for the vigilante cop who plays by his own rules and brooks no bureaucracy. Cordell, however, is too badly damaged to be properly aimed; he's not a bullet, he's an explosion, using his status as a "cop" to sucker innocent victims into his grasp. This, plus his complete and inexplicable immunity to gunfire and some legitimately great stunts and car crashes, is legendary schlock writer/producer Larry Cohen's commentary on the supercop action strain. We endow our mundane protectors with superhuman traits at our peril, because authoritarian power eventually stops caring whose skull it cracks.
The themes compel, but it takes a while to tease them out, mostly because Maniac Cop lacks the chutzpah to do what Sam Raimi did so wonderfully with Darkman, i.e., show us the internal evolution of a maimed, emotionally-scarred avenger. Even Lethal Weapon got that part right. Cordell's story is framed within the much less interesting tale of active-duty cop Jack Forrest (Bruce Campbell), stuck with the rap for Cordell's murder of his unbalanced wife (Victoria Catlin), whom he was stepping out on with fellow cop Theresa Mallory (Laurene Landon). This pairing tips the film off its axis--it should actually be about veteran detective Frank McCrae (Tom Atkins), gruffly and sure-footedly sniffing out Cordell's resurrection.
As portrayed by Atkins--not coincidentally a player in both Lethal Weapon and Halloween III: Season of the Witch--McCrae is a pleasure to watch, although his intuitions about what's really behind a series of cop-related murders strike like anvils from the ether. Atkins's rough charm goes a long way in this construct, and his sparring with adroit fellow character actor William Smith as a police captain on the take is a welcome battle of smoky rasps. With Campbell and Landon's remarkably guilt-free love affair ballooning in one corner, the cast grows too unwieldy for a mini-budget thriller, and somebody has to go out the window. At that moment of decision, Cohen and Lustig choose poorly.
THE BLU-RAY DISCS
Torso's Blu-ray release is sweetly handled by Blue Underground, its lurid back-of-the-box copy the stuff that puts you right in the grindhouse: "One day she met a man who loved beautiful women...BUT NOT ALL IN ONE PIECE!" Find here the 90-minute English version (to which the disc defaults) and the 93-minute Italian original, both excellently preserved. It's tempting to be purist and recommend the Italian edition solely, since the English-language export erodes key thematic elements, but the latter also makes some fascinating choices. In the loss column, it removes Franz's lecture on Perugino and the accompanying parallelism between rutting bodies and the bare chest of the saint; subtracts a direct revelation of the killer's sexual impotence; and dumps a closing dialogue between survivors that circles back to the role chance has played in their lives and near-deaths. Ouch. Yet the English variant also expurgates a vagrant's long story about taking a crap near a crime scene and so creates a more artful cutaway, from a body draped in a coroner's sheet to Roberto fondling a potentially-deadly ascot. I don't know whether to attribute these cuts to the credited editor of the original, Eugenio Alabiso, but kudos nonetheless.
The 1.66:1, 1080p presentation does fine service to the play of shadows and light in Martino's work, allowing his reds to pop and details to remain distinct. For example, it's pretty easy to tell that whoever is wearing that mask and cutting up Carol in the swamp, it's not the actor later revealed as the slasher. There is a lot of bared skin in Torso, almost exclusively female, and blemishes and scars show up in a way that might not have been evident even on a clean, opening-night film projection. No black crush intrudes in the many night scenes, subtly lit by Giancarlo Ferrando, although there is some non-intrusive evidence of noise reduction. Some film elements jitter, like the opening titles, so the grindhouse sensibility is maintained. The audio, offered here in 2.0 DTS-HD mono (and misidentified as 1.0 on the cover art), is suitable but doesn't have much to work with: There's no organic sound in either version of the picture--every line is dubbed and every effect Foley'd--and the room sound of the studio is omnipresent. I do appreciate the effort of the original artists, particularly when abandoned Flo goes calling after her boyfriend beneath the echoing underpass where she'll meet her doom, but their enthusiasm gets the better of them as the killer mows down a victim with his car and his tires squeal on dust as if it were fresh asphalt. The confined soundspace does force attention to the De Angelis brothers' score, to the point where one realizes that there are really only four pieces of music here: the softcore sex theme, the hippie jam, the roiling murder theme, and what I came to call the "ratcheting" used to bridge moments of suspense. Martino uses most of these multiple times and all are quite memorable, but there are long expanses of silence where the tension is built visually, and well.
Director Martino discloses some fun gossip in the main featurette, "Murders in Perugia With Sergio Martino" (11 mins., HD). Above subtitles that can't keep up with his loquaciousness and charmingly haphazard English, the director outlines a bit of his career (he has a family history in film and worked in practically every genre, not just giallo) and discloses Torso's original title: Black Like Terror, Red Like Love--presumably a riff on the colour pattern of the scarf used in the early murders. It's kind of a mouthful, but then so is the long-form release title, I corpi presentano tracce di violenza carnale (The Bodies Show Signs of Carnal Violence). With the wisdom of hindsight, Martino believes he could make a better film out of Torso today, though sometimes art happens despite straitened circumstances.
Three trailers for Torso are additionally on board, each clocking in at around three minutes. The U.S. trailer promises "a journey in to the bizarre, terrifying world of the psychosexual mind," which is a lot of DSM-II buzzwords strung together for lowest-common-denominator effect. It's set apart from its brethren by its squalling rock score and its standard-def video presentation. The international trailer, under the Carnal Violence title, features the English dialogue and a blast of colour-key effects to make the creepy stuff outright surreal. The Italian trailer is nearly identical, with only the language varying. Two 30-second TV spots are here, both HD, plus a 2-minute radio spot and a still/poster gallery. This last ends with a thanks to, among others, Quentin Tarantino, who for all we know provided most of them from his own collection. Speaking of Tarantino, his homunculus Eli Roth offers a two-minute Hi-Def introduction (unannounced on the packaging) that stands as a helpful guide to Torso's place in giallo history.
Released on Blu-ray by Synapse, Maniac Cop, in all its 1.85:1, 1080p glory, sure looks '80s. Laurene Landon's hair and makeup suffers most from the visual upgrade; the poor woman looks like a rouged doll. Flat lighting in daylight scenes marks the period, too, while nighttime scenes suffer a bit as blacks meld together. The grain is fine and cinematic, never distracting, and textures are clear if ugly. The 6.1 DTS-HD MA track, which seems like overkill for a low-rent psycho flick from a quarter-century ago, actually does some impressive work in carrying the atmosphere--this New York, filmed in L.A., sounds like a bustling city, even if it doesn't really look like one. Gunfire and car wrecks crack solidly. Dialogue, including the all-important ladies' screams, is full-throated and clear from the front sectors. This lossless mix also comes in 4.0 and 2.0 configurations.
This disc's extras love the cast members. "Robert Z'Dar: Maniac Cop Memories" (12 mins., HD) is a sit-down with the imposing actor, shot in the late-2000s at a Michigan fan convention and repurposed from a prior DVD release. He's a game storyteller with a pleasant patter that's probably been refined through decades of cons, and he's aware of the type he's been cast into by virtue of his large build and massive jawline. He implies an affair with Landon, expresses great admiration for Campbell and Atkins, and speaks in a lexicon of classic-movie quotes. (Perhaps premonitory to a lifetime of bad-guy roles, he recalls rooting for Jack Palance to kill Shane.)
"Out the Window with Tom Atkins" (11 mins., HD) offers a similarly raconteurish interview with the co-star, who forthrightly says Maniac Cop "was not one of my favourite films that I worked on. Night of the Creeps was my favourite." Many would agree. Atkins is afflicted with Martino's retrospection, wishing Lustig had been more attuned to the balance of characters--specifically, that he hadn't killed off McCrae when he did. Atkins says that after a lifetime of playing cops, he's now mistaken for an ex-cop by actual cops. "It's that mug," he says. "Three Minutes with Danny Hicks" (actually three and a half minutes, HD) is an interview with the head of the SWAT team that arrests Bruce Campbell. Two U.S. and one French trailer are on board (all 2 mins., HD), an "Animated Promotional Art Gallery" that slideshows publicity art and stills (3 mins., HD), a thirty-second Spanish radio spot (why am I watching radio on my TV?), and six minutes of "Additional Footage Filmed for Japanese TV Broadcast" (HD), most of it showing New York's "Mayor" reacting to news and input about the Maniac Cop rampage.
Excellent analysis of Torso, far more thoughtful than most reviews appear to deem the film worthy of. Martino is very underrated.
Posted by: Dennis | October 22, 2012 at 11:51 PM