The only major director keeping the genre going seems to be its longtime lord and master, Dario Argento, whose Do You Like Hitchcock? and The Card Player are among the few examples of the last few years. The Torturer comes from another established giallo generator, Lamberto Bava, whose 80s efforts A Blade in the Dark and Delirium: Photos of Gioia I’d consider classics... Classics of camp craziness, but classics nonetheless. His last contribution to the cause was Body Puzzle – an unspectacular but solid effort – over 15 years ago. Would The Torturer represent a triumphant return to the genre? Does it even belong in the genre? And how many more times can I say the word “genre”? Let’s find out!
First, however, a warning: if you found Lucio Fulci’s The New York Ripper – with its systematic mutilation of female flesh – in any way misogynistic or distasteful (or in any way both) you should probably stay clear of this one. Whereas the Ripper merely ripped, the Torturer uses blowtorches, barbed wire whips, nails, claw hooks and all manner of sharp implements on the naked bodies of his female victims here – usually in graphic close-up. I bought this film on DVD in Amsterdam and, to be honest, can’t see it going through the BBFC without cuts if anyone tries to release it in the UK. But, while breast-mutilation is a big no-no with the British censors, it’s all in a day’s work for The Torturer.
Ginette (Elena Bouryka) is a young actress trying out for a role in the latest film by her favourite director, Alex Sherba. The audition turns out to be a bit creepy: Sherba remains hidden in the shadows while calling out commands through a voice-distorter – commands such as “Take off all your clothes” and “Show me how far you’ll go to be in a film”. To cap things off, Ginette finds an earring on the floor that looks suspiciously like one belonging to her missing friend – missing, that is, ever since she applied for an acting job over the internet and went off to audition...
Things get even weirder when Ginette visits the director’s home and is introduced to his unstable mother, who constantly complains of hearing strange voices and is wearing an earring that matches the one Ginette has found. Clearly it’s time for some snooping!
Meanwhile, a trio of other actresses has arrived at the manor to audition for Sherba’s film. As a storm blows in and Ginette prowls the grounds of the house in search of clues, these three women will be subjected to some truly horrifying screen tests...
It’s strange to imagine the real-life auditions that must have taken place for The Torturer, in which hopeful actresses were no doubt required to scream in pretend pain as pretend weapons jabbed at their all-too-real body parts. Much of the film itself follows the same pattern (with the addition of some pretend body parts, such as the rubbery-looking breasts wrenched asunder in the opening sequence). When we’re not watching torture sequences like these, we’re more likely than not watching Ginette creep around in the dark – which she spends a rather excessive portion of the film doing. I wouldn’t say I was bored, exactly, but I can’t promise that you won’t be.
All this poking around a mysterious villa, interspersed with gory murders, is in fact highly reminiscent of Bava’s previous A Blade in the Dark, while the auditions-gone-wrong scenario recalls the 1983 slasher movie, Curtains. But, where those films tended to err on the overplotted side, The Torturer certainly won’t torture you with twists. It’s a resoundingly simple story, in which Bava seems most concerned with staging Saw-like set pieces – albeit without Jigsaw’s complex motives – that throw as much hardware into the mix as possible.
As for my questions above... Is The Torturer a triumphant return to horror for its director? Well, not really. It’s nasty, occasionally stylish and, above all, watchable – but there’s very little suspense and nothing to really get your teeth into (although one of the characters gets her teeth knocked out at one point...).
Is it a giallo? I’d say so, yes. There’s elaborate murderisation, strange clues found in spooky mansions, and a modicum of mystery. Plus, everything harks back to a traumatic childhood incident, complete with an annoying baby-voice theme tune. It’s like Deep Red, but nowhere near as deep.
And how many more times did I say the word “genre”? None! Psyche!