Black Belly of the Tarantula (1971)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2012-02-17 09:13

Written by: Marcello Danon (story), Lucile Laks (screenplay)
Directed by: Paolo Cavara
Starring: Giancarlo Giannini, Claudine Auger and Barbara Bouchet

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

With needles dipped in deadly venom the victims are paralyzed - so they must lie awake and watch themselves die!

While Bavaís The Girl Who Knew Too Much formed the giallo into a cinematic ball, that ball didnít really get rolling until the release of Argentoís The Bird With the Crystal Plumage in 1970. This was the one that really crystallized the elements of the genre, particularly its scantily-clad women and graphic on-screen violence, and itís almost appropriate that this dawned right alongside the 70s. I say this not only because it was becoming easier to get away with showing this stuff, but also because the giallo movement just feels very much of its time, as most of its films brim with sexual tensions and anxieties. Taking an almost tyrannical view of sex, gialli often feel like a reaction against the previous decadeís sexual revolution; theyíre movies where women are either punished when they break the sexual norm or are reduced to psychopathic vanguards of that norm (though it should be noted that Argento himself isnít directly responsible for this dynamic).

At any rate, Crystal Plumage loosened the floodgates, so hordes of warped imitators entered, many of them carrying references to animals in their tiles. One of the earliest examples is Black Belly of the Tarantula, a film thatís swarming in such sexual intrigue, even if it eventually does capitulate to the usual histrionic conflation of sex and death.

Unsurprisingly, it opens with the murder of a pretty blonde (Barbara Bouchet, the first of three ďBond girlsĒ in Black Belly), who was recently chided by her husband for having an affair (of course, he becomes suspect number one). Inspector Tellini (Giancarlo Giannini, also of more recent Bond fame) investigates the case, and soon unravels a huge, sprawling web of murder, blackmail, and international drug trafficking. All the while, the killerís blade claims more girls, and Tellini and his wife (Stefania Sandrelli) could be the next to fall.

Initially, I was kind of impressed with how Black Belly of the Tarantula somehow went so big and bold as to include a big, international conspiracy of crime. This is a refreshing change of pace from how these movies usually stick with sex and murder, so itís neat to see one get a little ambitious for once. However, gialli often manage to turn the simplest plots into overwrought affairs, so itís no surprise that this one does the same thing; in fact, by the time I reached the final act, I was left wondering where the blackmail and drug trafficking angle went. So much of the film feels more like a typical crime procedural, with Gianniniís character chasing leads and following paper trails and such, with the murders taking a backseat after the first thirty minutes or so. Along the way, he makes a visit with a professor that gratuitously explains the filmís title; somehow, the investigation leads to this guy, who is a spider expert, and he demonstrates how a tarantula can only be defeated by its mortal enemy--a wasp, who paralyzes the spider with its stinger before unleashing larvae into its stomach, causing it to be eaten alive from within. Apparently, this mimics the killerís M.O. that involves a paralytic acupuncture needle and a knife to the gut (no ravenous larvae, unfortunately).

And somehow this scientist guy is involved in the drug trafficking, which is somehow tied to a blackmail scheme and the murders and who really cares. Just rest assured that one of Gianniniís cop buddies shows up in the last five minutes to explain it all via a big exposition dumb. Itíd be easy to criticize such a ramshackle plot, particularly in the way it takes such an elaborate route to get back to such a simple motivation involving vengeful lovers, infidelity, all that good stuff that gialli often ask viewers to both delight in and condemn. Thereís some moderately interesting subtexts here, mostly lying in Gianniniís performance as a slightly ineffectual putz who doubts in his own ability to solve the case and needs the encouragement of his wife to soldier on. This is on contrast to the usual swaggering, manly, womanizing protagonists at the center of such films, and Gianniniís performance is quite solid and sympathetic.

I would like to have seen the film delve more into this angle, particularly how Inspector Telliniís impotence in confidence subtly mirrorís the eventual killerís physical impotence. And this is not to mention how both parties are technically fighting to preserve the sanctity of domesticity--it just so happens that one of them is doing it by stabbing deviant girls to death. Black Belly of the Tarantula itself doesnít deviate a whole lot from the course itself--I think most will see this as pretty standard fare, albeit with a few plot flourishes and a superb cast. Giannini is surrounded by all sorts of B-movie stars that managed to go onto more mainstream roles, such as Claudine Auger and Barbara Bach (the other two Bond girls here).

The director here is Paolo Cavara, best known for his Mondo Cane series of documentaries. Black Belly was only his third narrative feature, but he exhibits a lot of stylistic assuredness (that gets a big hand from Ennio Morriconeís off-kilter, moody score that's accentuated by soft breathing sounds). The murder sequences are a bit dry in terms of gore, but Cavara eerily flash-cuts during the act, focusing on the anguish of the victimsí faces instead of satiating the audienceís bloodlust. He also slips in some well-done suspense sequences, one involving a dizzying room full of mannequins, and another involving a cool, dynamically shot rooftop chase that feels like itíd be more at home in a spy thriller. While Black Belly of the Tarantula is most certainly a giallo, it isnít afraid to dabble with some different elements in the meantime.

This means Iím still not sure how exactly I got from point A (an unfaithful girl being stabbed to death) to point B (drug trafficking, blackmail, etc.), but the endpoint makes just enough sense, with Giannini's understated performance pulling a lot of the empathetic weight. This was one of the later giallo films to make it to DVD (keeping in line with its difficult-to-see status in the U.S. over the decades) when Blue Underground released it in 2006. They gave it a fine treatment that includes a beautifully restored anamorphic transfer and a choice of both Italian and English mono tracks. The only extras include an interview with Lorenzo Danon, a trailer, and a TV spot, which is a little light compared to other BU releases. My initial reaction to Black Belly was to paint it as yet another derivative giallo, one that just sort of reinforced all its typical tropes; it still does that to an extent, but it has some interesting sub-textual wrinkles and a fine cast of Bond babes to separate it from the pack. Buy it!

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