Friday, April 14, 2017

Black Belly of the Tarantula

Black Belly of the Tarantula (1971) aka La tarantola dal ventre nero
Dir Paolo Cavara
Written by Marcello Danon, Lucile Laks
Starring Giancarlo Giannini, Claudine Auger, Barbara Bouchet, Rossella Falk

The murder method is always the same. A mystery assailant, clad entirely in black and sporting latex gloves to conceal fingerprints, accosts the victims and injects them in the spine with a rare wasp venom which paralyzes them --but does not anesthetize or render unconscious-- before viciously gutting them with a knife. The victims? Young, beautiful, and nearly always naked women, many of them former or future Bond girls (including Barbara Bouchet of CASINO ROYALE [the 1967 one with Woody Allen], Claudine Auger of THUNDERBALL and Barbara Bach of THE SPY WHO LOVED ME). The scene? Rome, Italy, 1971. But the motive? That’s a little more obscure. Is it the jealous anger spurred by an affair between a sleazy businessman and the first victim? Is it related to a bizarre drug smuggling operation disguised as an exotic insect importer? Is it somehow related to a culty New Age beauty spa where several of the victims worked? Or does it have something to do with the fact that everyone is blackmailing everyone and there’s a mystery perv videotaping people boning through their open windows? Or, is none of that stuff going to be important and instead the solution will be dumped on us by a new character all at once right at the end, with no previous context or clues whatsoever? I’ll, uh, never tell.

In a lot of ways, THE BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA is almost an archetypical giallo. It’s got a quintessential giallo villain in its gloved and black-masked killer motivated by a psycho-sexual frenzy and sporting an elaborate murder gimmick. It’s got a harem of beautiful young women in frequent states of undress as victims. It’s got a plot rife with voyeurism and paranoia and sleazy sex. And it’s got a solid 31 gallon barrel of heavily salted, densely packed pickled red herrings. Add to that a jazzy, samba-flecked score by Ennio Morricone and some delightfully tacky dated 70’s fashion, and you’ve got something very near the platonic ideal of a giallo. It even follows in the tradition of a titular references to an animal!

But calling any giallo “archetypal” is never the same as calling it “generic.” Giallos live in the open spaces between the rigid genre structure, where they can freely improvise weird murders and kinky sex and surreal style free of the burden of logical narrative or tiresome character arcs. So almost immediately, we’re introduced to a completely bizarre situation which everyone seems to pretend makes perfect sense. Our protagonist here is Inspector Tellini (Giancarlo Gianni, another eventual Bond co-star, in his case CASINO ROYALE (2006) and QUANTUM OF SOLACE), a burned-out police detective with an unfortunate mustache and a free-spirited wife (Stefania Sandrelli, who had already been in good movies like THE CONFORMIST and DIVORCE ITALIAN STYLE and stuff, and really probably deserved better than this). He arrives home to discover that his apartment is completely empty. Why? His wife has sold all his furniture while he was at work.

Instead of treating this as the work of a completely unhinged psychotic, he seems to good-naturedly assume this is just what the kids are doing these days. “Maybe old furniture should be sold.” he says, resignedly. I consider myself both a strong feminist and a reasonable man, but if my domestic partner ever sold every single piece of furniture in my apartment without my knowledge or consent while I was at work, there better be a god damn mountain of heroin when I get home, because otherwise there’s just no excuse for this behavior.

But the world of THE BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA is not our world, and its people are guided by obscure logics which we could never understand. So there’s also a delightful subplot about drug smugglers who disguise exotic powders as sand in the bottom of terrariums for poisonous tarantulas, correctly anticipating that customs agents would be skittish about sticking their hands in to check. It’s both kind of brilliant and completely insane, which is exactly how I want my giallos. I bet their in-country distributors wish they’d find a different method, but at least the bugs are probably high as hell and having a good time.

But ah, you don’t want to know about bugs and furniture, you want to know about the murders. Alas, the kills themselves are nothing too exciting, because despite the exotic methodology, how interesting is it to just watch the killer disembowel motionless victims? It’s a good gimmick in theory, but doesn’t really turn out to be very cinematic, unless you’re purely in it for the gore (which is plentiful but not extravagant). It’s pretty sadistic, though, which would probably mean more if we ended up with a better portrait of the killer or a more satisfying climax, but is still potent enough to keep you interested, particularly when our hero’s furniture-flipping wife ends up in danger. She definitely deserves some comeuppance from that fiasco, but not being paralyzed and then viciously disemboweled while still alive. In fact, I’d go out on a limb and say that no one deserves that fate who hasn’t written an article with the words “Number 6 Will Really Surprise You!” in the title.

Anyway, the kills are solid if not exactly all-time classics, and if you don’t go for the gore they’ve still got plenty of nudity to keep you hooked. But the scariest sequence in the film feels like something from a poliziotteschi more than a giallo; it finds our hero pursuing some miscreant in a daring high-rise edge-of-rooftop chase scene which was obviously done for real. It looks very, very unsafe. Normally when you see something like that you have to assume movie magic, that it’s actually much more carefully controlled than it looks. But this was Italy in 1971, and I assume a single-digit death toll was probably considered unfortunate but acceptable for most major film productions. If you harbor any lingering fear of falling from high places, this might be a rare giallo which actually gets your pulse pounding for reasons that don’t have to do with breasts.

In fact, for a film which is just bursting at the seams with classic giallo tropes, there’s more poliziotteschi in there than you might imagine. It’s unusual for a giallo to feature a law enforcement officer of any kind as the main character, or even a male lead, for that matter. It’s not completely unheard of, of course, but gialli typically traffic in civilian female protagonists. That unusual framing is of particular note because this is one of the few gialli with a female screenwriter --or co-writer anyway-- in Lucile Laks, who wrote a handful of other films in the 70s, but no other horror pictures. Since she co-wrote the script with Marcello Danon (Egad! His only other screenplays are… LA CAGE AUX FOLLES and its sequels, of all fool things! What the hell’s going on here?!) it’s hard to know who was responsible for what, but there’s no getting around the fact that for all the bedrock-basic giallo staples, the story structure and protagonist are rather unusually for the genre. (IMDB gives Laks sole credit for the screenplay and Danon credit for the story, for what it’s worth. I can’t recall the on-screen attributions).

If it’s rare to put a male cop at the center of this type of story, it’s even rarer for a giallo to spend so much time exploring the off-duty life of such a person. A surprising amount of screen time here goes into the weird, goofy relationship between this Steve-Zahn-looking motherfucker and his ditzy girlfriend. They’re a little more endearing than your average giallo protagonist, I suppose, but it’s still a strange decision. And this is certainly the only Italian cop film I’ve ever seen where our hero is constantly complaining that this is taking a terrible psychological toll on him, and insisting that he just wants to quit the force altogether. In real life this would be a perfectly understandable impulse, but this is emphatically not in any way related to real life, so trying to turn it into a psychodrama about emotional burnout from too much personal investment in the suffering of murder victims is a pretty baffling direction to go, for a movie which is also about a New Age nude spa and a criminal ring of tarantula smugglers.

That's some solid 70's, right there.

In fact, the movie’s sole achilles heel seems to be its inability to resist completely inappropriate psychoanalyzing. This is a particular problem for the ending, which SPOILERS, SPOILERS tries to get the drop on our predictions about the identity of the killer by having it turn out to be… just some random guy who hasn’t figured into the plot at all. Haha, very clever, BBotT, but wait, what? Was he working for the blackmailers or something? Nope, it seems that literally the entire movie is a red herring, inasmuch as it turns out that nothing we saw had anything to do with why the murders were happening. Another new character turns up to explain that the actual killer did it because of his unhappy home life, which we’ve never seen and will never see. It’s like the infamous psychiatrist exposition dump from the end of PSYCHO, if Norman Bates was just a minor character in one scene beforehand and the whole movie up to that point was about the stolen money. It’s ballsy, I’ll give it that, and there’s a kind of gleeful ridiculousness to capping off a ridiculously convoluted plot with a total non-sequitur, but satisfying it ain’t. END SPOILERS

I’ve also written in my notes, “Don’t forget the catapult!”

I’m honestly not sure why.

Anyway, bottom line: With its masked, gloved killer, occasional POV shots, animal metaphor, near-constant nudity, 1970’s kitsch classics and Morricone score, it’s too pristine a specimen of the giallo in its glorious heyday to fail to delight committed lovers thereof. Though not as boldly stylish as the best of that breed, and diluted slightly with some convoluted poliziotteschi cop movie nonsense, it’s consistently daffy enough to be entertaining, and generously packed with all the exploitative genre goodies one could want. And while the sunny, jazzy Morricone score is hardly the stuff of nightmares, at least gives it a unique feel.

That uniqueness is just as important to a classic giallo as its rigid adherence to the defining structures of the genre. Director Paolo Cavara knew a thing or two about uniqueness, having, with co-directors Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi, essentially created a new genre of film with his gonzo documentary MONDO CANE a decade earlier. MONDO CANE took real-world footage and wove it into a surreal, exploitative acid trip of a movie, so it’s no surprise that with the freedom afforded by pure fiction, the film wastes no time in leaping headlong into total nuttiness and free-form narrative acid jazz. Which makes BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA something of the best of both worlds: on one hand, it’s a movie with a near perfect encapsulation of the distinct icons of the giallo, but on the other hand, nested comfortably within that solid genre structure is a whole lot of entertaining strangeness which gives the work its own unique character. Like sneaking drugs into the country in a tarantula cage, this has exactly the right mix of pragmatism and insanity.   

Good Kill Hunting

La tarantola dal ventre nero
There actually are tarantulas involved in the movie, and, sort of, in the metaphor for the killer’s MO. It’s still an appreciably baroque giallo title, but I’d put it a tad more accurate than most.
Giallo, Slasher, Whodunnit
None. Well, maybe Stefania Sandrelli? She had been in a couple movies that now have Criterion editions.
Yes, almost immediately, like during the opening credits. And then several times thereafter, including, of course, the murders and the subsequent crime scene police hangouts.
None, although lots of murders while nude.
There’s a lecture on how tarantulas have only one mortal enemy, a kind of wasp -- which we see fighting with a spider which is clearly not a tarantula. But this battle seems worth showing to the detectives because, “i wanted you to see this because of its analogy to the two murders.” Later, another tarantula is used as a weapon, though somewhat ineffectively because the cop just squashes it,
One murder takes place in a room filled with eerie mannequins that menacingly fall all over the victim, which does not seem to help her mental state.
Yeah, much blackmail and stuff with pictures (and video! Of people nude through their open windows.
Arachnids have much to teach us.

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