A string of women connected to a blackmail conspiracy are being brutally murdered in Rome. The killer is paralyzing his victims with specialized acupuncture needles before slicing open their stomachs while they can do nothing but helplessly watch. Now it’s up to Inspector Tellini to track down this mad murderer. Unfortunately for him, the killer seems to be one step ahead of him, because every time Tellini manages to track down a lead, they quickly end up dead.
Guy’s nice, but he’s kind of a jinx, to be honest.
Black Belly of the Tarantula is an Italian giallo from 1971. The film, and many others, is a result of the popularity of director Dario Argento’s earlier work, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, in that it mimics the imagery of a mysterious gloved killer terrorizing victims and features an animal in its (rather long) title. Though it also shares similarities with Mario Bava’s, Blood and Black Lace, which is widely considered to be one of the earliest examples of the giallo genre.
Today perhaps the Black Belly of the Tarantula’s most parroted claim to fame is that it features not one, not two, but three former and future Bond girls among it’s cast, including Barbara Bouchet, Claudine Auger and Barbara Bach, all of whom appear in various forms of stress and undress throughout the film. So, needless to say, the film has a lot of lucious, lovely ladies to leer at, for those of you with such discerning minds. But the film also has a fourth future Bond character in it, Giancarlo Giannini (Inspector Tellini), who showed up in the remake of Casino Royale in 2006. What this basically boils down to is that for older movie fans, the cast is essentially composed of a who’s who of European cult performers, and for the less trivia-minded viewing public it’s filled with good European cult performers. Everyone’s talents here seem to have been brought out to their full potential, even for those who only have a minimal amount of screen time. Though the standout is likely Giannini, who’s character winds up being the heart of the film. Tellini is a good man and a fine Inspector, but as the case wears on he becomes increasingly troubled by the cruelty he witnesses and struggles to keep up his air of professionalism, so much so that the ending of the film suggests that despite his repulsion to the horrors he witnesses, Tellini (and thus, the audience) is only one catastrophic incident away from being able to inflict such violence himself.
Hey, Ladies. How’s it going?…
Oomph….not good, I see. Nevermind.
To add to the wonderful cast, the film features some excellent color and compositions. While director Paolo Cavara may not be as bold with his color choices as Bava or as slick with his architectural eye as Argento, you can still tell each scene is still set to showcase the drama. Paolo may not have ‘the eye’, but he certainly knows what he’s doing. The film is littered with artistic and suggestive compositions that harken back to other elements of the film or events happening just off screen. He especially uses it to accentuate the brutality of several of the murders, often using jarring edits to highlight the brutality, or cutting away to other objects, such as a spilled bottle of wine, to use as a stand-in for typical cliches, like a dripping pool of blood. There is also a lot of use of juxtaposition to create tension, and even in the quieter moments, such as Tellini and his wife’s quick retreat to a nature park for a moment to relax, the atmosphere is anything but relaxing. Their seemingly calm retreat is filled with sparse, pointed trees, reminiscent of the needles the killer is using to incapacitate their victims. A similar metaphor is used again when he returns to the city, when a large metal pike almost crushes him. It’s really little wonder why Tellini seems constantly on edge.
Course, I’m sure the death threats don’t help.
Where the film really fumbles is in the script department. As a whole, the plot is fairly unremarkable. New characters are introduced only to die a few minutes later and the killer is a rather predictable culprit, with a motive that’s not expounded on as the film progresses, but instead conveniently summed up at the end of the film. The plot issues are further compounded by uneven writing and unnecessary additions. There is a curious amount of time dedicated to the police following non-plot dedicated leads. Granted, some of it makes sense when you consider this is a mystery. The list of potential killers in this film is seemingly endless and ever revolving, with potential killers coming and going, even with only 20-minute left in the film. It’s all very distracting and deliberately misdirecting. And that’s fine. But then there are other elements that feel genuinely pointless. For instance, there is quite a bit of focus at the beginning of the film revolving around a blurry photograph and having it enhanced so they can see what the object in the background is. When it’s finally revealed to be an airplane, there’s talk about using it’s angle and distance to find out where the photo was taken and thus, potentially, finding the blackmailer. But then after all that talk, the police manage to find the guy using completely different means, making all the focus on the photograph utterly pointless. Then there’s the inclusion of Tellini busting up a cocaine smuggling ring for the purpose of…nothing. The Inspector goes to an entomologist and (through a series of poorly filmed stock footage we’re forced to watch) learns about how certain wasps kill tarantulas by stinging them, paralyzing them, and laying their eggs in the spider’s stomach so that their young can eat them from the inside out, ala Alien. And during all this, Tellini discovers the scientist is operating a drug smuggling ring that has no relevance to the rest of the plot. Like, okay, I get that the bug part is where the film’s title comes from. That part makes sense, and the resulting drug bust does kinda show that Tellini is a good police officer, but the whole thing just feels like it came out of left field. It if had gone anywhere it wouldn’t have seemed so strange, but considering it didn’t it’s inclusion is just completely bizarre.
“What’s this Marco?”
“Well Giuseppe, this here is what we call a red-herring….”
They must have gotten the film from the NatGeo reject pile.
Couldn’t you have just asked about the needles? Was the full-on demonstration really necessary?
Black Belly of the Tarantula is a beautifully composed giallo with an interesting concept, excellent music, a good cast and some stylish deaths. Despite some…interesting issues regarding the plot, the film still manages to be a prime example of the giallo genre. It straddles the line between the more reserved examples of the previous decade, and the more graphically and sexually explicit examples of the films that were to come. It probably won’t blow anyone’s mind, but for giallo fans it’ll make for a lovely time.
Black Belly of the Tarantula is available for streaming on a variety of services.
It is also available on DVD.