[This October is "Gialloween" on Daily Dead, as we celebrate the Halloween season by diving into the macabre mysteries, bloody kills, and eccentric characters found in some of our favorite giallo films! Keep checking back on Daily Dead this month for more retrospectives on classic, cult, and altogether unforgettable gialli, and visit our online hub to catch up on all of our Gialloween special features!]
One of the defining subgenres of the Italian horror movement, the giallo film was a staple of the country’s cinema from the late 1960s through the early ’80s, when it more or less died off. For the uninitiated, the giallo is born out of a series of cheap pulp crime paperbacks published in Italy as far back as the late 1920s and known for their yellow—or, in Italian, giallo—covers. As a movie subgenre, the giallo finds its roots in the thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Powell's Peeping Tom. Mario Bava's 1963 film The Girl Who Knew Too Much (aka The Evil Eye) is widely considered to be the first giallo, as it meets many of the criteria and includes a number of the tropes that have come to be associated with the genre.
And what are those tropes exactly? I won't pretend to know all the ins and outs of the giallo, like the fact that apparently J&B whiskey appears in a majority of them. This is something that has gone unnoticed by me, but pointed out by other places. Gialli typically center around a mystery that begins with a murder or series of murders, which are then investigated by some sort of outsider working independently of the police (who, it should be said, often prove to be ineffectual). The murders tend to be bloody and often have women as the target, many of whom will appear nude moments before dying. The arts and/or fashion (read: models) play a major role in many of the movies. In the most traditional gialli, the killer wears black leather gloves and carries out the murders with knives and straight razors. There are multiple red herrings in determining the killer's identity and the motives are often psychosexual and/or nonsensical in nature. They tend to focus on form over content, more about how the sequences are staged than about breaking ground in terms of content. Sure, there are plenty of gialli that will show you crazy things you've never seen in a movie before, but that's more of a bonus.
Paolo Cavara's 1971 giallo The Black Belly of the Tarantula has been referred to in some circles as "the best giallo ever made." (I know this because it's the quote on the cover of the Blue Underground DVD.) I cannot agree with this assessment. I can say that it's very good, and notable for the ways in which it pushes the traditions of the genre into some new places.
I don't know if it's because it came so early in the giallo cycle or what, but there's an air of class around The Black Belly of the Tarantula not present in many of its contemporaries—this despite the fact that the film is every bit as sexual and nasty as several other gialli boasting far less impressive bona fides. It stars Giancarlo Giannini (of Seven Beauties and Swept Away fame, later of Hannibal and the 2006 Casino Royale). It's scored by Ennio Morricone, whose contributions are less sweeping and gorgeous than his usual western fare, but no less memorable; while the theme is characteristically melodic, much of the rest of the score is a swirling cacophony of noise and what sounds like female moaning. It's anxiety inducing for sure, contributing to the movie's overt sexuality in a way that allows it not to go overboard with the sleaze. Strip Nude for Your Killer this ain't.
Giannini plays Inspector Tellini, a married detective investigating a series of unusual murders that may or may not tie into larger drug trafficking and blackmail conspiracies. As the victims pile up, Tellini realizes that both he and his wife (Stefania Sandrelli) are in the killer's sights and may be the next victims.
The plot of The Black Belly of the Tarantula is really very simple—or at least it should be. This is a basic murder mystery, same as most gialli, made more complicated by red herrings that aren't false suspects, but rather false plot developments. There's stuff about drugs and stuff about blackmail and none of it really matters in the end; it's abandoned as easily as it's introduced. The extraneous details keep things more engaging as the movie unfolds—we're expecting multiple mysteries to be solved instead of just the one (though an attempt is made to tie it together during the Psycho-style exposition scene that ends the movie), but thinking back on the movie, I find myself wishing the main story had been streamlined more.
Take, for example, the scene in which Tellini meets with a bug specialist who explains the murder method used by the killer as it relates to insects: it is the same way that a certain kind of wasp will disembowel and kill a tarantula. It takes a good deal of screen time to explain (and we get to see it played out courtesy of a real wasp and a real spider), but it's interesting and obviously where the title comes from. For some reason, though, there's a coda to the scene in which Tellini realizes that the sand being kept in the case with the tarantula isn't actually sand, but drugs, and that this bug specialist has been importing drugs into the country. The entomologist throws the deadly spider which Tellini easily squishes, after which the bug guy is immediately arrested. Why is this in the movie? I don't know. But I do know I love it, because it speaks to the weird, anything-goes approach to storytelling that Italian horror takes. There's an extended foot chase mid-movie that's a really good foot chase. These diversions, while fun in the moment, end up diluting the central mystery somewhat.
One thing for which The Black Belly of the Tarantula has become most famous is that it boasts three Bond girls in the cast: Barbara Bouchet (Moneypenny in the original '67 Casino Royale), Barbara Bach (The Spy Who Loved Me), and Claudine Auger (Thunderball). None really have characters to play that are any more fleshed out than the usual giallo girls, making their casting more a novelty of chance than anything else. Don't get me wrong—it's a hell of a novelty given the actresses involved, but it's really just a fluke. Bouchet is the most memorable female in the film despite having what is probably the least amount of screen time, but that has more to do with how she's used than anything in her performance.
The real standout of the movie is its murder sequences, which see the killer (here wearing flesh-colored latex gloves instead of the standard issue black leather) penetrating victims with a long needle that has been dipped in poison, thereby paralyzing them completely but keeping them alive as a knife is plunged into their torsos and slowly dragged up towards their sternums. It's as horrifying as it sounds, if not as graphic or gross. Without this admittedly inventive murder method, I don't know how well Black Belly would be remembered apart from other gialli of the '70s.
Well, maybe that's not true. There's more to the movie than just the murder scenes, even if I suspect they're the things that anyone remembers when thinking or talking about the film. The killer's chosen method actually speaks to the film's larger themes of impotence; it's just that even obsessive film fans are rarely like, "Oh, remember that movie and its larger themes?" But impotence weighs heavily on the film's mind. Like a number of gialli, The Black Belly of the Tarantula finds itself deeply concerned with masculinity—more specifically, the place of men in a society in which women are growing increasingly empowered politically, economically, and, yes, sexually. The killer's motivations are driven by impotence, unable to perform sexually and thereby wanting to punish those women who represent what he wants and cannot have. The paralyzing of the victims leaves them, in a sense, impotent.
Even the movie's hero, Inspector Tellini, is rendered impotent on a number of occasions—not sexually (he gets a scene in bed with his wife, though the camera does pull way back to across the street just as things get going, which is probably no accident), but professionally. One of the ways that Black Belly of the Tarantula distinguishes itself from other gialli is in making its protagonist an actual cop instead of an amateur detective drawn into a case after witnessing a crime. Despite his professional status, though, Tellini meets with a number of failures and setbacks; like so many of the men in this world, he keeps coming up short. The difference between Tellini and every other man is that doesn't direct his anger towards women. Instead, his impotence only makes him more sympathetic; with each disappointment, Tellini becomes more and more of an underdog. Who doesn't want to root for the underdog? Giannini's performance has a lot to do with that. His permanently sad eyes give us an emotional connection to him and the fact that he truly has something at stake makes him one of the more fleshed-out and memorable giallo heroes I've come across. He doesn't just class the movie up; he's really good in it, too.
Unlike the Hitchcock-inspired Argento, whose work is typically about tight control and deliberate movements, Cavara's camera is a lot more frantic. He shoots a lot of the movie handheld and relies heavily on use of the fast zoom to work us up. His cuts come a lot more quickly, sometimes at the detriment of establishing tension. There is a set piece—one of the highlights of the film—in which a victim runs away from the killer through a warehouse full of mannequins. Cavara is so frantic in how the scene is staged that he never manages to create any dread. It's still well done in a panicky way (especially when combined with Morricone's nervous score), but one can just imagine how terrifying the sequence might have been if it had taken its time. Cavara doesn't seem all that interested in creating tension or suspense. His movie is more about visceral shocks.
So what if The Black Belly of the Tarantula isn't the best giallo ever made? I don't feel qualified to make that distinction anyway. It's a really solid effort that's more noteworthy for the way it deviates from the norms than for the way it delivers the goods, which, to be fair, it still manages to do. It doesn't appear that Paolo Cavara directed any other gialli (he's most famous for having directed Mondo Cane), which is unfortunate. I like the different approach he takes to the genre, and while I can't get on board with every choice he makes, I admire the ways he sets his movie apart. On a superficial level, it offers beautiful women and inventive murders and a memorably nutty score—all reasons we are drawn to this type of film. The movie offers something more substantive as well. It may not qualify as a classic, but it's a whole lot better than a needle in the neck.
Keep an eye on our online hub throughout October for more of our Gialloween retrospectives!