The Case of the Scorpion's Tail Review
Note: portions of the text for this review are copied from my previous review of the German R2 release of the film.
Busy canoodling with her lover in her home in London, Lisa Baumer (Ida Galli) is shocked to learn that her husband has been killed in an plane explosion. Informed that she is to inherit $1,000,000 from the insurance company, she immediately flies out to Athens to pick up this hefty sum. While in Greece, she runs into a number of unsavoury types, including her husband's mistress, Lara Florakis (Janine Reynaud), who also wants a piece of the pie, and Peter Lynch (George Hilton), a suave private investigator dispatched by the security company to investigate foulplay. When Lisa comes a cropper of a masked fiend with a knife, Peter teams up with local reporter Cleo Dupont (Anita Strindberg) to root out the murderer.
For many Italians, a large part of the giallo's appeal was the chance to see unusual and exotic places. Sergio Martino's The Case of the Scorpion's Tail (La Coda dello Scorpione) showcases this attraction in its purest form: beginning in London before shifting to Athens, this is a jaunty globetrotting adventure with as much focus on the majestic scenery as there is on actual plot and mystery. While repeating many of the same themes as Martino's previous giallo, The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, The Case of the Scorpion's Tail is overall a weaker film but nonetheless one that has much to offer for fans of this type of movie.
This should all be fairly familiar stuff to anyone who has seen a few gialli, but Martino and his frequent collaborator, writer Ernesto Gastaldi, manage to run with the conventions and create a thoroughly engaging and entertaining movie. The standard giallo trademarks are all there, not least the black-shirted, black-masked, black-gloved killer whose ability to wander the streets in daylight without getting strange looks simply has to be accepted. Indeed, it is the transposing of these elements into the less common locations of London and Athens that make this film so interesting. What Have You Done to Solange? it is not, but it is nonetheless a very enjoyable thriller. Martino's pacing is efficient and his photography is competent, with a couple of unusual ideas, such as an entire scene shot at a 180° angle. Other stand-out sequences inculde a well-orchestrated chase sequence involving a spiral staircase, and the tense climax involving a ship stranded in the ocean, scuba equipment and an underwater cave. The tour de force, however, is a tense scene in which one victim realizes that the killer is at her door and runs towards it to lock it before it is too late. As she heads towards the door in slow motion, the level of tension achieved is absolutely superb. All this is aided by a jaunty score by Bruno Nicolai, which manages to alternate between evoking menace and tranquility in equal measure.
One extremely interesting spanner thrown into the works is the fact that there are in fact two killers with completely different motives. This adds a great deal of confusion to the narrative and, while the second killer is identified and ultimately dispatched fairly early in the film, it means that for the rest of the running time the audience is never really sure of anything. The actual identity of the killer is not entirely unexpected, but that is as much to do with the fact that he/she is played by an actor famous for his/her shifty demeanour and harbouring of dark secrets in gialli as anything else. Indeed, all the major players find themselves in reasonably familiar roles, and as a result they manage to nail them. George Hilton plays to type, and gets a slightly more fleshed-out role than in The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, while Anita Strindberg fills in for Edwige Fenech, who usually played the female heroine/victim in Martino's films. Ida Galli, credited as Evelyn Stewart, is also a nice inclusion, although she meets her demise fairly early on. Finally, Jess Franco fans should get a kick out of seeing Janine Reynaud sinking her teeth into the role of the spiteful Lara Florakis.
The film is marred slightly by a couple of rather clumsy special effects, the first involving an extremely obvious model aeroplane exploding as a stand-in for the real thing. It's not so much the plane itself that is the problem here so much as the laughably unrealistic moon that stands beside it. The second involves the death of one of the female characters, which features a stomach-stabbing where the stomach in question is clearly prosthetic, right down to the fact that it is white rather than skin-toned. That said, there are a number of very successful prosthetic effects, the strongest being the stabbing of one character's eye with a shard from a broken bottle.
Ultimately, where most gialli differ from Dario Argento's work is in their lack of subtext, and this film is no exception. While Argento is a serious artist who clearly puts a lot of thought into the substance behind the images he places on the screen, the same cannot be said for Martino, Lenzi and most of their contemporaries, whose primary concern seems usually to simply tell an engaging story with a sufficient number of plot twists. This is not necessarily a problem, and indeed light entertainment can often be a good thing, but it prevents films like these from being analyzed to the same degree as Argento's work. The Case of the Scorpion's Tail is a well-plotted, elegant and engaging piece of work, but that's as far as it goes.
Like The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, The Case of the Scorpion's Tail is sourced from a PAL master of the film, and is therefore a standards conversion, suffering from all the usual artefacting and lack of detail associated with this unacceptable process. It looks slightly better than its predecessor, due perhaps to the fact that more of the film takes place in bright daylight. The night scenes that do occur, however, are generally clearer than those in Mrs. Wardh, due to what appear to be better controlled brightness levels.
Again, both English and Italian audio options are provided with English subtitles for the Italian dialogue, and they are marred by the same problems with clumsy translation, typographical errors and missing sentences.
Like The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, The Case of the Scorpion's Tail is packaged with a nice array of extras, the principle feature being a 25-minute documentary entitled "Creepy Crawl: The Scorpion's Shadow". Featuring interviews with Sergio Martino, Ernesto Gastaldi, George Hilton and producer Luciano Martino, a decent amount of trivia and historical context is relayed, with all the participants seeming to have fond memories of the film. It does tend to ramble at times - Gastaldi, for example, provides a more general overview of his career as a giallo screenwriter since he seems to remember few details regarding the film in question - but I found this to be an absolutely fascinating overview. It's a shame, though, that we don't get to hear from Anita Strindberg, who seems to have dropped off the face of the earth after a rather short movie career.
A Gallery and the original Theatrical Trailer are also provided. The latter is a rather bizarre affair, with a pompous American voice-over attempting to compare the film to, among others, Fritz Lang's M and Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (don't ask me).
Apart from its rather lively sightseeing tone, there is little to distinguish The Case of the Scorpion's Tail from the slew of other gialli that are now available on DVD, but it is an enjoyable romp nonetheless and well worth picking up, despite problems with the subtitling and image quality. Let's hope NoShame get their act together by the time they release their next Sergio Martino offering, Your Vice is a Closed Room and Only I Have the Key.