The Black Belly of the Tarantula Review
Someone is murdering the clientelle of an exclusive beauty salon, injecting them with the poison of a rare species of wasp, which paralyses them and forces them to bear witness to their own murders. Following the murder of Maria (Barbara Bouchet), who was being blackmailed over photographic evidence of her extra-marital shenanigans, Inspector Tellini (Giancarlo Giannini) is put on the case, but events quickly take an unexpected turn as both he and his wife Anna (Stefania Sandrelli) find themselves embroiled in the scandal and their lives under threat...
A clear line can be drawn between the two standard types of giallo film. On the one hand there are the trashy but fun pieces that, roughly akin to your average Hollywood blockbuster, entertain but don't ask you to think too much. The vast majority of the genre's offerings fall squarely into this camp, in my opinion, and while there are some decidedly enjoyable ones, all too often they have little to offer beyond a 90-minute diversion with acting and plotting that are quaintly cheesy at best. At the other end of the spectrum, we have the more "respectable" efforts: the films created by "serious" directors like Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, who were working in the genre not because they saw the opportunity to make a quick buck but because they actually had something worthwhile to say. The Black Belly of the Tarantula (or, to use its Italian name, La Tarantola dal Ventre Nero), while not up to the same standard as the best efforts from either Argento or Fulci, has its feet firmly in the second camp.
Every once in a while you come across a giallo that seems to express real human emotions, going beyond the cardboard cut-outs for which the genre has become renowned and actually providing a protagonist with which the audience can identify. Inspector Tellini is just such a character, and it is a combination of the writing (by Lucile Laks - this is one of the only gialli to be written by a woman) and Giancarlo Giannini's performance that makes him so accessible. Giannini has exactly the right features and mannerisms to embody the brow-beaten detective haunted by his feelings of inadequacy. In fact, it's quite fun to imagine that he was playing the same character in all but name in this film and the later Hannibal: his mannerisms and his character's outlook on life and his job as a detective are strikingly similar. His relationship with his wife is believable and doesn't feel forced, and the fact that he has doubts about his own abilities gives him an added dimension that is rarely to be found in a giallo. Elesewhere in the acting department, the film also offers up not one, not two, but three Bond girls: in addition to Barbara Bouchet and Claudine Auger, it also showcases Barbara Bach in her first of two giallo roles (the other was in Aldo Lado's Short Night of Glass Dolls). Bach appeared in a number of Italian films in the early-to-mid 1970s, transitioning from comedies to action thrillers (1977's The Spy Who Loved Me was her first appearance in a non-Italian film), and here plays a small but memorable part.
Like so many of the directors who didn't stick with the genre long enough to specialise in it, Paolo Cavara (who mainly made Westerns and comedies but actually started out as one of the directors of Mondo Cane) demonstrates a workmanlike but effective approach to his craft. This is one of the few gialli in which the directing actually plays second fiddle to the plot and characterisations, and as such there are fewer opportunities for the outlandish set-pieces and baroque architecture that might be found in the work of Argento or even a lesser craftsman like Sergio Martino. Cavara does, however, inject the entire film with a palpable atmosphere of lazy sensuality. The erotic opening title sequence, which features voyeuristic close-ups of the body of a naked Barbara Bouchet receiving a massage, sets this up, and it is maintained throughout not only via the setting of a beauty salon but also through the killer's choice of latex gloves, which adds a further level of fetishisation. Backing this up is a languid score by Ennio Morricone, which is perhaps one of the best he ever produced within the genre.
If the film has any failings, they are those that tend to be part and parcel of the giallo genre. Although, as I mentioned before, the acting and characterisation and uniformally better than usual, this doesn't stop a number of the bit players occupying very stereotypical, throwaway roles: for instance, the effeminate butler at the salon, who is played too broadly to ever be taken seriously. Admittedly, the English dubbing does not help, which detracts from the sincerity of a number of performances (some of the actors appear to be speaking English, while others, including, for some reason, the American Barbara Bach, are speaking Italian) but experience has taught me that the caricatured secondary characters in these films tend to be equally insincere no matter what language they have been dubbed into. The identity of the killer is also a disappointment, as he is so obvious that he/she seems more like a red herring when he/she is introduced.
A solid, engaging thriller, The Black Belly of the Tarantula offers enough of the compulsory nudity and gore to keep audiences entertained, while containing enough in terms of plot and characterisation to do more than simply provide a visceral buzz. One of the better examples of a giallo, it deserves to be seen, especially by those who think that the genre begins and ends with Argento, Bava and Fulci.
This DVD represents the first time that the film has been released uncut and in a widescreen aspect ratio. As is noted in the liner notes that accompany the DVD, the film was shot using the full negative area and therefore achieving a ratio of 1.33:1 (a common practice for films shot "flat"). It was then matted depending on the capabilities of the theatre showing it - most commonly 1.66:1 for European cinemas and 1.85:1 for those in America. The decision to frame the DVD in 1.85:1 seems to stem from records kept at the laboratory responsible for creating the internegative. Anyway, this anamorphic transfer is pretty good, showing a decent level of detail with little to no artefacting. The opening titles demonstrate a fair amount of visible grit, but this disappears as soon as the film itself starts. If there are any obvious problems with this transfer, it is that some scenes look a little murky, although this may well have been a stylistic choice on the part of the director. In any event, there are no significant problems with visibility. There is also some edge enhancement, although it is far from the worst I have seen. Overall, a very commendable effort and one that puts the earlier grey market releases to shame.
In terms of audio, separate mono tracks are provided in both English and Italian. No subtitles are provided, meaning that English-speaking viewers are more or less forced to watch the English dub rather than the Italian variant. This is in itself not a problem, because the English track is reasonably good, despite suffering from the aforementioned problems with certain secondary characters. Still, the choice would have been nice, and the lack of support for the deaf and hearing impaired is disappointing. The actual audio quality of the English track is surprisingly good, considering how strained the audio often is on releases of this vintage. The Italian track fares less well - it sounds softer and features noticeable distortion during the louder moments, especially with regard to the score. Still, if you understand Italian, this should prove to be a perfectly adequate listening choice.
In terms of bonus materials, the DVD features the English-language trailer, a two-minute affair that gives away some of the film's best moments. Also included is a 15-minute interview with Lorenzo Danon, son of the film's producer, Marcello Danon. Unfortunately, my Italian isn't up to providing a thorough account of everything he discusses, but he gives what would appear to be a thorough and passionate account of the making of the film, interspersed with still photographs and brief clips from the film. A photo gallery, comprised of numerous promotional materials and stills from the film set, rounds out the package.
RHV have also generously provided a 14-page booklet, comprised of photographs, cast and crew lists, technical information and some liner notes, including a couple of essays on the film, brief extracts from Lucile Laks' screenplay, a review from the time of the film's release, a biography of Paolo Cavara, and some promotional materials, including a reproduction of the Italian poster, signed by Barbara Bouchet. Regrettably, the booklet is in Italian only.
Long the domain of dodgy grey-market bootlegs, usually in uncomfortable fullscreen and heavily censored to boot, The Black Belly of the Tarantula has finally been given the good release it deserves, and giallo aficionados will now have no excuse not to own a copy of this little-seen gem.