The Black Belly of the Tarantula Review
Note: The main body of this review is predominantly the same as the one I wrote for the Italian release.
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 Aldo Lado and Dario Argento, 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 Lado, or even the more ambitious offerings of Lucio Fulci, has its feet firmly in the second camp.
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 deaths. 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...
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 a tiny number of 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 the 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.
The Black Belly of the Tarantula was released last year on DVD in Italy by Ripley's Home Video, featuring a decent transfer, as well as English and Italian audio tracks, but, alas no subtitles in either language. For their release, Blue Underground seem to have used the same master source, and a side by side comparison reveals only slight differences. The Blue Underground release is slightly more saturated and also features a marginal amount of cropping on all sides (although in reality it amounts to less than a few pixels, so it's not worth worrying about). As per usual with Blue Underground releases, it also features some heavy filtering and edge enhancement, giving it a slightly harsher look than its Italian counterpart. As usual, you can see one of my detailed image comparisons here.
As further proof that the Italian DVD was the source for this release, Blue Underground have included both English and Italian tracks - something that they almost never do. Optional subtitles have also been included for the superior Italian track, meaning that viewers who don't speak Italian can now watch the film with most of the performers speaking in their native language. 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, the latter should be the track of choice for most people, due to its more sincere quality and at times slightly more nuanced dialogue.
By the way, unlike the other giallo releases from Blue Underground, this disc has been encoded for Region 1 only - no doubt the result of some sort of deal with Ripley's Home Video, whose logo can be found on the back cover.
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. Presented in Italian with English subtitles, Danon, who was present on the set of The Black Belly of the Tarantula, provides a brief overview of production company DA.MA. before going to talk more specifically about the film itself. Although he doesn't offer any particular insights into the film's screenplay or what director Paolo Cavara was like, he does recount a few amusing anecdotes about the cast, including how difficult Giancarlo Giannini was to get on with, and an encounter he himself had with a stark-naked Barbara Bouchet. Somewhat annoyingly, this featurette, which had an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, has been transferred from a non-anamorphic master and yet encoded for 16x9 televisions, meaning that users with widescreen sets will find that the image is reduced to a small rectangle inside a black border.
The photo gallery included on the Italian release has not been ported over here. Instead, we gain an English-language TV spot, which manages to be quite effective in spite of its poor quality, pairing the film with another feature, The Weekend Murders.
One of the better non-Argento giallo titles, Blue Underground's release of The Black Belly of the Tarantula will probably not be of great interest to viewers who have already picked up last year's Italian release. Still, for those who do not already own a copy of this overlooked gem, or who would like to be able to watch the film in Italian with the aid of English subtitles, this is definitely a worthwhile purchase.