9.22.2020

Disturbing Behavior (1998)

DIRECTED BY

David Nutter


STARRING

James Marsden - Steve Clark

Katie Holmes - Rachel Wagner

Nick Stahl - Gavin Strick

Bruce Greenwood - Dr. Edgar Caldicott

William Sadler - Dorian Newberry

Steve Railsback - Officer Cox

Chad Donella - U.V.

Katharine Isabelle - Lindsay Clark

Ethan Embry - Allen Clark


Genre - Sci-Fi/Horror/Thriller/Mystery


Running Time - 84 Minutes



PLOT (from IMDB)

The new kid (James Marsden) in Cradle Bay, Washington stumbles across something sinister about the town’s method of transforming its unruly teens into upstanding citizens.


REVIEW


DISTURBING BEHAVIOR
is a film I hadn’t watched since its theatrical release back in 1998 - a time where the horror genre had finally gained popularity both critically and commercially with mainstream audiences for better or for worse. Even though I’ve watched and prefer THE FACULTY, which was released months after DISTURBING BEHAVIOR and share a similar theme about conforming due to some outside force, I had always wanted to revisit this film to see how well it holds up today. While still an entertaining little movie, watching it this time with a critical adult eye makes me realize how flawed this film is. It’s a teenage version of THE STEPFORD WIVES without the commentary or the justification for its existence, with the studio and producers involved only wanting to cater to the SCREAM and I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER market at the time.


The real problem with DISTURBING BEHAVIOR is the storytelling itself. Or to be more specific, the hack job done to the narrative due to studio interference months prior to its release. Because of the last minute editing, the film comes off as a project that was rushed into development, based on a first or second draft of a screenplay that needed more fine tuning to be a feature-length movie. There are a lot of gaps in terms of narrative, with characters and situations popping up without any sort of explanation as if the producers were in a hurry to tell a story in the least amount of time possible. This is frustrating because there’s obviously a good film here that is trying to say something to the teenage audience at the time by remaking a 70’s satire for a new generation. But in essence, it feels like a series of random events that connect together rather than a fully fleshed out story that deserves our attention.


I’ve never seen the much praised fan-edit or the television presentations of DISTURBING BEHAVIOR - both adding in most, or all, of the deleted scenes to beef up the film and give it much needed depth. But the theatrical version is totally lacking any sort of heart and soul that was probably intended prior to test screenings and this idea to capitalize on the SCREAM craze that brought many back to the genre. This theatrical version is the only one readily available for most of the movie audience, probably not leaving much of an impression unless you’re nostalgic for this era. For a movie focused on unveiling a mystery rather than providing character depth and story motivations to make us care more, the end result leaves us with more questions than answers. Why is this town so accepting of having scientists add implants to their children just so they can be considered good, perfect standards of the community? Where did Dr. Caldicott even think of this idea? Why was his daughter a test subject and why didn’t it work on her? How come only certain teenagers chosen for this project? How come a man is willing to let everyone think he’s mentally handicapped for a bit of piece and quiet? Why are Steve and Rachel considered outsiders, even though both look like they stepped out of a modeling audition and could easily be the most popular and coveted teens in school? Why am I asking so many questions for a film that’s only 84 minutes???


It doesn’t help that the main characters aren’t all that interesting really. Steve seems like a nice guy with a caring sister and parents, who are dealing with their own crap not to see how much Steve is struggling with his older brother’s suicide. But other than that, I don’t know much about him. Rachel is a sassy goth (?) who starts tough and just becomes a damsel-in-distress when she realizes that Steve will save her. Gavin, probably the most interesting character, is the only one who realizes what’s going on and tries to warn everyone about it, which falls on deaf ears. But his character undergoes a transformation midway through the film, disappearing until the very end. Dr. Edgar Caldicott is your typical mad scientist whose hobby is playing God. There seems to be a backstory with him, but the film doesn’t bother telling it. U.V. is the random albino stoner dude, I guess? And Dorian is the janitor who is pretending to be slow so people could leave him alone, even though he figures out what’s going on and how to stop it. All the players are here, but they’re not given any character development that makes us care about them really. I hear the other versions of this film are a lot better because the missing scenes answer a lot of questions about these characters and the situation in general. It’s too bad the studio couldn’t leave well enough alone.



The narrative does have some things going for it. I do like the cafeteria scene where Gavin explains the different groups in school. I think almost every high school setting has certain sections dedicated to the preppies, to the troublemakers, to the geeks, and etc. And there’s a great moment where Gavin, who realizes he’s next to be “lobotomized” freaks out because he realizes his life will be over against his will, even contemplating murder-suicide at one point which Steve saves him from. I also like the unintentionally hilarious moments the film provides. Like, for example, the opening of the film where a guy rips a girl’s head off while she performs oral sex on him because it’s consider “naughty”. This dude also kills a cop, with another cop gladly willing to cover it up. What a great town! There’s also the funny, yet creepy, moment where a teenage girl gets rejected by Steve, only for her to malfunction and slam her own head into a mirror repeatedly, before acting as if nothing happened and moves on with her life. And what about that scene where one of the programmed kids destroys a grocery store by tossing another teen around, with no one really reacting to it as if it’s a big deal? And how about Rachel trying to force her catchphrase, “Razor”, on us for much of the film? What the hell does that even mean? Is she a fan of Razor Ramon? Does she have an urge to shave? Let’s cut that business out, shall we?


And while the film lacks any depth, at least it checks off things that teenagers deal with - such as conformity, hovering and controlling parents, teenage suicide, and lost friendships over time. It would have been nice if the studio allowed the film to flesh these things out, but I guess we have HEATHERS for that, don’t we?


A lot of DISTURBING BEHAVIOR was created by much of the same crew who worked on television’s X-Files, including director David Nutter who directed many episodes of that television show. In some ways, the film feels like an episode of X-Files or other sci-fi shows of the time, just with a bigger budget. The look of DISTURBING BEHAVIOR has a TV movie feel, which kind of adds to the charm of the film since it doesn’t look as polished as its contemporaries. There’s this mysterious and bleak atmosphere and mood throughout the film, which I really enjoyed as it made this town of Cradle Bay [with its fog and gloomy, cloudy look] feel more eerie than what this movie probably deserved. And there are some moments of genuine tension, especially in the final act, that work better than one would think. Unfortunately, it was probably out of Nutter’s hands to hack this film to the version that’s commonly out there, destroying anything Nutter probably wanted to present in terms of characters, the mystery, and just the overall vibe of the town the film is set in. The film is much shorter and moves at the quick pace because of it, but things happen so quickly that we don’t have time to digest the thrill of following these characters solve and survive the mystery that surrounds them. I feel bad for Nutter that his project was taken away from him during post-production just so it could be badly edited into an I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER clone of sorts. At least the music by X-Files composer Mark Snow is pretty subtle and nice.



The acting is more than okay. In one of his early roles, James Marsden does well enough as Steve. The guy photographs really well and his portrayal of the good guy character works. I wish Marsden had more to work with, especially when it came to Steve’s brother’s suicide that should have been more of a focus. But he works with what he’s given. Katie Holmes, who at the time became a huge star due to Dawson’s Creek, is okay as Rachel. I never bought her as a great actress or anything, but she’s cute and can pull off sassy believably. Maybe if she had more to do, I could say more about her performance. Nick Stahl is probably the best of the younger cast as Gavin. The first half of the film works the best because Stahl is a big part of it, coming across as likable, sarcastic, and believably scared for his character’s future. I even thought he played creepy well once he’s transformed into a Blue Ribbon. I wish he was the lead actor and character honestly because he’s the only one that came across as real for me. Nice to see a young Katharine Isabelle as Steve’s sweet sister and Chad Donella as a stoner albino type. The 90s, everyone.


As for the older cast, I think William Sadler came out the best as janitor Dorian. Sadler makes any project he’s a part of better and he seems to be having fun playing such a bizarre character. He even gets to quote Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” at one point, so that’s a thing. Bruce Greenwood doesn’t get a lot to do as the film’s villain, Dr. Caldicott. He pops in and out and comes across as a weak villain, most likely due to the editing that probably took some of his character arc out for whatever reason. Greenwood is a good actor and deserved better. And what was up with Ethan Embry here? Was his role bigger in the Director’s Cut or did they just use cut footage from EMPIRE RECORDS or CAN’T HARDLY WAIT? I feel his character was super important for Steve’s arc, making Embry’s pop-in appearances just come across as jarring and weird.


THE FINAL HOWL


DISTURBING BEHAVIOR
is a film that should have been more of a success than it was, bringing 1975’s THE STEPFORD WIVES and turning it into a teenage thriller for a new generation at the time. Unfortunately, the studio stepped in and butchered an almost two-hour film into one that only runs 84 minutes [including credits], ruining whatever message or satire director David Nutter had planned when he developed the project. The end result is a film that wants to be part of the SCREAM and I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER club, just without any of the depth and character development to reach the thrills and cleverness of either of those two films. You end up not caring about any of the characters or the mystery that’s unfolding because the film feels like a puzzle with missing pieces every five minutes that would have elevated the storytelling and narrative of the movie. And while the TV movie look that David Nutter infuses, as well as an eerie and bleak atmosphere, gives DISTURBING BEHAVIOR a bit of charm, the terrible editing job by the studio ruin any sort of momentum the film could have. Fortunately, the cast - especially by Nick Stahl and William Sadler - is quite good enough to keep you invested. And there are some bizarre moments and bits of dialogue throughout that you’ll end up being entertained by it all. I would really like to see the longer cut of DISTURBING BEHAVIOR because this theatrical version is a mess. It’s not boring or insulting enough to turn anyone off, but it’s a mess that could have been something interesting if outside forces didn’t stick their nose where it didn’t belong. Not worth conforming for, but worth a look if you’re feeling razor for late-90s teenage horror movies. 



SCORE

2 Howls Outta 4




9.12.2020

Autopsy (1975)

DIRECTED BY
Armando Crispino

STARRING
Mimsy Farmer - Simona Sana
Barry Primus - Father Paul Lenox
Ray Lovelock - Edgar
Carlo Cattaneo - Lello Sana
Angela Goodwin - Daniela
Gaby Wagner - Betty Lenox
Massimo Serata - Gianni
Ernesto Colli - Ivo
Antonio Casale - Inspector Silvestri

Genre - Horror/Mystery/Giallo

Running Time - 100 Minutes


PLOT (from IMDB)
A pathology med student and a priest team up to investigate a wave of suicides blamed on sun spots and discover a number of them to be actual murders.

REVIEW
As a fan of the giallo movie, I’m always excited when I sit down and watch one I may have heard of, but never watched before. It’s also more interesting when that film is made by a director I’m not all that familiar with, knowing not to expect something in the vein of Dario Argento or Mario Bava. I thought 1975’s AUTOPSY would be that film. I mean, it has a supernatural theme going on. It’s by filmmakers I have no film knowledge of. And look at that title! I mean, this has to be a cool movie, right?

Unfortunately, AUTOPSY is pretty much a mediocre flick that pulled me out of it as much as it tried to pull me in. It’s weird, all over the place, and is more focused in showing nudity than telling a cohesive story that would give a viewer a hint as to what’s going on and what the point of the film is. This one is a head scratcher, and that’s not even considering the convoluted final act that made me raise a brow more than once.

It’s interesting that AUTOPSY’s narrative is both a good and a bad thing. It’s a film that has such a good concept going for it but doesn’t do jack squat with it. The opening ten minutes is probably the most interesting part of the film because it doesn’t play out like a giallo at all. The intro to the film goes all out, as we witness a bunch of people either commit suicide or homicide while flashes of pulsating fire are shown on the screen. Apparently this violent behavior is being triggered supposedly by sunspots, if the original Italian title of the film [Macchie solari] refers to. We continue to see these sunspot flashes throughout the flash every now and then, triggering weird responses within some of the principal characters in the film.

While this sunspot idea is pretty cool since it’s a mystery one wouldn’t expect in a giallo film, AUTOPSY does nothing with it. Hell, I’m still not sure why these sunspots are affecting people, especially since the people affected are so random. It’s not like the screenwriter cared, since it’s brought up once and then ignored for the rest of the film to cater to a generic mystery-thriller narrative we’ve seen done to death - and honestly done better before and since. I mean, the killer in AUTOPSY does use the sunspot excuse to cover up his or her murder spree, so that’s at least something, I guess. But the sunspot mystery is honestly the only thing in this film that feels fresh since it’s not a subplot that’s done all that often. Why did these sunspots trigger so much violent behavior? I guess we’ll never know.

I also had some issues with the characters in this film. Was I supposed to like any of these people that I had to watch for 90 minutes? Main character Simona is somewhat interesting due to how she’s written. She had a strange obsession with death [being an American morgue intern will do that to you] that leads into some interesting imagery that I’ll get into shortly. Simona also had this pseudo incestuous relationship with her father that was seriously creepy, as well as having issues with men and just being sexual, period. Like, she’ll get naked with her love interests but then freak out when the passion rises. I guess it stems from her father, but nothing about her neurosis is explained. She’s also triggered by the sunspot deal from time to time, but doesn’t do anything major that would make you think she was affected. It was hard to relate to her because she was so skittish and kind of annoying at times. She’s also never really a target for the villain until the last five to ten minutes, making any sort of peril meaningless. 

The other characters are just as weird and unlikable. Father Paul Lenox is probably the worst person to ever put on the cloth and collar. His erratic behavior is bizarre, suffering epileptic attacks at times that made me question whether that was what was attacking him, or he was suffering from the sunspots. He also had a strange relationship with his sister, Betty, while falling in love with Simona. For a man of God, he behaved in ways that made me question how he even passed any sort of tests to become a priest. Dude was all over the place in terms of his actions. Simona’s father, Lello, was way too passionate with his daughter and a bunch of redheaded women who seemed to be in love with this guy [being rich raises your attractiveness]. He had a subplot involving business dealings and a questionable will that would take center stage in the last half of the film that becomes totally convoluted and uninteresting as the film reaches its conclusion. Edgar, Simona’s love interest, is a super cool photographer and race car driver who tries and be patient with Simona’s trauma with sex and affection, meaning he’s probably up to something. Then we have Gianni and Ivo, two really perverted men Olivia Benson and her SVU unit would probably love to get their hands on. Both are at least memorable and have fun moments due to their sliminess. Like I said before, none of these characters are easy to connect with, making me care less about what happens to any of them in this story.

And even though the direction isn’t as stylish or as memorable as more popular gialli out there, I think Armando Crispino did alright with some of the visuals and use of the location. The film looks quite nice, really showing the beauty of Italy. I also liked some of the locations, especially this death museum that is both inviting and creepy at the same time. I wish it was used more, but I liked the concept and I would go to a real one during Halloween season. I also thought some of the death scenes and aftermath moments were very good, especially during the sunspot moments. We also get a race car accident with a nicely done stunt. I also enjoyed the hallucinations a character experiences in the morgue with the dead coming back to life and having this weird orgy. If only the film had kept up with that surreal and strange feel throughout. And if you enjoy a lot of nudity, this film is definitely for you. It definitely kept me engaged. The pacing and flow was a bit weird though, but I felt the second half was directed stronger than the first half despite a weaker subplot being the focus. It’s not as colorful as Dario Argento or as atmospheric as Mario Bava, but I thought Crispino did alright with what he had to play with. 

The acting was also fine, despite the portrayal of the characters on paper. No one really stood out to me in terms of a performance, maybe besides Mimsy Farmer in the lead. Her frazzled and strange portrayal of the main character is something to watch. And when she starts to kind of annoy you, she takes off her clothes so you can rewind and like her all over again. I wish her character had more interesting things to do, but Farmer did what she could. I also liked Ray Lovelock as Edgar. He’s the only actor and character who came off as believable to me, so kudos to him.

And special mention goes to the late Ennio Morricone for his haunting score. Probably not one of his more memorable compositions, but it fits the film and elevated AUTOPSY more than it had any right to.

THE FINAL HOWL
Considering how strong 1975’s AUTOPSY begins with characters committing homicide and suicide due to strange sunspots, as well as a strange zombie orgy, I was expecting this giallo to be a special one. Instead, it would rather ignore a fresh take on the sub-genre, only to focus on a standard mystery-thriller that’s not all that interesting. It doesn’t help that the characters aren’t likable, even if the actors playing them are doing their best with what they’re given. However, the first act of the film is fun, and the direction by Armando Crispino is pretty decent with a great use of setting and well done death scenes. Definitely near the lower end of gialli I’ve seen, but maybe worth a look if you’re a fan of the sub-genre. 


SCORE
2 Howls Outta 4


9.04.2020

[Animal Summer 2020 & When Wrestlers Act] Boar (2017)

DIRECTED BY
Chris Sun

STARRING
Nathan Jones - Bernie
John Jarratt - Ken
Christie-Lee Britten - Ella
Melissa Tkautz - Sasha
Ernie Dingo - Ernie
Roger Ward - Blue
Hugh Sheridan - Robert
Bill Moseley - Bruce
Chris Haywood - Jack
Ricci Guarnaccio - Oscar
Griffin Walsh - Bart
Simone Buchanan - Debbie

Genre - Horror/Slasher/Bad Animals

Running Time - 96 Minutes


PLOT (from IMDB)
In the harsh, yet beautiful Australian outback lives a beast, an animal of staggering size, with a ruthless, driving need for blood and destruction. It cares for none, defends its territory with brutal force, and kills with a raw, animalistic savagery unlike any have seen before.

REVIEW
With Animal Summer pretty much coming to a close this year, I wanted to tackle not only a film I hadn’t watched before, but also an animal I haven’t really covered for the event. With so many shark, feline and insect features out there, it’s refreshing to cover a movie like the 2017 Australian film BOAR. There aren’t many animal run amok films dealing with dangerous pigs or hogs, so BOAR became a must see. Unfortunately, BOAR left a lot to be desired even if it does have it moments.

BOAR is pretty much a slasher film with a giant wild hog stalking and killing people on an Australian farm and its nearby woods. Honestly, the film isn’t much more than that, making it a bit of a disappointment. It’s cool that we have a different animal as the focus of the terror and drama for the story. But the human characters don’t have much depth until it’s really too late, making it difficult to latch on to any of them. Some have more personality and charm than others, sure. But a majority of the major players in the film are there for nothing more than to build the body count for our title character. It’s sad because some interesting characters would have added to the tension and drama that the narrative really needed. But it appears the filmmakers were more focused on how the boar looked like and the carnage it could create rather than for the audience to identify with anyone they’re watching so we could care whether they lived or died.

The film is oddly structured, in that it introduces us to what we believe are the main characters in the first act, pretty much ignoring them during the middle act, only to present them again during the film’s last act. These characters are a family [mom, step-dad, daughter, son and daughter’s boyfriend] who are visiting the mom’s brother, who runs the family farm where the boar is now terrorizing without their knowledge until bodies start popping up. The family dynamic has some interesting things going for it at times. The younger brother they visit, Bernie, is this giant of a man who looks intimidating but is really gentle, heroic and knows every lyric to Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby”. The stepfather is respected and loved, which is pretty rare for a horror film. The boyfriend character is a bit of a jerk and acts tough, only until real trouble stares at him in the face. Other than that, there’s not much to these people that makes me care to watch 90 minutes of them. It doesn’t help that we miss a chunk of their reunion and interactions because they don’t appear in the middle of the film, making me wonder if the filmmakers had forgotten they even existed until they appeared again. It’s frustrating.

There are other characters sprinkled throughout, but not many make an impression but a few. The main ones are Ken and Blue, two best friends who enjoy getting drunk while watching over the farm and its surrounding areas. These two characters had genuine comical conversations and felt like two people who knew each other for a very long time to explain their easy rapport. Unfortunately, they’re not in the film enough to really justify how well written these two are, but I was happy to have them. The other character is Sasha, Ken’s bar owner daughter, who has a ton of sass and attitude that made her more attractive than she already is. Her character pops up here and there when the film needs her most, making her pretty convenient if you ask me. But I liked her character, so it could have been worse.

The main issue with the narrative is that the script focuses on too many stories going on at once. I get that you need the boar to scare and murder people to build to a final confrontation. But when you introduce a group of people that are probably going to be the main survivors of the film, just to toss them away for 25 minutes for random bloodshed, the film loses its flow and our care towards these main characters is destroyed because now we have to build it up all over again. There’s no real reason why the film couldn’t have had these characters remain on screen in a consistent basis while the boar did its thing to other people. It’s just strange how it was structured and took me out of the film for a bit.

What BOAR does have going for it is the look of the title character itself. I thought the giant boar looked pretty great, considering it’s obviously a puppet or animatronic creation that looked as realistic as possible. I don’t think I barely saw any CGI for the monster at all, making me appreciate the level of detail and dedication to the boar. It also helps that director Chris Sun [who also co-wrote the film] doesn’t show the boar all that much until the final minutes of the film, making what it does and what it looks like way more effective than it has any right to. I’m guessing the lack of character depth was sacrificed to focus more on the monster. It’s disappointing for the humans, but the animal looked pretty cool.

Speaking of Chris Sun, his direction was above average. I criticized his pacing and flow already, hurt by the script and not helped by the direction either. BOAR felt like many short stories in one, which took the film down for me. But Sun also does neat tricks with the boar, including giving it his own cool looking first person point-of-view that has this reddish-orange tint that swirls and looks distorted. I also thought the film looked quite nice visually, making the Australian location look beautiful in both day and night. And the highlight of the visuals are the death sequences. Unfortunately, probably due to budget restrictions, a lot of the deaths and mauling done by the boar are done offscreen. But we do see some gory aftermath with a lot of blood, mutilated bodies and organs, as well as a tusk going through a person from the back of their skull out of their open mouth. The final act of the film is where we really see a lot of the action, as the boar drags people away and attacks everyone in sight. It’s probably the best part of the film, to be honest.

The acting also elevates BOAR thankfully, as the actors all seem to be having fun and taking the whole premise as seriously as possible. I believe BOAR gained recognition due to its stunt acting of having Bill Moseley, John Jarratt and Roger Ward involved with the project. All three men are definitely highlights, with Jarrett and Ward having some nice comical and tense moments as Ken and Blue. Moseley does a good job as the family’s stepfather, but any actor could have played that role honestly. But he definitely has name value in the genre, so it was smart to cast him in a pretty normal role. Melissa Tkautz is also cool as bar owner Sasha, displaying a lot of tough attitude. She makes Sasha one of the more likable characters. Hugh Sheridan plays the daughter’s boyfriend, Robert, in such a douchebag way that he’s actually quite amusing. I also loved his switch in character towards the end, as Sheridan played it totally believably. But the real star here is former WWE wrestler Nathan Jones as Bernie. Usually playing a villain in films, his turn as the film’s hero is quite a surprise. And he’s a decent actor to boot! He has a charm and likability factor about him that made him easy to root for by the film’s end. The guy wasn’t much of a wrestler despite his size and presence, but he’s made a pretty successful transition to film. Good for him!

THE FINAL HOWL
BOAR is a film I was expecting more out of, but only ended up feeling a bit disappointed by the movie’s end. The title character looks very cool, considering the boar was mostly created with practical effects and only shown mainly in the film’s last act. Some of the visual techniques by director Chris Sun were nice, including the boar’s first person point-of-view moments and some of the film’s gory death sequences. The acting [headlined by Nathan Jones, Bill Moseley, John Jarratt and Roger Ward] do a very good job elevating a pretty mediocre script by taking their roles seriously and adding some much-needed star power. Unfortunately, the screenplay tries to tell too many stories at once, taking away much needed focus for the main characters from the middle of the movie - in which they don’t appear in at all - to give time to random characters getting murdered by the titular boar. The characters don’t have much depth to them either, only getting a bit of character when it’s too late to care. I get it’s a slasher film involving a killer pig targeting dumb humans, but even dumb humans need a personality and something for the audience to latch onto. BOAR ended up to be pretty average by the end credits, but it’s nice to see a different animal getting its chance to be a horror villain that’s not a shark, a cat or an insect. That alone makes BOAR worth a peek, even though I’ll probably skip this plate of bacon if it’s ever offered up to me again.


SCORE
2 Howls Outta 4


8.24.2020

Black Belly of the Tarantula (1971)

DIRECTED BY
Paolo Cavara

STARRING
Giancarlo Giannini - Inspector Tellini
Claudine Auger - Laura
Barbara Bouchet - Maria Zani
Rossella Falk - Franca Valentino
Silvano Tranquilli - Paolo Zani
Annabella Incontrera - Mirta Ricci
Barbara Bach - Jenny
Ezio Marano - Masseur
Stefania Sandrelli - Anna Tellini

Genre - Horror/Mystery/Thriller/Giallo

Running Time - 98 Minutes


PLOT (from IMDB)
Inspector Tellini (Giancarlo Giannini) investigates serial crimes where victims are paralyzed while having their bellies ripped open with a sharp knife, much in the same way tarantulas are killed by a black wasp. As suspects keep dying, Inspector directs his attention to a spa all the victims had a connection with.

REVIEW
As a fan of the giallo sub-genre, it’s always cool when I come across one I’ve heard of but never seen before. Considering it’s still Animal Summer, I was hoping for some tarantula action within this cool sounding giallo flick. Alas, it was not to be even though we see a tarantula and a wasp do their thing for a bit. No, 1971’s BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA [or LA TARANTOLA DAL VENTRE NERO for you Italian readers out there] is one of the earliest giallo films to be released. And in many horror circles, this film is also considered one of, if not, the best of its sub-genre. I don’t think the film is the best giallo I’ve seen [that still goes to 1975’s DEEP RED], but it’s pretty damn solid and an entertaining watch for those who are fans of this type of horror and haven’t checked it out yet.

Probably the thing that stood out the most for me about BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA is that it doesn’t really feel like your prototypical giallo flick. In many ways, it feels like I’m watching a crime procedural that just happens to have a gloved killer murdering beautiful women. Besides the murder crimes, there are also subplots dealing with drug trafficking and even blackmail that relate to the main issue. Gialli usually focus on the murder stuff and the mystery of who the killer is and their motive. But this film wanted to branch out from that, giving the audience a full glimpse of a world that is pretty corrupt. The corruption just happens to be related to the killer and his crimes, steering the main inspector, Tellini, in enough multiple directions to frustrate him. I actually thought it was refreshing and it gave reason for side characters to exist in this world. Most of these characters outside of the police force seem to handling in some shady business they’re afraid to discuss or reveal for their own safety. It’s quite fun to connect the dots, leading you right to the killer themselves. 

In fact, it’s through this drug trafficking deal that Inspector Tellini finds this expert scientist who seems to know a thing or two about the killer’s M.O. in the way he murders their victims. You see, the killer uses an acupuncture needle dipped in poison to paralyze their victims by stabbing them into the back of the neck. As their conscious but unable to move, the killer stabs them in the stomach before slicing their torso open. This scientist shows Tellini that the killer was inspired by a wasp preying on a tarantula. Apparently the wasp uses its stinger to paralyze the spider before inserting wasp larvae into the tarantula’s stomach to eat it from within while alive. The funny thing is that the scientist tries to murder Tellini with the tarantula, fleeing the scene since he’s involved with the trafficking scheme. I found the scene rather funny in a good way, because the man did his job before quickly cutting out. Luckily Tellini was in pretty good shape because he did a lot of chasing in this film. 

I also appreciated the subtext in BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA. There’s not many films dealing with the idea of impotence in some way or form, but the story uses this theme to create a parallel between our hero and villain. The villain murders beautiful women because it seems he can’t get it up and do what he wants with them. Therefore, penetrating them with a needle and then a knife is his only way of getting sexual satisfaction. Inspector Tellini doesn’t share sexual impotence, as easily makes love to his wife in the film. But when it comes to solving the case, his lead for answers is a bit limp. His co-workers laugh at him and treat him as a bit of a failure, especially when he [and his wife] easily become targets for the killer. His impotence when it comes to figuring things out comes from his own insecurities as a detective, making him miss things that are right in front of him because of his own low self-esteem. He considers resigning from the force, but his supportive and devoted wife is always there to boost him up and make him see that he’s a good detective if he would just believe in that. I wish the film would have played up this angle a bit more since it’s very effective in giving us a motive for the killer, while creating a sympathetic hero who doesn’t try to be a badass or this cool cop that does everything right and makes everything look good. There’s a nice bit of humanity in Tellini while being impotent creates a monster in the killer. The film is more focused on giving its audience the usual giallo tropes to please them, which is fine. BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA does that very well on the surface. But the subtext adds a different layer that interested me more as a viewer.

What brings down BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA? I guess the fact that it plays out as your typical giallo, with stereotypical characters that wouldn’t fly in 2020. In particular, there’s this butler at the spa where most of the victims seem connected to. He’s very effeminate and flamboyant in his mannerisms in the final act, making us believe he could be using that as a cover for some sort of red herring. But no, he’s just someone’s vision of a stereotypical gay man that makes it hard to take him seriously. He’s not even a character, but really a caricature for whatever reason. I also thought the killer’s identity was a bit of a disappointment, since it’s pretty easy to figure out. And the way the crime is solved and dealt with felt a bit too easy for my tastes. Considering Tellini’s frustration and all the random crimes this killer seems to be the center of, I was expecting more out of the film’s conclusion. The film’s last act was probably the weakest portion of the film for me since everything before that was interestingly told and structured.

The direction by Paolo Cavara, best known for his work on 1962’s controversial MONDO CANE, does a nice job crafting this giallo visually. In fact, Cavara seems more focused on the story rather than his own direction, as the film has a bit more substance than style - which is usually the opposite of what a giallo is supposed to be. The locations are fairly style. The visual style is pretty standard, with subtle camera movements. But Cavara does provide atmosphere in every scene, especially when it comes to the spa. There’s a bit of sexuality and sensuality oozing out of most of the scenes. And the angles in which the killer murders their victims are done quite nicely, with the killer sometimes popping out of nowhere to stab a victim with a needle. And some of the shots before the killer stabs their victim are beautifully creepy. All of this is helped by a very subtle score by the iconic Ennio Morricone, who quietly adds a sensual mood with his composition. BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA is, indeed, a good looking picture.

The acting is pretty good as well. The film is carried by Giancarlo Giannini as Inspector Tellini, who really understands his shaky character enough to keep him as grounded and balanced as possible to not make him a stereotypical bumbling detective, like the script sometimes steers towards unintentionally. Instead of rolling our eyes at his ineptness at times, Giannini lets us in on the internal struggle Tellini has with his self-confidence when it comes to solving the case, making us sympathize with him and root for the guy to solve these crimes. After all, Giannini plays the role as a likable guy who does everything in his power to solve the case, while also sharing a nice relationship with his wife that Giannini plays with sincerity and empathy. Is he the most dynamic actor? Not at all, but he says a lot with his facial expressions and body language, which come a long way in a film like this. A very understated performance that worked nicely.

The female cast also elevates the film. Stefania Sandrelli as Tellini’s wife, Anna, plays the supportive, understanding wife perfectly. She’s also quite beautiful, adding to her already warm charm and presence. BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA is also well known for casting three actresses who are part of the Bond Franchise. Claudine Auger of THUNDERBALL has a meatier role of the three, playing the boss of a spa who may be hiding some things and acts a bit shady with everyone around her. The other two - Barbara Bouchet [of 1967’s CASINO ROYALE] and Barbara Bach [of THE SPY WHO LOVED ME] - bring their beauty as they play two of the killer’s infatuations and victims. Their presence also provide a neat trick for the audience, as it makes you question whether the killer is a man or not. I like that bit of detail. All the actors play their roles well and help create this mystery that’s easy to figure out if you’ve watched a lot of these movies.

THE FINAL HOWL
BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA is probably one of the finest entries in the giallo sub-genre. While the mystery is fairly predictable if you really think about it while watching, the screenplay still manages to create a solid thriller that engages you from beginning to end. The characters are fleshed out enough to be more than just stereotypes, even if some do fall under that trap. The theme of impotence that parallel the lead detective and the killer is an interesting one that manages to elevate the subtext of the story, even if the film could do more with it. Paolo Cavara directs a straightforward thriller that’s fairly subtle for a giallo, letting the story and the performances tell the story rather than the visuals. But Ennio Morricone’s slow and relaxing score adds a lazy atmosphere that’s enticing. And Giancarlo Giannini’s performance as Inspector Tellini is sympathetic and solid, taking what could have been a bumbling character and making him human and relatable. Plus, having three former Bond Girls in one film makes this one to watch for fans of that series. Not the best giallo film I’ve seen, but it’s definitely a fine one for a fan or for someone just trying to get into gialli. 



SCORE
3 Howls Outta 4


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