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.
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.