Black Belly of The Tarantula/La tarantola dal ventre nero (1971)

‘With needles dipped in deadly venom, the victims are paralysed – so they must lie awake and watch themselves die!’

A businessman confronts his wife with photographic evidence of her infidelity. The following day she is found brutally murdered. Naturally, the investigating detective suspects the husband, who has gone into hiding, but a second corpse is discovered shortly afterwards. There seems to be no connection between the two women, but the method employed by the killer is identical…

Middling Giallo thriller from director Paolo Cavara coming hot on the heels of Dario Argento’s international breakthrough ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’ (1969). It was far from the last time such a production would make obvious nods to Argento’s film, but it was probably the first. There’s an unknown killer in a black raincoat and gloves, a title that combines a colour with a critter and, of course, a cast frontloaded with beautiful women.

Marital bliss is a distant memory for the uptight Paolo Zanni (Silvano Tranquilli) and blonde bombshell Maria (Barbara Bouchet). Already separated, someone has been sending compromising photos of the promiscuous Bouchet to her husband. There’s a violent argument, and she turns up stabbed to death the next day. Tranquilli is the prime suspect in the eyes of the jaded Inspector Tellini (Giancarlo Giannini), of course, and his guilt seems confirmed when he takes it on the lam. But then another girl turns up dead, killed in the same unique manner, stabbed after being paralysed by an acupuncture needle inserted in the neck. Victim number two ran a shop selling expensive furs while dabbling in drug smuggling, which seems to have no connection to Bouchet.

As his investigation progresses, Giannini starts to focus on a possible blackmailing ring connected to the beauty salon run by Laura (Claudine Auger), where Bouchet was a regular client of blind masseur Ezlo Marano. Certainly, friendly waiter Ginetto (Eugene Walter) seems too good to be true, and receptionist Jenny (Barbara Bach) seems less than happy about the continuing investigation. Then there’s the darkly handsome Mario (Giancarlo Prete), who could have been Bouchet’s photographic partner and certainly seems to be showing an unhealthy interest in wealthy older woman, Franco Valentino (Rossella Falk). Giannini pursues the investigation with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm and is on the verge of quitting the force. Only his bubbly wife, Anna (Stefania Sandrelli), provides any respite from the depravity all around him.

This is an adequate horror-thriller with some good points, but it falls short in several important areas. The screenplay by Lucile Laks (based on a story by Marcello Danon) is serviceable enough but lacks complexity, with the final scenes revealing that there was a lot less going on than the audience might have thought. The climax is also somewhat contrived, and although it makes sense, it’s a little unconvincing. This lack of conviction seems to be reflected in the performances, with Giannini displaying little charisma and only Ettore Mattia registering in a minor role as a seedy private detective.

There are some weak developments in the story, too, including a sequence where the blackmailer films Inspector Giannini and his wife making love. This is quite a complex surveillance operation, with a camera pointed down into their bedroom from the high rise across the street. How did the blackmailer find out where the couple lived? I have no idea. Why does he do it anyway? No clue. All it does is lead into a scene where the film is taken from a crime scene and shown to a large room filled with senior police officers. They seem to find the whole thing pretty hilarious as the mortified Giannini storms out in a huff. Perhaps they just don’t like him; after all, someone does need to tell him that when you have an informant with crucial information about a murder spree, you don’t let them go with an agreement to meet them the next day when they will tell you everything. That’s going to go about as well as Bouchet’s ‘corpse acting’ (try not to breathe, Barbara!)

The film’s main virtues are on the technical side. As is often the case in Giallo, the killings receive the director and cinematographer’s fullest attention. These aren’t up there with the very best you will see, but they are well-mounted and reasonably stylish with some good use of extreme lenses and POV shots. By far the best aspect of the production, though, is another haunting soundtrack from the staggeringly prolific composer Ennio Morricone. On this occasion, the central motif is the sound of a woman exhaling over the music. These sounds convey a sense of dread and menace that the visuals never evoke.

A minor point of interest arises when Giannini visits entomologist Daniele Dublino. The scientist is using shipments of tarantulas to smuggle cocaine under the highly reasonable assumption that customs agents won’t want to check the cargo too closely. He also shows Giannini how a black wasp kills the arachnids (spiders aren’t insects, Mr Scriptwriter!) by paralysing them first. Of course, this ties into the murderer’s method, but it’s just a blind alley and comes over as a lame attempt to justify the film’s title.

Cavara’s film does have one significant aspect, though; its connection to the James Bond franchise. The cast features three past and future Bond Girls. Auger had appeared as Domino opposite Sean Connery in ‘Thunderball’ (1965), Bouchet was Miss Moneypenny in the spoof version of ‘Casino Royale’ (1967), and Bach went on to spar with Roger Moore in ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ (1977). And it doesn’t end there; Giannini played secret agent Rene Mathis in two of Daniel Craig’s outings as 007: ‘Casino Royale’ (2006) and ‘Quantum of Solace’ (2008).

The killer’s unusual M.O. and the scenes where it’s employed are probably the only things likely to leave a lasting impression on most viewers. A reasonable Giallo, just not very memorable.

3 thoughts on “Black Belly of The Tarantula/La tarantola dal ventre nero (1971)

  1. The producer of the film Hannibal knew gialli history by casting Giannini as an Italian policeman. Giannini’s first film was Libido, by gialli writer Ernesto Gastaldi.

    • I should have referenced that! This is my 65th Giallo review so far and there have been 10 movies that I think stand out as the best of the bunch. ‘Libido’ is one of them. It’s a shame it’s not on blu ray, I’ve only been able to get the Italian DVD. Very under-appreciated film.

  2. Many sought after films are stored away for legal or other reasons or just plain forgotten. On the positive side, the Ghost of Sierra Cobre being released on DVD and streaming creates hope for other elusive works.

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