The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail/La coda dello scorpione (1971)

‘He must’ve been peeling a pear when his knife slipped.’

A faithless wife receives a million-dollar life insurance payout when her husband dies in a plane crash. Several people believe that she was somehow responsible and, when she goes to pick up the money in Athens, various mysterious characters start to close in…

After director Sergio Martino took his bow in the Giallo arena with ‘The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh‘ (1971), it was less than eight months before he delivered his second entry. Also produced by brother Luciano, it again featured a writing team that included Eduardo Manzanos and genre leader Ernesto Gastaldi.

When a commercial airliner explodes mid-flight, the beautiful Lisa Baumer (Evelyn Stewart) isn’t too bothered when she finds out that her husband, Kurt (Fulvio Mingozzi), was on the passenger list. After all, it wasn’t that much of a marriage; he was constantly on the move because of business, leaving her alone in London to amuse herself with a string of lovers. In fact, there’s a considerable upside. A few months earlier, he’d taken out a million-dollar life insurance policy with her as the sole beneficiary.

However, newfound wealth comes with its own problems. Before leaving England, Stewart is stalked by one of her ex-playmates, who has an incriminating letter in which she wished her husband dead. Going to pay him off, she instead finds him dying in a pool of blood. Fleeing to Athens to collect the cash, she’s pursued by both insurance investigator Peter Lynch (George Hilton) and Interpol agent John Stanley (Alberto de Mendoza). If all that’s not bad enough, Mingozzi’s ex-lover Lara Florakis (Janine Reynaud) and her strongarm friend Sharif (Luis Barboo) want their share of the booty.

What follows is the tangled web of murder, mystery and misdirection typical of the sub-genre. Was the explosion on the plane an accident or sabotage? Who killed the blackmailer in London? Was Reynaud really Mingozzi’s lover? Is the businessman actually still alive? Does de Mendoza have a hidden agenda? Do Stewart and Hilton have a previous relationship, and does journalist Cléo Dupont (Anita Strindberg) have an ulterior motive in getting close to him? Question after question for Inspector Stavros (Luigi Pistilli) as the money disappears and the corpses begin piling up.

This is a quality Giallo, but with an impact slightly compromised by some structural and pacing issues. These were most probably caused by a hurried production. The original cut of the film ran short, and reshoots with Stewart took place in London. These scenes never fully integrate into the story and make for a rather extended first act. This means that Strindberg appears surprisingly late in proceedings, considering that she is a pivotal character and, at times, the drama does seem a little unfocused.

Nevertheless, the film has some definite virtues. On the technical side, we have wonderfully crisp cinematography from Emilio Foriscot, and Bruno Nicolai’s score is excellent. The director also ups the horror content with more explicit kills, even if the makeup effects leave a little to be desired on occasion. One of the murders proves to be the film’s outstanding sequence; another tour de force of editing, camerawork and direction that stands up to comparison with equivalent scenes in ‘The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh’ (1971). It’s also pleasing to report that, despite some niggles with the story in hindsight, the writers conjure a logical and satisfying conclusion when the audience could be forgiven for thinking that such an outcome is looking unlikely.

Performances are solid, with a lot of the cast already experienced in this type of project, despite the Giallo not yet reaching its heyday. Hilton and de Mendoza return from ‘The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh’ (1971), and the former appeared in ‘The Sweet Body of Deborah’ (1968) along with Stewart and Pistilli. Reynaud had starred in ‘Assassino senza volto/Killer Without A Face’ (1968) and ‘Run, Psycho, Run’ (1968), and Strindberg was a brief, but memorable, part of Lucio Fulci’s ‘A Lizard In A Woman’s Skin’ (1971). Almost the entire cast went on to further notable Gialli credits over the next few years.

The unwieldy structure holds the film back a little, but it’s still a highly enjoyable Giallo with memorable moments.

A Lizard In A Woman’s Skin/Una lucertola con la pelle di donna (1971)

‘Carol, there were no red-haired hippies in the park today.’

The daughter of an eminent politician dreams of having a lesbian affair with her promiscuous next-door neighbour, eventually stabbing her to death in a final nightmare. Then the police find the woman killed in just such a way after a drug-fuelled orgy in her apartment…

High-quality Giallo from director Lucio Fulci, who was one of the first to exploit the opportunity created by the international success of Dario Argento’s ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’ (1969). It was probably inevitable as he’d already delivered the excellent Giallo ‘One On Top of the Other/Perversion Story’ (1969) before Argento’s breakthrough hit. This project would prove to be another winner.

Carol Hammond (Florinda Bolkan) is a troubled woman and feels abandoned by the men in her life. Father Leo Genn is a prominent barrister whose time is taken up with his move into politics, and husband Frank (Jean Sorel) is also focused on his career. To make matters worse, she’s tormented by dreams of neighbour Julia (Anita Strindberg), a tall, statuesque blonde whose wild parties and uninhibited lifestyle have earned the disapproval of all the other residents of Belgravia Square.

Bolkan’s fantasies of lesbian sex with Strindberg progress into a vision of murder, but analyst Dr Kerr (George Rigaud) takes this as a sign that she has overcome her repressed desires. Unfortunately, police inspector Corvin (Stanley Baker) is called to Strindberg’s apartment after she’s stabbed to death in precisely the same way. Bolkan’s fingerprints are on the weapon, but suspicion falls on other family members as Baker tries to solve the puzzle and apprehend the killer.

Fulci teamed with four other writers to thrash out the film’s complex screenplay, including Roberto Gianviti and José Luis Martínez Mollá, veterans of ‘One On Top of the Other/Perversion Story’ (1969). Nearly everyone becomes a viable murder suspect, including Sorel, who is playing away with Bolkan’s best friend Deborah (Silvia Monti) and his teenage daughter Joan (Ely Galleani), who may have read the notes Bolkan made about her dreams.

Matters are further complicated by two hippies; red-haired Hubert (Mike Kennedy) and knife-wielding artist Jenny (the excellent Penny Brown). They appeared as silent witnesses in Bolkan’s murder dream and seem to know more than they are telling about the night in question. After Bolkan is bailed and Baker comes to doubt her guilt, the investigation begins to focus on them, particularly after Kennedy pursues a frightened Bolkan into an empty church. This sequence is one of the film’s high points as our heroine takes refuge behind the pipe organ, gets attacked by bats and flees across the roof with Kennedy in hot pursuit. Cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller assists with some wonderfully contrasting lighting here, with Bolkan as much in danger in the bright sunlight as when she’s hidden in deep shadow. The excellent use of the London locations is enhanced by another masterful score from composer Ennio Morricone.

There are some other memorable set-pieces too, and even the more commonplace scenes are delivered with genuine panache. The work of Fulci’s technical team is excellent throughout, but it’s the combination of Bolkan and Fulci that truly delivers. The combination of the director’s restless camera and off-kilter visuals married to Bolkan’s commitment to the role allow the audience a doorway into the living nightmare of a neurotic woman on the edge of collapse. Screen veterans Baker and Genn provide the necessary grounding, and there’s a nice contrast between Baker’s virile charisma and Genn’s sly wit. Sadly, Sorel can’t do much with the philandering Frank, and Monti is somewhat wasted, although, like Strindberg, her finest hour in the Giallo was yet to come.

The film is also notable for its escalation within the Giallo of both nudity and gore. Argento’s debut had bloodless for the most part, and genre pioneer Mario Bava had generally employed heavy restraint in such matters. Here, the stabbing in Bolkan’s dream is pretty explicit, and there’s a notorious scene involving some disembowelled dogs at the clinic where Bolkan is sent to rest. Animal lovers are likely to find this scene genuinely upsetting, and its presence in the narrative makes no sense at all. The effects were so flawlessly executed that SFX technician Carlo Rambaldi had to produce the canine props to defend Fulci over accusations of animal cruelty.

Fulci directed two more examples of the Giallo: ‘Don’t Torture A Duckling’ (1972) and ‘The Psychic’ (1978). The former starred Bolkan, and both were written in collaboration with Gianviti. However, his lasting fame rests on the series of horrors he delivered during the early days of the video home rental boom. In the United Kingdom, titles such as ‘Zombie Flesh Eaters’ (1979), ‘City of the Living Dead (1980), ‘The Beyond’ (1981) and ‘The House By The Cemetery’ (1981) were targeted for heavy cuts and censorship during the ridiculous, media-created ‘Video Nasty’ circus. Kuveiller teamed with Fulci again on ‘The New York Ripper’ (1982) and was the cinematographer on Billy Wilder’s ‘Avanti!’ (1972) but it’s probably best celebrated for his work on Dario Argento’s ‘Deep Red’ (1975).

Bolkan was a Brazilian actor who was playing leading roles soon after debuting in all-star hippie romp ‘Candy’ (1968) with Richard Burton and Marlon Brando. She acted opposite Peter Falk and Britt Ekland in ‘Machine Gun McCain’ (1969), with Franco Nero in ‘Detective Belli’ (1969) and in Luchino Visconti’s acclaimed production of ‘The Damned’ (1969). That same year she won an Italian Golden Globe for her role in ‘Metti, una sera a cena/Love Circle’ (1969) and starred in Elio Petri’s Oscar-winning ‘Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970). More acclaim followed throughout the decade, but her career slowed in the 1980s. However, she remained active in the local industry, writing, directing and starring in the feature film ‘I Didn’t Know Tururu’ (2000). She has also spoken of an alleged affair with US President John F Kennedy.

Although he fails to make much of an impression here, Sorel was almost a permanent fixture in Giallo. His credits include ‘The Sweet Body of Deborah’ (1968), ‘A Rather Complicated Girl (1969), ‘One On Top of the Other/Perversion Story’ (1969), ‘A Quiet Place To Kill’ (1970) and ‘Short Night of The Glass Dolls’ (1971), as well as finding time for a supporting role in Fred Zinnemann’s Oscar-nominated ‘The Day of The Jackal’ (1973).

Baker had been a mainstay of British cinema since the 1950s after his breakthrough role in ‘Captain Horatio Hornblower RN’ (1951). His intense personality found the perfect showcase in ‘Zulu’ (1964), a film he also co-produced. He died far too young in 1976. Genn brought poise and dignity to many authority figures on the screen from the 1930s onwards and was Oscar-nominated as Best Supporting Actor for ‘Quo Vadis’ (1952). He typically played Brigadiers, Generals, barristers and cabinet ministers over the years, but occasionally tackled something different, such as Starbuck in John Huston’s problematical ‘Moby Dick’ (1956).

An outstanding Giallo that brings together a complex, satisfying story with excellent filmmaking technique and a superb leading performance.