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.

The Man with Icy Eyes/L’uomo dagli occhi di ghiaccio (1971)

The Man with Icy Eyes/L’uomo dagli occhi di ghiaccio (1971)‘Listen to me; your world is full of lunatics, from Rasputin to crazy operas.’

A senator is murdered, and the police catch a man fleeing the scene. An arrogant young journalist’s work helps secure his conviction, and he is sentenced to the death penalty. However, one the day of his execution, the reporter receives evidence that throws the man’s guilt into doubt…

Noir-ish Giallo thriller from director Alberto De Martino that tries to update the one style, without fully committing to the other. As a result, it’s partially successful and has its moments, but it doesn’t make for compulsive viewing, the final act piling on the action with a breakneck speed that severely harms its credibility.

Senator Robertson meets the end of a bullet on his doorstep and Mexican activist, Valdes (Giovanni Petrucci) is the man in the wrong place at the wrong time. The police can’t find the dead man’s missing briefcase, but the gun was ditched in a nearby bush, and Petrucci and the politician have a history. Hot-headed Sentinel reporter Eddie Mills (Antonio Sabato) gets the story for his paper, and sub-editor, John Hammond (Victor Buono) is impressed with his work, even if there’s no love lost between them.

The Man with Icy Eyes/L’uomo dagli occhi di ghiaccio (1971)

‘Before this night is out, I shall revel in the sight of a big, crisp, polyunsaturated bat!’

The evidence to convict Petrucci is strong but circumstantial, the prosecution alleging that he passed the briefcase to a confederate in a car, who drove off in a panic. Sabato does the round of his contacts on the street and digs up naked model Anne Sachs (Barbara Bouchet) who, after initially refusing to help, places herself near the scene and witnessing the car just before the murder. Petrucci is convicted and sentenced to die in the gas chamber.

Returning home on the day of the execution from assignment in New York, Sabato discovers that new evidence has come to light and begins to believe that the condemned man is innocent, after all. But witnesses are nowhere to be found or are turning up dead, and there are only 12 hours to go before Petrucci’s rendezvous with the gas chamber. It’s a desperate chase for Sabato as he tries to get at the truth and catch the assassin.

The Man with Icy Eyes/L’uomo dagli occhi di ghiaccio (1971)

‘No, I’m not doing another ‘Star Trek’. Not if it means kissing Shatner again…’

The concept of the smart-talking, wise-ass reporter chasing down a killer is as old as talking pictures. Although we’re spared any of the tiresome comedic elements that usually came with such a character in the golden days of Hollywood, this is still the essential core of De Martino’s film. It’s been modernised with a grounding in the realms of the conspiracy thriller, but we’d be firmly in Film Noir territory if the action took place on the black and white canvas of downtown LA rather than the sunlit streets of New Mexico.

Several of the main protagonists are typical Noir archetypes, most notably Sabato as the self-serving newshound starting to grow a conscience and Bouchet as the femme fatale-love interest whose motives are open to question. Unfortunately, neither character is written with any more complexity, leaving both actors struggling to make much of an impression. The acting plaudits belong to Buono who, despite having his familiar voice dubbed, still manages to bring a sly, sardonic humour to his role, linking up with Sabato as an unofficial sidekick/partner in the slightly silly closing stages.

The Man with Icy Eyes/L’uomo dagli occhi di ghiaccio (1971)

‘Stop looking at Babs, I was in this movie too!’

Buono was joined by two more notable US actors on the film, as De Martino manfully attempts to convince the audience that they’re watching an American movie. Keenan Wynn has a supporting role as the newspaper’s editor, mostly hiding behind thick glasses and a cigar (the dubbing really doesn’t help his performance) and Faith Domergue scores in a couple of scenes as the accused man’s wife. She’s almost unrecognisable from her roles in such midnight movie favourites as ‘This Island Earth’ (1955), ‘Cult of the Cobra’ (1955) and ‘It Came From Beneath The Sea’ (1955). She’d had a similarly small role in Lucio Fulci’s stand-out Giallo ‘One On Top of the Other/Perversion Story’ (1969) and only made three more films before retiring in the mid-1970s.

One aspect of the film that remains curious is astrologer, Isaac Thetman (Corrado Gaipa). Sabato consults him on the case because he and the senator were connected. The two don’t hit it off, and Giapa predicts the reporter’s death, which will occur at the very moment of Petrucci’s execution. Apparently, that’s the sort of thing you can get in your horoscope because ‘astrology is akin to the occult!’ Really? Ok. Having said that the fortune teller’s presence does lead to the film’s most inventive moment when he inadvertently reveals a crucial clue by walking under a neon sign.

The Man with Icy Eyes/L’uomo dagli occhi di ghiaccio (1971)

‘It’s all about the bone structure, dahling!’

De Martino collaborated on the screenplay here as he did on all his films, including quite a few cult titles, although these were not always of the best quality. These included cheesy Peplum ‘Perseus Against the Monsters’ (1963), above-the-fold Eurospy ‘Upperseven, l’uomo da uccidere’ (1965), undistinguished Giallo ‘The Insatiables’ (1969), Omen rip-off ‘Holocaust 2000’ (1977) and, best of all, the hilariously ridiculous adventures of ‘The Pumaman’ (1980). Sabato made the usual range of Spaghetti Westerns and crime pictures and starred in Umberto Lenzi’s Giallo ‘Seven Blood-Stained Orchids’ (1972) and Alfonso Brescia’s dreary ‘War of the Robots’ (1978).

Apart from the wonderful Buono, whose best days were already behind him, the real success story here is Czech actor Bouchet. After starting in bit parts for major Hollywood studios and appearing on episodes of ‘Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea’, ‘Tarzan’ and ‘Star Trek’, she returned to Europe to build a meaningful career via Gialli such as ‘Black Belly of the Tarantula’ (1971), ‘Amuck’ (1972) and ‘The Red Queen Kills Seven Times’ (1972). She regularly worked for the rest of the decade before her career began to slow down in the mid-1980s. In recent years, she has returned more often to the big screen, including a part in Martin Scorsese’s ‘Gangs of New York’ (2006), and is still active in the Italian industry as of 2020.

A rather tepid thriller which takes too much time to get going and then tries too hard to make up for it in the last half-hour.

Agent for H.A.R.M. (1966)

Agent_for_H.A.R.M._(1966)‘Minnie’s got the biggest feet in town’.

A biochemist escapes from deep behind the Iron Curtain and settles near San Diego to carry on his (unsupervised!) research into deadly bacteriological weapons. When his assistant dies in mysterious circumstances, the government send top agent Adam Chance to investigate.

Oh dear. Sub-James Bond TV pilot that didn’t sell and was sent out briefly to die on cinema screens. Peter Mark Richman (a familiar face if not a name) heads up matters as our 007 substitute and Wendell Corey plays his boss. Unfortunately, what Richman probably intended as suave sophistication merely comes across as smug and Corey remains resolutely office bound, which seems to have been a contractual requirement at the end of his career. The lust interest is provided by the gorgeous Barbara Bouchet but the acting plaudits (such as they are) go inevitably to Martin Kosleck as the villain of the piece.

We realise we’re in for a pretty rough ride fairly early on. Chance is hanging out on the training ground with sexy Aliza Gur (‘From Russia With Love’ (1963)) when he suggests she had ‘better get back to the Judo range.’ Later on, he displays brilliant tactical awareness when he garrottes one bad guy from behind whilst the villain is driving, sending their vehicle crashing down a cliff side. He’s just as useless at the romantic stuff too, allowing Bouchet to exchange guns whilst they’re enjoying some extended tonsil hockey. However, it doesn’t help that her secret 3rd arm provides particularly useful for this purpose.

Agent For H.A.R.M.(1966)

Smug? Me?

In the only vague piece of invention in the script, the enemy agents use spore guns, which literally fire a lethal disease at their victims. Chance takes them on because he works for H.A.R.M., which stands for ‘Human Aetiological Relations Machine’.  Fair enough, but shouldn’t the fight against biological weapons have some scientific input, rather than just be left to a bunch of spies occasionally pointing guns at each other?

Action sequences are limited to a shootout at a private airport near the end (when we are just sooo past caring) and Richman flouncing around on his motorbike a bit. Gadget play is just some hidden microphones and the plastic spore guns. There are no big set pieces and very minor stunt work. All these are elements that could be considered crucial to this kind of an enterprise. Director Gerd Oswald also made the excellent noir ‘A Kiss Before Dying’ (1956) but obviously 10 years is a long time in Hollywood. It all makes for a seriously dismal 84 minutes.

Adam Chance never returned in something or other. Bloody good job too.