Ohhhhh "Black Belly of the Tarantula"--you are yet another giallo that has left me with conflicted feelings and a vague sense of disappointment. Why must this happen over and over again as I search for kinky gold in a barrel of things that are not kinky gold? This Italo-thriller offering, directed by "Mondo Cane" creator Paolo Cavara, is a vexing bit of cinema for me. Let's get this out of the way right up front: there is no denying that it is a thoughtfully-structured, elegantly-lensed, and competently-acted thriller. The murderer's modus operandi is sufficiently blood-chilling, and there's some very fine female anatomy on display. Additional genre points are earned through the casting of three Bond Girls (to wit: Barbara Bouchet, Claudine Auger, and Barbara Bach), and the male lead is played by the actually-very-talented genre vet Giancarlo Giannini.
Police Inspector Tellini (Giannini) is investigating the savage murder of Maria Zani (Bouchet), an adulterous socialite whose fiery relationship with her husband pegs him as a prime suspect. When a second woman turns up killed in an identical fashion to Mrs. Zani, Tellini realizes that something larger and more sinister is afoot. A story of intrigue, blackmail and madness begins to develop that ultimately leads to the unmasking of the killer. The manner of the killings is truly creepy--the murderer (rubber-gloved here instead of black-leather-gloved; genre ingenuity at its finest, folks!) stabs his victim with a poisoned dart and once she is paralyzed, he disembowels and mutilates the still-living woman. In a word: YIKES. Probably for the best, this movie holds back on the graphic grue, emphasizing instead the psychological terror of the murderer's stalking spree. The murder scenes are among the better-crafted giallo killings I've seen, and one setpiece in which a woman working in a dressmaker's shop, surrounded by mannequins, is particularly spooky. There are some clever shots framed by windows, frosted glass, and in one case the glassed-in side of a building that add a great visual texture to the movie.
All this sounds pretty interesting. Sooo... what's my problem?
One of the things I enjoy the most about the giallo form is the emphasis on dark, damaged characters. Something that distinguishes this type of thriller is its relentlessly downbeat view of humanity. In the world of the giallo, all cops can be bought, all husbands will betray their wives, and all women are subject to severe sexual hangups. It's more than the film noir griminess that's familiar to American audiences--there's something twisted about each character in a giallo, and these folks seem to be motivated entirely by their ids. Where a film noir plot might involve an avaricious wife caught staging the elaborate murder of her husband, a giallo murderess would be compelled to kill as a result of the trauma inflicted on her by her wicked mother--and this murderess might possibly turn out to be a man. THAT'S the kind of universe we're dealing with here, people.
Since a significant portion of "Black Belly of the Tarantula" is spent with Tellini and his girlfriend Laura (Auger), who seem to be pretty nice people with a pretty nice relationship, it means the distinguishing aspect of the form is missing. SURE, the killer is a perverse madman, and YES, the victims each harbor a socially deviant secret, but relatively little screen time is dedicated to developing those folks. It's testament to the success of the pervy stuff in this film that whenever scenes are focused on the plot's antagonists, the movie comes alive. I'd have liked to see the blackmailer characters further developed, and the scenes inside a spa catering to wealthy women just brim with weirdness--it's a shame that more time wasn't devoted to these elements. There's simply too much screen time devoted to Tellini's police procedures and domestic life and during these scenes, the movie simply drags.
For Italo-thriller completists, there are certainly worse movies out there than "The Black Belly of the Tarantula," and I wouldn't warn against seeing the film. If nothing else, it's an interesting example of how diminishing a giallo's perversity diminishes its effectiveness.