Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception, for your aghast befuddlement

Monday, June 15, 2009

Get in My Arachnid Black Belly!

There's something doped up and jet lagged in the giallo tropes of La Tarantola dal ventre nero (1971), one of the many "commercially minded" animal-titled films to come out in the wake of Argento's big hit, The Bird with Crystal Plumage (1970). Everything good La Tarantola has going for it seems borrowed from Plumage, including the use of a heavy breathing avant garde percussive Ennio Morricone score. Well, sometimes a heavy breathing avant garde percussive Ennio Morricone score is enough! Add some Bond girls and... well, even if nobody goes home happy, nobody goes home disappointed either.

Our cop lead (Giancarlo Giannini--"Inspector Mathis" in Casino Royale) gets the most screen time, with the hot starlets (Claudine Auger, Barbara Bouchet, Barbara Bach) barely registering as characters before they are set up and knocked down like puling bowling pins. Too bad, because while he's very expressive--with big doleful eyes--Giannini lacks his future self's gravitas. He's less a cop here and more a benzo junkie swimming through the tail end of an expired prescription. He lets prime suspects go if they sass or stall him and, though he's clearly way out of his depth, never thinks to ask for a partner or back-up to helps solve this multiple homicide case. What kind of police station assigns a case that gets new victims nightly to a single doleful detective? Oh well, there must be a bottle of J&B somewhere around here amid all the other giallo niceties: the fetishistic serial killer, blackmailers, acupuncturist accessories, red sports cars, musty offices and plush love nests, stamps on envelopes in the jacket of the murder victims, nature films (the wasp paralyzes the tarantula then lays eggs in its big black belly), loads of tracking shots and pull foci through trees in the park and the hustle bustle of Rome's bustling, hustling streets; suspects running over sewer grates (shot from below) and up and down twisting outdoor staircases past little dingy gray polizia cars. It's all there, just waiting to be assembled.

Giannini fits the bill in body but not in spirit. He needs a handsome bland photographer or musician--inexplicably linked to the killer as in the Argento blueprint--to play cat and mouse games with. Without such a civilian foil, Giannini has no one to spar with but himself and a handful of trite clues: miles of film flow by depicting his subtly rendered internal struggle --usually via his sitting in his car staring blankly out the side window, or buttoning his drab raincoat. When he's not around, however, Tarantola is giallo right down to its kinky gold curtains and fetishistic toys and latex gloves... and mannequins, naturally.

Still, it would all be just much ado about nothing, except for the aforementioned Morricone score, which provides a cacophonic counterpoint whenever it can. You don't even need a story when Ennio is at the top of his game like he is here. All crumbling electric guitars, atonal mashes of the keyboard, deep breathing and wheezy organs, he catches and balances the woozy mise-en-scene the way a patient friend might help a stumbling drunk to his car.

Considering the by-the-numbers direction of journeyman-hack Paolo Cavara (Mondo Cane) and the fact that Tarantolo's screenplay was written by woman (Lucille Lans) it's perhaps no surprise that a) the film is lacking the drive and momentum that Catholic male guilt and sexual frustration can provide, and b) its strengths lie in its 'weaknesses,' in its swooning, feminine sexuality,  which feminist horror studies fans will note is almost completely free of voyeuristic "eye"-conography. The stripping nude of the female victims and the paralysis method seem to set the stage for kinky sexual torture, rape, etc., but censors or soft stomachs mercilessly (or--if you prefer--mercifully) make these scenes short, as if the killer, after going through all the trouble of getting victim set up for torture, wimps out and just stabs and runs (though this also serves to keep the killer's gender open to question).

Dull as the film can be in stretches, the great disc from Blue Underground is so crisp and uniformly strong in color--the music so boldly reproduced--that a discerning trash film fan has little choice but to embrace it. I can imagine really hating The Black Belly of the Tarantula on a faded badly cropped and edited VHS, but seeing it on a good widescreen TV or projector is like being part of a glorious archeological excavation, digging a window back to a long gone world of macho mustaches, shoulder-length hair, drab grey raincoats over shiny shoes, relentless drizzle, bohemians, cocaine smuggled in tarantula aquariums, and Barbara Bach sporting some of the longest, straightest, shiniest hair in all of gialli land.

The most off-putting aspect of this film, if we're being honest, which makes the murders more a relief than a source of tension, is the sleepwalker idiocy of all the characters (not just our Ritalin-deprived sheriff, all of them). Most notably dumb is a woman who, after running into her apartment building while being chased through the streets by the killer, rushes inside her door, and stands panting right by the door while refusing to even turn the lock, and leaving the big heavy chain just hanging down as she stands panting by the door, dazed, perhaps struggling to remember her lines or to hear our shouts at the screen from the presumed audience of the future: "Lock the damn door!" All the victims of our maniac rush to their deaths like lemmings (note to giallo characters: if you want to rat out your friends to the cops, don't boldly announce your intentions to them while standing unarmed and alone in a darkened, deserted, cavernous health spa).

In the way that would become de rigueur for the slasher films of the 1980s the slack-jawed dumbness of the victims not only lightens the load for the screenwriter but allows the audience to retire to that dubious place of moral safety so cherished by repressive cultures like Catholic Italy: the she was "asking for it" defense. But while this can enable our emotional distancing so the violence is more bearable it also makes us lose interest; I found myself sighing in relief once each murder was done, knowing I'd have at least a few minutes to relax and go get a drink before having to endure watching another eloi passively bow her head to receive the morlock needle.

With so little suspense or empathy generated by the killings, the big mystery becomes how a cop as foggy and strung-out as Giannini's Inspector Tellini ever made it to homicide in the first place. He should be handing out parking tickets, at best. When you see him, for example , step into an abandoned house, where the killer might be hiding, you know you have time to go to the bathroom and mix a round of cocktails for your guests and he'll still only have made it a few feet farther inside when you get back. No wonder all these sex killers ran so rampant in 1970s Italian cinema! Drunk cops soaked in ennui are no defense. Thank God he's handing in his resignation at the end of the case, or at least considering it: "I was unable to save a woman last night," he groans to his wife/girlfriend, who is too busy dealing furniture to pay attention Meanwhile the heavy sighs on the soundtrack begin to resonate less with feminine lust and more with resigned exacerbation. He was unable to save a woman? No shit. Well at least he kind of halfway tried.

From a surrealist standpoint the detective's confusion puts him in the rarefied realm of somnambulist shamuses, inhabited by the likes of Mickey Rourke in Angel Heart; Bruce Willis in the Sixth Sense; Asia Argento in The Stendahl Syndrome; Ralph Meeker in Kiss Me Deadly--characters who may or may not be already dead, as if they awoke from a dream into the film and don't really remember a damn thing about investigative protocol. But at least in those films the target always turns out to be someone or something intrinsically tied up with the pursuer. In Belly the final disconnect becomes more of a Dirty Harry sort of "this time it's personal!" punch out, which illuminates our hero's darkened path not a watt. Oh well, if you're so Xanaxed out you don't even know where or who you are it helps to have some really weird Morricone to help you home. One psychedelically twisted note of discordant guitar and you know that you're safe in the beloved giallo genre, where druggy amnesia isn't only forgiven, it's practically essential.

1 comment:

  1. I saw this film a few months ago because it was at the top of my "random" queue when I reactivated Netflix (which has long since gone dormant again).

    It was only there because of the presence of Stefania Sandrelli, but she's grossly underused in this film, as she usually is. Even Bertolucci, making her look great as the ditzy girlfriend in The Conformist, has her play second banana to Dominique Sanda, and then makes her a frumpy schoolteacher in 1900. I'm tempted to say she was best-used in Divorce Italian Style though that's an observation that would fit in with your post on the little sister from Miracle on Morgan's Creek...


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