Paolo Cavara's 1971 giallo THE BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA is one of the finest giallo films ever produced, a multi-layered, complex mix of giallo and poliziotto mechanisms that manages to be both misogynistic and gruesome while still being accessible and entertaining. It boasts one of the most remarkable casts in giallo history and while it never quite reaches the level of visual invention of Argento and Martino, it is a stunning film to behold. This is one of those films that you wouldn't change a single frame of if you were given the chance. It is simply perfect the way it is, a grim, bloody, thrilling murder mystery.
THE BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA has one of those long-winded giallo plots that don't quite lend themselves to simple plot synopses but I'll give it a go. Maria Zani is found murdered just a few hours after her husband receives a photograph of her with another man. The cop in charge of the case, Inspector Tellini, believes the husband might be to blame. When another woman turns up dead (and a search of the building results in a stash of cocaine) the plot thickens. But Tellini isn't quite convinced that the drugs and the murders are connected, and neither is Maria Zani’s husband, Paolo. He's taken on finding the killer himself. Soon enough, a few more women have been murdered, Paolo is dead and Tellini realizes that everything that has been happening can be traced back to a posh beauty treatment facility run by an enigmatic woman named Laura. Hmm... not a good synopsis but what are you going to do? Saying anymore would ruin the film.
THE BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA is steeped in sexuality. From its opening scene of Barbara Bouchet getting a naked rubdown to the revelation of the killer's motives, sexuality is of vital importance to the film. Fetishized murder, a tactic used throughout the giallo film, is particularly strong here. The killer uses long acupuncture needles to immobilize his victims, all beautiful women, before taking a large blade to them. The first murder in the film is a mishmash of imagery - a phallic needle, breasts, eyes, a long, sharp knife - all culminating in a shot of a champagne bottle spilling its contents onto the floor. This visualization of deviant sexual impulses through not-so-subtle imagery continues through the whole film and is married with a storyline about infidelity, rage, desire, sexual humiliation and domination. Inspector Tellini is marked as the hero of the film not only by his status as a Police Inspector but also by his relationship with his young wife, the only truly healthy relationship in the entire film, and his desire to make a better life with her.
Probably best known for his work on the MONDO CANE series of films with Jacopetti, Cavara has constructed a film full of striking imagery. The film's standout scene, a chase through a room full of mannequins, is tense and visually masterful. Cavara's use of focus pulls, quick, rapid fire editing and creative mise en scene creates one of the best murder set-pieces the giallo film has to offer. It's only a very brief segment of the film but it is the film's best. Cavara's use of the mannequins in the foreground and background accentuates the feelings of paranoia and helplessness and the final coup de grace delivered by the killer is made all the more disturbing by the victim's blank stare and the subtle touch of having her slump forward slightly as the killer pulls the knife from her stomach. A later chase on a rooftop provides a nice jolt of adrenaline but nothing, not even the final, brutal showdown between Tellini and the killer, tops it.
As you would expect from a film produced by Marcello Danon, all of the talent behind and in front of the camera is top notch. Much is made of the fact that THE BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA boasts three Bond girls in its cast. While none of the three - Barbara Bouchet, Claudine Auger, and Barbara Bach - were ever really known for their acting chops, all three do fine work here and all three contribute to the combined beauty of the cast. Stefania Sandrelli and Annabella Incontrera round out the eye candy while Rossella Falk, Silvano Tranquilli, and Giancarlo Giannini provide the muscle. Also of utmost importance to the film's success are two behind-the-scenes names. Marcello Gatti's cinematography is crisp and beautiful and Ennio Morricone provides yet another amazingly evocative score. From top to bottom, you won't find a better ensemble of actors and filmmakers and together they have created a true classic of the giallo film, easily one of the best of its kind.