Saturday, March 8, 2008

Review of The Black Belly of the Tarantula

Quick trivia question. Are there more governors in “Predator” (1987) or bond girls in “The Black Belly of the Tarantula” (1971)? No fair using the title of this review as a hint. In the final count Black Belly wins by one, with Barbara Bouchet (“Casino Royale”), Claudine Auger (“Thunderball”) and Barbara Bach (“The Spy Who Loved Me”) compared to Arnold Schwarzeneggar (California) and Jesse Ventura (Minnesota) . If Sonny Landham had won his 2003 gubernatorial campaign in Kentucky, they would have tied.

[Image: Barbara Bouchet in “The Black Belly of the Tarantula.”]

The opening “full body” massage with Barbara Bouchet will quickly dispel any lingering concern that this movie might be a drab arachnid documentary. Bouchet, a Czech-born actress, also starred in “The Red Queen Kills Seven Times,” “Don’t Torture a Duckling” and several other gialli. This time around, she gets herself stabbed to death within the first ten minutes of this film. However, I’m not about to let her relatively insignificant role in the film stop me from referencing this incriminating picture:

[Image: Barbara Bouchet as Kalinda in the original Star Trek, a malicious alien who takes the form of a sexy go-go dancer. William Shatner defeats her by aggressively teaching her how to make out, an attack that is the show used more often and more effectively than phasers. ]

Given her appearances in a James Bond movie, Star Trek and half a dozen gialli, I think Bouchet might just out-kitsch Jane Fonda.

But like I said, she gets stabbed to death before the protagonist even shows up. When the real star does waltz in, it’s Giancarlo Giannini! I’d just seen him in “Swept Away,” but it was tough to recognize him with the clean-shaven chin, bland suit and calm, capitalist demeanor. Incidentally, Giannini also appeared in a bond movie. He played Mathis in “Casino Royale.” That’s the 2006 version, not the 1967 version where Bouchet plays Moneypenny.

Anyway, Giannini plays Inspector Tellini, a man on the hunt for a serial killer who injects a poisoned needle into the spine of his victims so that they are helplessly paralyzed while he carves them up. This is all rather explicitly explained through a later scene wherein an entomologist describes the way a wasp stings and lays eggs within a tarantula. I guess that makes the many female victims in the movie the spiders. Go figure.

[Image: Rawg Aarrrg… Zzzzz bzzz cha… Krrrr. I composed my own soundtrack to go with the stock footage.]

Tellini quickly deduces that the sand in the tarantula terrarium isn’t sand at all. The wily entomologist is smuggling cocaine into the country via containers that no customs officer would dare to inspect closely. Possibly the best part about the whole extended tarantula scene is that it has NOTHING to do with the rest of the movie. Even the cocaine bust is entirely tangential (tarantugential?) to the plot!

[Image: Tarantulas are on my rather long list of creatures never to get hopped up on coke. Others apparently disagree.]

This irrelevant side story is symptomatic of “The Black Belly of the Tarantula” and goes a long way towards exposing its chief problem: really jagged and uneven writing. The film goes out of its way to make you think at least seven different red herrings are the real killer. The audience spends so long being distracted with potential killers that come and go at random, it’s a little difficult to follow the trail of clues.

[Images: Some of the many suspects still being introduced with less than 20 minutes to go in the film.]

One particular instance of misdirection is a photograph that figures as the prime piece of evidence for the first half of the film. In the background, out a window, you can see a jet landing. The detective speculates about using the size and trajectory of the plane to calculate where the photo was taken. After postulating this interesting line of attack the issue is never mentioned again. The killer is tracked by an entirely different means.

[Image: A jet landing in the background of a portrait. One of several intriguing, but ultimately pointless clues.]

Aside from the meandering plot, the film is actually quite excellent. Blue Underground has done an amazing job with the transfer and even provided an Italian language option with English subtitles in addition to the usual dub. Director Paolo Cavara did not have a particularly prolific or noteworthy career, but his handing of “Black Belly” is quite interesting. He leans too heavily on a strict structure of introducing and then snuffing out a new (usually gorgeous and female) character about every 15 minutes. He also relies on too many stock horror devices (“I can’t talk over the phone. I’ll tell you the identity of the killer when you drive over in person.”), but his technique really elevates the material.

For example, an early scene shows a red-head combing her hair at a mirror in an empty department store. She hears a noise and soon realizes that there is a killer nearby. She panics and does what every good murder victim does: she flees into the nearest chamber of manikins. On paper, there is nothing very inspired in this scene.

What makes it interesting is the camerawork and editing (well, also Ennio Morricone’s brilliant soundtrack). Paolo shoots the first minute of rising tension in compositions where a large portion of the image is blocked off. We see fragments of the woman coming up stars or moving past clothes racks from odd angles (including the floor). These shots are easily distinguishable from the killer’s POV, but they make us nervous just the same. The unusual framings are much easier to appreciate than the overdone alternative for inducing audience disorientation: extreme darkness.

[Image: One of Paolo’s fragment shot is a focus pull between a manikin’s profile and the victim’s. The way it doubles up the eye-line match adds to the eerie sense of being watched.]

The cut-rate increases throughout the scene, becoming fast and erratic by the end. When the killer finally strikes, rapid intercutting between the villain, the victim and the manikins makes the isolated murder seem more like a riot. The shot just before the killer lunges (see below) matches the line of motion by having a manikin swing into the camera. It flashes so briefly (less than a second) that we hardly notice that it wasn’t even recorded on the same set. The creepiness registers, even if the precise details do not.

[Image: Do not embrace.]

Paolo uses similar tricks to enhance or complicate the visceral impact during several of the murders. In Barbara Bouchet’s case, he alternates between a close-up of the knife being drawn through the stomach and a close-up of Bouchet’s face. Because the killer has paralyzed her, an emotional response can not be shown with anguished expressions. Instead, the emphasis is focused on the knife wound, a particularly blood and drawn out slash. The shot lengths maintain a consistent cadence of about two second on the stomach, half a second on the face, over several cycles. This type of uneven rhythm is far rarer than the escalating tempo mentioned in the previous scene and helps to artistically mask the real reason for not using a master shot (the face is real, but the body is a blood-filled dummy) for the entire sequence.

[Image: Paolo finishes the murder scene by breaking his alternating pattern and cutting to a spilled bottle, a nice associative stand-in for the classical pool of blood.]

The type of clever manipulation that makes the bottle work also gets a delayed jump-scare at another point in the film. Several times we see the hands of the killer preparing his needles. In these shots, we come to associate the killer with his gloves (not unusual except that his gloves are brown rather than the tradition black), but also with the distinctive lamp whose light he works by. Much later in the film, a female character comes to spend a night at a friend’s apartment. The camera slowly pans right, eventually coming to rest on the lamp. The audience experiences a brief beat of recognition before the shock/horror can set in. It is a little more subtle and crafty of a reaction than simply showing us the weapon or a body or something else that is only a single degree of separation from the ensuing crime.

The examples I’ve given so far are fairly straight-forward in both their motivations and intended reactions, but other cases are more ambiguous. There are definitely moments throughout “Black Belly” that seem to have higher aspirations than the frequently trashy trapping.

[Images: Don’t get me wrong, the film is “trashy.”]

Again, the most compelling artistic flairs flare up during murder sequences. Consider the following series of three consecutive shots.

A frighten woman, who is being blackmailed, comes in off the street and up the stairs to her apartment. She immediately locks the door behind her.
The killer, not far behind, gently tries the handle from the other side.
The detective, at the outside threshold, rings the doorbell to meet with the woman.

The conspicuous similarities between the shots make for palpable tension, implying the proximity of the three actions. More obviously, it draws a common thread through the three characters, each theoretically playing out very different archetypes. This unexpected unity is disconcerting; especially on top of the uneasy confusion of roles that Paolo infuses throughout this section.

At first, the audience is led to believe that the woman is actually the killer. Note, also, that she wears black gloves while the killer dons a softer shade. Once it becomes obvious that she is not a suspect, Inspector Tellini adopts the part of blackmailer (the real one is actually dead) to make contact with the woman. When she finally does open the door, it is the detective waiting, standing in the place where the killer was moments before. Though I can’t say for sure what Paolo’s full purpose intentions were, I think he creates a certain sense of moral ambiguity and shared culpability within the conventional partitions of cop, killer and victim.

This theory is reinforced by the final confrontation between Tellini and the murderer. The enraged inspector slams the killer against the wall repeatedly. With each blow, Paolo cuts through a rapid montage of the villain’s crimes and corpses. Tellini’s brutality is rendered in markedly unflatteringly close-ups, intercut with rhyming shots of the killer’s bloodied mug. Is the implication that Tellini is equally capable of murder, and even sadism, when pushed to the right mental condition? Maybe it’s just justification so the audience will excuse his violent behavior? [SPOILER next line] The fact that Tellini ends the moving by retiring, saying something about not being able to take it, makes me think he saw something in himself that he likes a little as the traumatic case itself.

[Image: Tellini’s not-so-valiant defeat of the killer juxtaposed with the very violence that he is trying to avenge.]

Even beyond these little editing excursions “The Black Belly of the Tarantula” is a visual pleasure. Paolo seems to prefer nudity to fashion, but the art and décor are in high style.

[Image: I don’t know which is more tasteless: the phone, the glasses or the wall art.]
[Image: The sets abound with spherical lighting, pop art and blankets sewn from arctic foxes.]

Paolo may not be as bold with color as Bava and Miraglia or as eccentric with architecture as Argento, but he knows how to pick a location and stage a scene to work with the drama. One chase scene in particular chews through several memorable set pieces (including a needle/knife-like sculpture), really accentuated by the creative camera positioning. When the chase moves to the rooftop, one shot leans acrophobically over the edge to look down at a crimson car driving past. We then cut to a view from the moving vehicle, cruising by the building. The main action is still up above, but this cues us for later developments with the mysterious driver.

[Images: Can you find all the characters in each of these shots? Answers: (Top) 2 in the rear-ground through the glass, in the center. (Middle) 2 on the second twist of the spiral stairs. (Bottom) 2 in the foreground, 2 on the rooftop.]

A quieter example makes use of a white birch forest. Tellini and his wife go there after he views some uncomfortable evidence that the killer is targeting him. While ostensibly a typical retreat from the city into the comfort of nature, the tall, pale and sparse trees are hardly a reassuring sight. Several insert shots show close-ups of the sharp, sawn branches, once again reminding us of the needle/knife.

An attempt on Tellini’s life magnifies the needle/knife metaphor to an industrial level. The escalation is presumably required for dealing with the active male foe as opposed to the easy female prey.

[Image: An attack with pipe pikes, or as I like to call them, mecha-needles.]

Lastly, I want to applaud Morricone’s distinctive soundtrack. It ranges from prickly, plucking tension pieces to smooth 60’s pop with a little bit of vocals. One of the best tracks mixes in heavy breathing that, depending on the context, is either sultry or creepy. Trust Morricone to get just the right intonation so that it sounds like post-coital sighs one moment, and the ominous heavy breathing of a psychotic stalker the next. In the films melancholic conclusion it plays over Tellini as he fades into a crowd and it suddenly sounds like the exhausted exhalations of a beaten man.

[Image: Still caught in the web after all?]

“The Black Belly of the Tarantula” may not be on the core curriculum of gialli, but it is certainly fun. The play between reliable clichés and technical innovations makes can satisfy both fans of “classical” giallo-thrillers and the more eccentric experiments.

Walrus Rating: 8.0

No comments: