Saturday, February 7, 2009

Gory Giallo by Golly: The Black Belly of the Tarantula

“Giallo” (“Yellow” in Italian) denotes a literary style of lurid pulp fiction first published in 1929 by Mondadori Editore, still the largest publishing house in Italy. The name derives from the distinctive yellow covers of the Mondadori paperback books (I've included an example, below). Giallo paperbacks told shocking, sleazy tales of depraved killers, loose women, greedy men and, generally, people of low breeding, feral cunning and no particular class (anyone who ever escaped a crazy ex-wife and former in-laws will have a strong point of reference for understanding Giallo characters). The tales were flavored with heavy moralizing, and spiced liberally with sex and violence so readers could have their sordid slice of cake and eat it, too. But most pleasing to the publisher was the profitability of these nasty little novels: Giallo books sold like biscotti in a Neapolitan cafe. Ah, Bella Italia....

By the late 1960s, a genre of horror-thriller films known as Gialli began appearing in Italian cinemas. Many are available today on DVD for broad-minded cinema enthusiasts who think they've seen it all (they haven't). These exploitation pictures feature bizarre murders, torrential bloodletting to rival anything in an abattoir and, yes, gratuitous nudity and sex galore. The mise en scène is characterized by lush color, stylish cinematography and unusual musical compositions that can veer wildly from classical to rock. Like the novels before them, the Giallo films almost always revolve on a “whodunit” plot, blended with the conventions of a slasher film. In classical Italian style, these grotesque elements are elevated to near-operatic proportions. For the folks in the cheap seats who can't hear so good, we are talking style over substance.

The result was a completely crazy (and now almost-forgotten) genre of Italian cinema: weird, wild and wired, with heroes as bug-eyed as the villains they pursued in the name of justice. Their adventures live on for anyone rambunctious enough to watch one today and see what twisted cinema was like 40 years ago. Combining equal parts horror and (often enough, unintentional) hilarity, Giallo films are trash polished to a very high lustre. And yet, in both technical and artistic terms, the films are aesthetically superior to the slimy grindhouse flicks that unspooled in Times Square theaters around the same time, but are still quite inferior to the slick, expensive thrillers of Hitchcock or Henri-Georges Clouzot (Les Diaboliques). Giallo pictures occupy that vague space between high art and utter garbage. They exist in their own surrealist dreamworld of crazed madmen and moist, hyper-erotic women flaunting badly-dated fashions and nihilistic attitudes.

Sound good?

Then come along with me for a statewide joyride into the forbidden world of Giallo Cinema, where switchblade Sicilians and screaming bimbos oozing Marinara sauce satisfied the prurient curiosity of moviegoers more than a generation ago. I have found a sterling example of Giallo on an attractively-priced DVD.

Si accomodi, prego….

Some critics say “The Black Belly of the Tarantula” (1971) is the greatest Giallo in the history of this disreputable genre. That's sufficient endorsement for me to take a closer look.

Aye, film fans, it's a gory Giallo in the extreme, featuring three Bond girls and enough nudity and perversion for two or three low-budget horror films. Both behind and in front of the camera, there's a lot of talent at work in this overripe Italian horror flick, which would play well on bad-movie night with a pizza — heavy on the tomato sauce, bella mia.

And now for a bit of plot
A psycho killer injects gorgeous women with a paralyzing poison to the back of the neck, then produces a long, ugly knife, forcing each victim to become a mute witness to her own disembowelment. The maniac’s modus operandi follows the killing routine of the black wasp, which will stun a tarantula with her sting before laying larvae in the victim’s belly. Lovely, eh?

As the beautiful bodies pile up, the determined detective assigned to the case (Giancarlo Gianni, who played a similar role 30 years later in Hannibal) finds himself drawn into a vile underworld of debauchery and sadism.

Cinematic context
Director Paolo Cavaro (who gave the world the original, notorious shockumentary Mondo Cane), delivers a tale of madness and murder con gusto, with supporting work from Claudine Auger (Thunderball), Barbara Bach (The Spy Who Loved Me), and the breathtakingly beautiful Barbara Bouchet (Casino Royale; 1967), who commands attention from the opening credits with her nude massage and intriguingly blasé attitude. Rowwwr.

Composer Ennio Morricone (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) turns in one of his more inscrutable scores — lush horn arrangements punctuated by low, feminine sighs. Bizarre. Highlights include Marcello Gatti's deep-focus cinematography, which is gorgeous. This film is positively luminous, radiant with rich color.

Thoughts on the DVD
A sharp digital transfer (reportedly made from the original camera negative), decent audio, and modest extras round out this DVD from the cult-minded folks at Blue Underground. The Black Belly of the Tarantula delivers 98 minutes of sleazy Eurotrash entertainment.

Disc supplements include a 15-minute interview with the son of producer Marcello Danon, whose production company oversaw dozens of Gialli, heavy on gore and erotica, but light on plot. Most of these were made in the late 1960s and early '70s. In recounting the history of the company, Lorenzo Danon recalls that his father was also a co-producer of the classic French film noir, Rififi (1955), the granddaddy of all caper flicks.

During frequent lulls in the action, my bad-movie gang enjoyed toggling the remote control between the Italian and dubbed-English audio tracks. We also had a big time comparing the dubbed dialogue to the optional English subtitles. Much hilarity ensued. Here, truly, is a film that is lost in translation.

Like Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), the picture concludes with an epilogue featuring a half-assed psychological explanation for all the murder and mayhem, but by this time most cult-movie fans are bolting for the exits (or hitting the eject button on their DVD players).

Caveat Lector
Modern, by-the-numbers slasher flicks owe a debt to obscure European horror films like this one. Whether that is a good thing remains a matter of individual taste.

More importantly, The Black Belly of the Tarantula is not a date movie. But you knew that by now, didn’t you?

I'm cooking breakfast for Barbara Bouchet, so if this house is a-rockin’ don't bother knockin’. Everyone in the picture is guilty of melodramatic acting and delightfully dreadful dubbing. Since the characters make no sense, anyway, there’s no reason to take a crash-course in Italian. Ciao, baby.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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