A sleek thriller from the bloodier end of the giallo spectrum, Black Belly of the Tarantula is very similar in style and tone to the many Hitchcock-inspired thrillers that Brian De Palma made—it’s a highly sexualized and nearly operatic melodrama about a psycho who mutilates and kills beautiful women. Accordingly, the same question that one can ask about De Palma’s ugliest movies can be asked about this Italian production. Does Black Belly of the Tarantula justify its own existence? Not really. Although noteworthy for certain elements, including a parade of gorgeous starlets and a truly eerie score by the great Ennio Morricone, Black Belly of the Tarantula is vile for the way it eroticizes the degradation of women. Some psycho-killer movies are worthwhile because they provide insights into the human condition, and it’s true that the people behind Black Belly of the Tarantula follow a fairly true moral compass. Nonetheless, how many images of lovely ladies being sliced open does the world really need?
Set in Rome, the picture tracks an investigation by Inspector Tellini (Giancarlo Giannini) into a series of strange murders. As depicted in loving detail, each murder involves an unknown assailant stabbing a woman in the back of the neck with an acupuncture needle, thereby paralyzing the women so the murderer can disembowel her while she’s still conscious. Tellini learns that this method of killing is inspired by the way a black wasp kills its natural enemy, the tarantula. In between murder vignettes and scenes of Tellini examining grisly crime scenes, the picture shows Tellini interrogating suspects and also shows Tellini’s home life. The most interesting thread in the movie is a subplot about Tellini questioning whether he’s cut out to be a homicide investigator, not only because seeing savagery wounds his soul, but also because the killer makes sport of Tellini by surreptitiously filming a sexual encounter between the inspector and his wife.
Despite its formulaic story and sadistic extremes, Black Belly of the Tarantula is interesting to watch for the way it stimulates the senses. Director Paolo Cavara contrives many dynamic images and even a few somewhat erotic ones (for example, the shots of a nude woman viewed through jellied glass while she receives a massage). And even though Cavara’s chase scenes are perfunctory, he exhibits real glee when filming murders, contriving dramatic camera angles and translating peril into something like choreography. European beauties passing before Cavara’s camera include three women associated with the James Bond franchise—Claudine Auger, Barbara Bach, and Barbara Bouchet—while Morricone’s inventive melodies are like aural candy with bitter undertones. Furthermore, Giannini gives a strong performance in the leading role, blending desperation, ennui, fear, and rage into a sympathetic characterization.
Black Belly of the Tarantula: FUNKY