Digging up a kinky Italian genre
Say what you will about Hollywood studios and their tendency to run profitable formulas into the ground the Italian film industry's always been a million times worse.
In America, when a movie like Gladiator makes a boatload of cash, you can bet that the next few years will be lousy with crappy knockoffs like Troy, Alexander, and Kingdom of Heaven. Ditto with disaster films, torture-porn cheapies, or Rush Hour installments. In Italy, especially in the '70s, it almost seemed like a national point of pride to crank out as many cannibal flicks, spaghetti Westerns, and Three's Company-esque sex farces as they could get away with. But the genre that Italy ran into the ground the hardest was the giallo.
I've written about these films here before. But for those of you unfamiliar with the giallo, the term comes from the Italian word for yellow the color of the once wildly popular, lurid dimestore novels that featured serial killers with kinky, Freudian motives and sexy signoras who tended to wind up on the business end of those killers' cutlery. I can't vouch for the books, but the movies are like crack...you know, in the good, non-teeth-falling-out way. Kind of like the movies Brian De Palma used to make.
Dario Argento made the giallo hip with his inventive, Hitchcockian early films like The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970), Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971), and Cat O'Nine Tails (1971). And not surprisingly, with Argento's success came a pile of imitators. Some were fantastic, like those directed by Umberto Lenzi and Luciano Ercoli; some were inept...or worse, just jaw-droppingly misogynistic. But like a sexy, nightie-clad actress in one of its films, the genre soon murdered itself off.
Only a handful of the best giallos are available on DVD here in the States (I'm still waiting for a non-bootleg copy of Lenzi's 1975 camp classic Eyeball), but of those that can be bought on Amazon or queued up on Netflix, 1971's The Black Belly of the Tarantula is on my short list of favorites. Why? Because director Paolo Cavara serves up a hell of a twist ending, it spares no expense with its freaky Ennio Morricone score, and it features a cast with an Oscar nominee and three Bond girls. You heard me right three!
The film opens with Casino Royale's lovely Barbara Bouchet nude on a massage table, getting a rubdown from a blind masseur I'd like to think that Val Kilmer and Mira Sorvino's 1999 turd At First Sight is an homage, but who am I kidding?
We're told pretty much from the get-go that the blond Bouchet is a ''nymphomaniac'' (although it's hard to be sure because of the horrendous dubbing). So it's no surprise that as soon as she gets dressed and heads home, she becomes the first victim of a sadistic killer a sadistic killer who injects his easy-on-the-eyes prey with a serum taken from a rare form of tarantula that causes deep paralysis. In other words, once injected, the victim can witness her own murder. You have to admit that's a pretty clever angle. So clever, in fact, that Armando Crispino felt no guilt about ripping it off for a scene in his own giallo, 1975's Autopsy.
Giancarlo Giannini that Oscar nominee I promised you (for 1976's Seven Beauties) turns up at the scene of the crime the next morning as the disheveled detective and scratches his head like Columbo minus the lazy eye. He immediately suspects the husband, who, as any giallo aficionado will tell you, ain't the perp. His motives aren't nearly twisted enough. Bouchet was merely cheating on him. And in Italy, that's hardly a killable offense.
It does, however, raise one of the most enjoyable parts of watching these films. In a giallo, anyone can be the killer. The cop could be the killer. The cop's wife could be the killer. See that dude in the raincoat crossing the sreet in the background? He could be the killer! It's like Agatha Christie puttanesca.
So when Giannini goes home and is met at the door by his slightly loco new wife, your antennae might twitch. After all, Giannini's work has been keeping him away from home an awful lot lately, and she does seem a little needy and unhinged. Anyway, before you have much chance to explore her possible motive, another beautiful woman is killed in a fur shop. The M.O.'s the exact same. But Giannini doesn't make the connection. He's kind of slow on the uptake, to be honest.
Okay, so you're probably wondering who the other two Bond girls in the film are, so I'll just cut to the chase: Thunderball's foxy Claudine Auger is the owner of that ritzy health spa where Bouchet was getting the wrinkles in her birthday suit ironed out, and The Spy Who Loved Me's Barbara Bach (a.k.a. Mrs. Ringo Starr) is the spa's bee-stung-lipped, kneesock-wearing receptionist who always seems to have a concerned look on her face. And she should, for reasons I won't get into here.
I don't want to give too much away in case you actually want to try to solve this thing on your own. But let's just say a cocaine-smuggling ring, a peeping Tom with a Super-8 camera, a portly gay waiter who makes off-color wisecracks, and enough MacGuffins to give Hitchcock vertigo come into play. Anything I tell you beyond that might give the thing away. Yeah, right.