Paolo Cavara is best remembered for working alongside Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi in 1962's seminal exploitation shock-doc Mondo Cane. The film went on to spawn an entire genre without Cavara and even drew a number of titles latching on to the Mondo name for sensationalistic purposes, despite unrelated subject matter. It was Cavara's 1971 giallo Black Belly of the Tarantula (La tarantola dal ventre nero) that put him on the map as a serious director. Boasting an interesting cast with as many redheads as red herrings, Marcello Danon's story leads us into a world of blackmail conspiracy, drug trafficking and a black-clad revenge murderer.
The film opens with a languid and sensual Maria (Barbara Bouchet) receiving a nude massage to the tune of a feminine sigh (Edda Dell'Orso) interspersed with sumptuous horn arrangements; simply voluptuous and courtesy of Italian maestro Ennio Morricone. Afterward, we are witness to a fight with Maria's estranged husband (Silvano Tranquilli) who has been sent some illicit photographs of his wife in flagrante delicto. Soon after the quarrel she is attacked by an unidentified assailant who pierces her with a wicked needle and slices her belly open--two phalluses for the life of one. Inspector Tellini, played by the forever brooding Giancarlo Giannini, is called to investigate the murder but the evidence doesn't add up and before he can determine why, another woman is murdered the same way.
Tellini uncovers a drug and blackmail ring along with the killer's rather gruesome method of attack. It seems that our mysterious murderer fashions his kill after the way a particular species of wasp attacks a tarantula. First, the wasp paralyzes it with a poison stinger before injecting its eggs into the belly of the tarantula so the larvae will eventually eat it alive. In other words, the victims are paralyzed and forced to bear witness to their own murders. Whether the killer actually 'injects' the victims after paralyzing and slicing them open is never clear but considering the type of incision he makes, it seems implied that he's spending time with the body long after we leave the scene. A weary Tellini confides to his wife that he's considering walking away from it all but as the body count rises he is drawn further into a dangerous web of murder and intrigue which eventually strikes too close to home.
There are shades of gialli greats peppered throughout the film but Cavara delivers a fairly well crafted tale in his own right. A rooftop chase scene is reminiscent of Argento's Cat O'Nine Tails and the film follows another bestiary, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970). Bava's influence can be seen in the beautiful but eerie mannequin murder sequence, where an extended cut shows a victim trapped by a barrage of mannequins that seemingly come to life. Finally, there's Fulci, evident in every fetishistic close-up including the skintastic one of Bouchet during the intro. There are far worse comparisons.
Fetishism runs rampant throughout Tarantula, beyond the bellies of its gorgeous victims; however it would have been easy to rely on the breathtaking female cast which includes three Bond girls: Claudine Auger (Thunderball), Barbara Bach (The Spy Who Loved Me) and the previously mentioned Barbara Bouchet (Casino Royale). Add Rossella Falk, a well-known actress at the time, and Stefania Sandrelli, an actress on the rise, and you have an impressive group. Instead, Cavara uses a furrier, a spa and a bedroom as the backdrop for his voyeuristic camera. Fur and skin pervade almost every frame, of the live and not so live variety, as is the case of the mannequins. Our killer leaves the emblematic black gloves at home and trades them in for a pair of surgical gloves--the fit and color like a second skin. His revenge cycle would not be complete without the ability to press 'skin' to skin and this is the closest he will ever get. Though his acts of torture and murder are brazen, he hides behind the betrayal of others to seek retribution for a wrongdoing that emasculated him entirely. Is it just a coincidence that almost all the victims are redheads? They are the scarlet women--symbols of female sexual impulse that torment as constant reminders of impotence. Unfortunately, Cavara's plot delivery is a bit shaky so we never really feel the full impact of this. Also, it doesn't help that the identity of the killer is fairly easy to spot and renders disappointing.
One other woman deserves mentioning and that's Lucille Laks, one of giallo's only female screenwriters to deliver a solo treatment. Her contribution to Danon's engaging story is compelling considering the film's strong feminine focus. Giannini's existential angst is a nice complement to all this and while Cavara's direction is capable, the lead characterizations are more engaging even if obvious. There's nothing groundbreaking in Tarantula but it's an entertaining introduction to the genre and a good departure from the gialli jet set.