08 June 2009

SUMMER OF BLOOD: ONE GOOD COP

If there's one important thing to understand about the Italian giallo as a genre, it is that the "rules" of gialli are not prescriptive, like they are in the similar American slasher genre. You can pluck just about any slasher film out of a box, and describe in fairly close detail how the plot is going to develop: the opening scene will involve some sort of violent event, probably a previous killing by the movie's designated psycho; the first third of the movie will introduce the cast in terms of easily-defined traits; the second third puts the characters in peril; the third act kills them all off and pits the psycho against a young woman, who almost certainly wins although there is ambiguity about the psycho's death or survival.

The giallo is not nearly so rigid as that, yet at the same time it's not nearly as bendy as something like Western (set on the American frontier, whatever "the frontier" is defined at during that point in history) or science fiction (involving technology that doesn't exist). It's a slippery beast to define, when all is said and done, but ultimately it is a genre based on mood and style, things that are easy to confidently propose but not so very easy to nail down. You could never mistake a giallo, but the identification is largely about how the movie feels: like pornography you know it when you see it.

Our case in point: The Black Belly of the Tarantula, a 1971 film that to my best knowledge has never been considered anything but a giallo, although it's hardly typical of the form in several important ways. I have in the past suggested that some of the common traits of the gialli are the presence of a protagonist who is newly arrived in whatever place is the site of the killing spree (very often an American in Europe); the plot hinges on the protagonist witnessing a murder, and the notion of "point of view" and "perception" are important threads for the rest of the narrative; the killer wears black gloves; there is some bullshit paranormal or psychological theory that is used as the basis for the investigation without anybody in the film doubting for even a second that this is a perfectly reasonably starting assumption. Not one of these traits is seen in Black Belly of the Tarantula - it's most typically giallo element is probably the use of an animal in the film's title. Yet it is certainly and without doubt a giallo, and a fine example it thus is of how mutable the formula was, and how much imagination the Italian filmmakers working in horror mysteries in the 1970s were able to express, and in this they are a far cry from their slasher descendants indeed.

The hero of the film, uniquely, is a cop, Inspector Tellini (Giancarlo Giannini) of the Roman police. He's been assigned to a fairly run-of-the-mill murder: a woman named Maria Zani (played in the few scenes before her death by Barbara Bouchet, one of of the more ubiquitous actresses in European thrillers at the time) has been found with her belly sliced open, and all signs suggest that it's her husband Paolo (Silvano Tranquilli) that did it, in retaliation for Maria's casual infidelities - especially given the scrap of a photograph found at the scene showing Maria naked in the arms of a man whose face is on the other, missing half, but who plainly isn't Mr. Zani. Only problem is, however well the circumstances may indict Paolo, the evidence simply doesn't line up that way at all, and once a second body shows up dead in the same manner, without any link to Paolo at all, Tellini realises he's got something much nastier on his hands than a simple jilted husband. Much nastier: the acupuncture needles in the back of both victims' necks indicate that the killer paralyzed the women before gutting them, leaving them fully aware of what was happening, able to feel every second, and completely incapable of moving.

Now, I called Black Belly of the Tarantula an atypical giallo, and for the most part it is; except that there is one way in which it is quite a customary giallo indeed, far more than either of the other films we've looked at so far this summer. For this is where we finally arrive in the wonderful land of murder mysteries that make absolutely no goddamn sense at all. As a work of drama, Black Belly of the Tarantula is enough of a train wreck that it's almost hypnotic: clues which are given a great deal of priority turn out to mean nothing whatsoever, such as the blurry smudge in the blackmail photograph of Maria and her lover that turns out to be an airplane, and when Tellini suggests a way to use the plane as a further lead, the storyline is dropped without further reference; characters are introduced just to be killed, or introduced just to be red herrings - and these red herring characters are still being introduced some three-quarters into the movie. Even after the killer has been revealed, and we get the Psycho-style "psychiatrist's monologue explaining the murderer's motivations" that the early gialli tended to be so fond of, it's a bit hard to explain what the hell was going on for the last hour and a half.

Instead of a coherent mystery narrative, Black Belly of the Tarantula has style by the bucketful. Compared to Bava's color films, there's not so much gloriously gaudy color; compared to mid-period Argento, there's not the same fever-dream imagery. But even if he's not one of the well-known Italian thriller directors and probably doesn't deserve to be, Paolo Cavara (a veteran of the inexpressibly weird and wrong Mondo cane) is neither a slouch nor a hack, and his ability to construct tension is certainly estimable. This is a particularly well-edited giallo, using cross-cutting and graphic matches to tie together all sorts of disparate elements in a grand unified statement, and the killing scenes in particular (the bloodiest we've yet seen, incidentally, though nowhere like the genre would end up going) benefit greatly from some very precise cuts. Cavara and his editor Marcello Gatti had a real gift for stretching out a moment in exactly the right places to make it as agonisingly suspenseful as possible.

Of course, praising the editing in a giallo is a bit weird; the sad fact though is that Black Belly of the Tarantula isn't nearly as visionary as the best examples of the form. By all means, there are some truly well-framed shots, particularly in a three-way chase between Tellini, his suspect, and a man trying to kill the suspect, and some exceptional use of color, particularly yellow (the color of gialli). But there's a difference between using the frame well (which Cavara does), and having particularly rich and evocative imagery (which Cavara only does sporadically), enough so that I must consider this to be a somewhat low-key giallo in appearance. Its triumphs, and they are indeed to be found, must be sought in other places. The construction of tense setpieces, I have mentioned.

Another place: Tellini. It's not usual to say very nice things about the characters in gialli - they are typically functional placeholders. But Tellini is a strong exception, a cop who is good enough at his job to know that he has to keep doing it, except that he's so incredibly tired of staring murdered bodies in the face, day after day; he is terrified, lest his life start to endanger his wife; he just wants to have some time to kick back and be happy, and that is something he'll never get to do in the force. No, not the most original characterisation in the history of cinema, but interesting for a psycho killer movie beyond a doubt, and Giannini gives a heartfelt performance. You can tell how much of a sad sack this guy is; it radiates off the screen. He's a startlingly pitiable protagonist, and though we almost never sense that he's in physical danger, the film all but forces us to worry for his emotional well-being.

One of the other ticks in the movie's favor is its exemplary score by the great Ennio Morricone, experimental even by his standards. It's full of instruments meant to sound like voices, jangling chords, atonal riffs - some of the finest mood-enhancing music in any gialli I've seen, without question. Between the score and Cavara's handling of the action in the film, one could reasonably argue that Black Belly of the Tarantula is closer to a pure thriller than many gialli - pure in the sense that all the elements of the film are designed to enhance the suspense and tension, rather than to present a fantastic grotesque of reality, like Argento and Bava tended to do in their movies.

I'm sorry, but I can't get away from that one point: Cavara's film simply isn't interested in the baroque visuals that the genre thrives on. It's not completely absent such moments: the killer's flesh-colored gloves, making their hands look like almost like moving plastic, are certainly memorable, and the first killing especially is gory in a certain abstracted way that plays as much like a dream as like a horror film. Of course, that was my point in the beginning: this is a very different giallo, but it's still successful in its goals, although they be a bit less far-reaching than in the very best of the best. At any rate, The Black Belly of the Tarantula is unnverving and memorable, and that is the ultimate raison d'être of any proper Italian genre flick.

Body Count: 7, plus one spider that actually dies right on camera in front of us in immense agony. Damn Italians, with their animal snuff films all the time.

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