Be you a fan of horror or genre cinema, as much as you’d like the opposite to be true, you can’t know about all movements and styles – it’s that very reason why, I, personally, appreciate Arrow Video more than I can put into words. Not only have they issued some new favourites, they have also facilitated my discovery of the Giallo and Italian genre at large. Prior to this new home video boom, you heard of these styles and genres in passing but more often than not you’d have to engage in the lottery that is imports or, going back even further, bootlegs. Names like Mario Bava and Dario Argento are synonymous with the 60s and 70s horror, and my discovering them has been minor in the grand scheme. Sergio Martino, however, is different, he is a discovery 100% facilitated by those wise cats over at Arrow.
Sergio Martino, like Bava, is known for his work in the blood-splattered, sexualised murder mysteries that are Giallo, but his work casts him all over the genre cinema map. However, like Bava, Martino’s best work comes through in this weirdly resilient sub-genre. This is thanks to the subversiveness of his films. In, the improbably titled, Your Vice is a Locked Door and Only I have the key, the film abandons the idea of being a Giallo about 40 minutes in and instead plays more akin to an Alfred Hitchcock movie, albeit one swirling a sleazy vortex around the stunning Edwige Fenech. The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh abandons the orchestrated slices of Giallo finales to instead focus on tight close-ups and clever editing as the proposed final murder is set up to look like a suicide. There are others like the (previously released on Arrow Video) suspicious death of a minor which blends with Eurocrime tropes to create a memorable potboiler and All the Colours of the Dark. And then there is also the newly issued Case of the Scorpion’s Tail, how does this deviate and subvert genre expectations?
In a word, protagonists. As the film opens, we meet a young woman in London who has inherited a multi-million dollar fortune from her recently deceased husband who died in a tragic air accident. Then we have the most recent beau of her ex-husband and her strong-armed bodyguard. Anyone who is even remotely related to the money all succumb to a mysterious individual in black garb in varyingly grim but always wonderfully framed set-pieces. The only consistent key players in this are the insurance investigator, Peter (George Hilton), who is looking into the original protagonist, Lisa (Ida Galli), and any role she may have had in the suspicious death of her ex-husband and a local journalist, Cleo (Anita Strindberg). Looking at the DNA of the Giallo, it would go on to be instrumental in its influencing of that most 1980’s of genres, the slasher. A point that many slashers strive for is the thought that any character could be killed at any time. This usually isn’t true here as in these Italian genre titans they are more concerned with the logic – as questionable loose as that may be – of the murderous crimes and solving them. Like Bay of Blood before it, Case of the Scorpion’s Tail is one of the very few examples where no character is truly safe. The kill count may not be as high of Bava’s genre inaugurating Bay but the effect is equally entertaining, if not more so, thanks to it coming from a director with far less cachet.
While sticking with the narrative, the screenplay by Ernesto Gastaldi (and others) has actual competent police officers. I know, right? Most films of this ilk need random civilians to halt the blood thirst of their latest serial killer. And, the other way in which Martino was playing with what such a film could be was the location. Given the highly anti-state stance that many of these same film-makers were using in their euro crime (or Poliziotteschi) films, it could be argued that such crimes would be solved no problem by international law enforcement where their own would instead rely on random members of the public to save their skin. Political, maybe? Maybe not? It has no real bearing but it is interesting to contemplate this potential subtext.
Many Giallo take place around Italy, a few of Argento’s adjacent films take place in Switzerland and Germany, but directors usually opted for shoots in either the dizzyingly beautiful historic cities of old Italy or the equally striking countryside. The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail takes place in Greece, which although undeniably a Mediterranean nation, like Italy, it has a geographical identity that is unique to itself. With the ancient Spartan and Athenian architecture, it’s a dream for any of the wickedly talented cinematographers Italy had back then. Take the final scene, no Gothic buildings for the ‘final girl’ and her murderous stalker to run around, even if that was an accurate description of the character roles and their motivations its locale couldn’t be more different. Martino has the scene unfold in the middle of the day on an achingly cinematic island populated only by jagged rocks and blistering sunshine. Yet again, it is another fantastic pay off for a director who strived to find different, pleasing ways to tell similar stories. Each and every one of Sergio Martino’s dalliances is a must buy and just as fresh as the next because he simply never became over-familiar with the genre, he never struggled for anything to say.