Color, 1971, 95 mins. 12 secs.
Directed by Sergio Martino
Starring George Hilton, Anita Stringberg, Janine Reynaud, Luis Barboo, Evelyn Stewart, Alberto de Mendoza, Luigi Pistilli
Arrow Video (Blu-ray & DVD) (US/UK RA/RB HD), NoShame (US R1 NTSC), X-Rated (Germany R0 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
Though its name explicitly apes the popular animal-in-the-title trend of early '70s gialli, Sergio Martino's second thriller is still undeniably the original work of its director and his regular screenwriter, the incredibly prolific Ernesto Gastaldi. Though usual leading lady Edwige Fenech is absent for this one, the rest of the elements are all in place for a twisted good time and one of the top highlights from the busiest year in giallo history, 1971. For some reason this film was kept from most English-speaking theaters, keeping it among the more obscure of Martino's gialli for several decades, but its long overdue availability in English has since made it a strong fan favorite.
As with the same year's Death Walks on High Heels, this is a giallo best experienced as cold as possible given the extreme nature of some of its twists; however, if you need a synopsis, here goes. After a tragic plane crash, Lisa Baumer (Stewart) inherits a million pounds from her husband's death but finds the windfall far more trouble than it's worth. She has to travel to Greece to collect the money and finds herself hounded by a creepy blackmailer, her husband's money-hungry mistress (Jess Franco regular Reynaud), and protective insurance investigator Peter Lynch (Hilton) who realizes there's something deadly afoot. Soon a beautiful reporter, Cleo (Strindberg), enters the picture as well and begins an affair with Peter while the two try to figure out who's running around the Greek isles slashing up anyone who comes into contact with Lisa's cash.
The fairly talky opening third of The Case of the Scorpion's Tail may put off viewers expecting the usual nudity and slashing out of the gate, but Martino's cleverly conceived thriller has several nasty surprises up its sleeve that justify the wait. Sure, there's quite a bit of characters sitting around in office yapping about bank accounts and insurance policies, but it all pays off with a series of gory twists and turns featuring some of the most graphic murders Martino ever filmed. Usually relegated to playing swarthy and suspicious types, Hilton has one of his best roles here where he gets to sharpen his acting teeth a bit and nicely plays off of his leading ladies, particularly the always interesting Strindberg. The sea-bound climax (which could have easily inspired Dead Calm) is an expert example of visual craft managed to convey important plot points without losing the viewers or descending into complicated chit-chat. As usual, the great Bruno Nicolai contributes a top notch score complete with a jittery main theme not easily forgotten. In fact, this was his very first giallo score (beating The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave to Italian theaters by a nose) and the first in what would be a string of classic scores for Sergio Martino.
NoShame's DVD of The Case of the Scorpion's Tail in 2005 came on the heels of an earlier, far inferior release from Germany's X-Rated label (which sported a weird letterboxed transfer that wasn't really suited for standard or anamorphic viewing as well as only the Italian and German tracks with English subtitles). The NoShame disc finally presented the elusive English audio track for the first time, which is really the best way to watch the film as it conveys numerous plot points and character nuances completely lost in the Italian version. (It's also more in sync, which helps.) The image quality for the time was top notch with Martino's crafty injections of bright red into key scenes looking appropriately vivid and startling. Unfortunately it's also an iffy PAL conversion (running 91m14s) with some visible motion blurring. A half-hour featurette, "Creepy Crawl: The Scorpion's Shadow," features Sergio and Luciano Martino discussing the film with occasional interjections from Hilton and Gastaldi. Also included is an absolutely jaw-dropping theatrical trailer (in English or Italian) which pushes this film as the successor to Battleship Potemkin, The Golem, and Fritz Lang's M (watch it to find out why!). You also get a poster and still gallery and the usual deluxe booklet with cast/director bios.
With the DVD long of circulation, the time was ripe for a revival of the film when it turned up on Blu-ray from Arrow Video in the U.S. and U.K. The new transfer is a real beauty, evening out the flesh tones throughout and maintaining those eye-popping shades of red; most significantly, it also appears to be the first release anywhere at the correct film speed with a 95-minute running time. Fans of the film's, ahem, creative airplane special effects will get a special kick out of the new transfer as well. Both English and Italian LPCM audio options are provided (both excellent quality) with optional English SDH or English newly translated (for the Italian) subtitle options.
Recorded for Italian home video in 2006 but never subtitled in English until now, an audio commentary with writer Gastaldi in conversation with film writer Federico Caddeo is an illuminating look at the man's work approach and his attitude about gialli, especially the intended audiences and the necessary plot mechanics to create a satisfying thriller story. "Under the Sign of the Scorpion" (20m56s) features a new interview with Hilton about his transition to working with the Martinos, starting off with Luciano bringing him on for The Sweet Body of Deborah and on to a successful run in some of the decade's best thrillers. He also touches on his rapport with Strindberg (alluding to a very intimate relationship during shooting) and the problems posed by her very obvious breast implants during their love scenes. In "The Scorpion Tales" (47m10s), Sergio Martino explains how he was influenced by the rhythms of Z and praises the work of Gastaldi, including particular praise for The Violent Professionals and an explanation of the real-life crime that influenced so many thrillers around that time including this one. In "Jet Set Giallo" (20m6s), film writer Mikel J. Koven takes an academic look at the fantasy aspects of the subgenre including its glorification of travel, privilege, and aesthetic beauty contrasting with bloody violence, as well as making a case for Martino's cinema outside of the usual auteur approach. On a related note, author and frequent commentator Troy Howarth tackles the film via the issue of authorship with "The Case of the Screenwriter Auteur" (15m35s), a fast-paced and informative video essay offering an overview of how much of a role Gastaldi played in this film and other collaborations with Martino, which resulting in some fascinating artistic alchemy. The Italian theatrical trailer (the goofier English one is MIA this time) and a gallery of posters and stills are also included. The packaging features reversible sleeve options including a new, peculiar design by Chris Malbon and, in the first pressing only, an insert booklet featuring new essays by Rachael Nisbet and Howard Hughes as well as a Strindberg bio by Peter Jilmstad.
Arrow Video Blu-ray
Updated review on July 7, 2018