Sunday, May 31, 2009

SCORPION WITH TWO TAILS (1982) d. Sergio Martino (aka Christian Plummer)

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Tombs, cemeteries and burial grounds are some of the most fascinating strips of real estate the world has ever known. Despite their morbid nature, silent and forbidding affect and occasionally sinister decrepitude, they can also be places of charming serenity, stylish art and architecture as well as islands of sylvan loveliness leading to spiritual reflection. Depending on your personal bent, a tomb or a cemetery can be a wonderful or a frightening place, but it also depends on the condition of the cemetery. If gorgeous marble and fluted columns are the first thing that meets your eye, you may very well feel at ease, whereas moldered and scabrous headstones leaning drunkenly to one side in a burial ground filled with the rotting skeletons of old trees will not lend itself to a feeling of comfort. SCORPION WITH TWO TAILS (Assassinio il Cimitero Etrusco) is a lot like the tombs in which much of its story takes place. Despite the ominous nature of a tale of murder, the attractive and compelling nature of the statuary and pagan architecture makes it gripping enough on a visual level to keep you going even when the story, much like walking past endless gravestones, gets a little tiresome.

SCORPION WITH TWO TAILS is the story of beautiful Joan Barnard, an Etruscan language expert whose husband Arthur has just discovered an amazing new Etruscan tomb. Just before Arthur’s murder, Joan experiences the first in a series of bizarre dreams and waking visions where she sees people she knows sacrificed in the ancient Etruscan manner of having their necks broken. Arthur is the first in a succession of grisly murders, all seemingly tied to Etruscan rites and supernatural powers. It is as Joan probes deeper into the mystery that she is drawn into a drug trafficking plot and the machinations of grave robbers, both of which are schemes that could prove as deadly as the strange rituals of the Etruscans.

Originally conceived as an Italian television mini-series and then scaled down to be a feature film, SCORPION WITH TWO TAILS is a perfect example of a film that is mostly style with a very inconsistent level of substance. From the outset, there are many characteristics of this motion that are deeply reminiscent of 1970s Italian giallo masterpieces like DEEP RED or SUSPIRIA and that is not to be wondered at considering that director Sergio Martino (using the nom de plume Christian Plummer) was at the helm of ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK a decade before. Since that flick is one of the more iconic examples of a stylishly occult mystery/slasher with Gothic horror overtones, one could expect a similar vibe from SCORPION WITH TWO TAILS. It is an attractive film that would have benefited from either a better transfer or a better source print. There are moments when the imagery is grainy, out of focus or washed out, but most of the time the colors are sharp, the images are crisp and what we are seeing is clear and that is all to the good. The exterior shots of the Italian countryside were quite lovely and there are some striking moments of very old and modern architecture, both real and contrived, that are very impressive. The Etruscan tomb sets, genuine and imagined, are also quite stunning and lend a deeply ensconced sense of authenticity to a movie that trades heavily on being atmospheric, like so many of its predecessors. To add to the aura of being part of a long, cinematic ancestral line, the music of Fabio Frizzi sounds very evocative of something that Claudio Simonetti would have composed for a Golden Age Dario Argento film. The modern strains weave a strange magic with the primordial imagery and create a bizarre sense of occultism that is probably the greatest strength of SCORPION WITH TWO TAILS. To add to the otherworldly feel of this movie, there is the haunting, cold and almost statuesque beauty of actress Elvire Audray who plays Joan. Her rich brown eyes and river of golden locks is somehow at odds with her wintry and slightly emotionless countenance, and yet she is regularly seen screaming during SCORPION WITH TWO TAILS, so she obviously feels the emotion within her body. All of these cinematic traits make for a motion picture that is visually appealing and with its compelling imagery you are somehow pulled into the events irresistibly.

It isn’t the story, the acting or the dubbing that holds your attention in SCORPION WITH TWO TAILS though. While the pace does intensify as the plot advances, the narrative starts quite slowly, has a tendency to wind in gentle loops that don’t seem to be in a hurry to go anywhere. As the pace picks up, the ties between the supernatural events, the drug smuggling crime thriller components and the grave robbing are ever so slightly stitched together, but it is a bit of a stretch. Fortunately, a steady stream of murders takes place that adds a palpable sense of hidden menace and malevolent mystery that keeps the slow story from grinding to a halt. What makes SCORPION WITH TWO TAILS a VERY strange addition to the film canon of Italian cinema is that while its aura may remind you of 70s giallos, there isn’t a lot other than that which should. One of the hallmarks of many 60s and 70s Italian giallo films was the propensity of blood and tasteful yet undeniable gore. While many a character is dispatched in SCORPION WITH TWO TAILS, there is very little blood. This is likely to be due to its television roots, but it stands out and possibly not as something that is a strength. On a similar note, by the early 1980s, Italian exploitation flicks of the killer, rapist, cannibal and crime thug type were thundering across the Mediterranean motion picture landscape. As a result, there were usually all kinds of perversity and salaciousness to be had if one wanted such content. Scandalous offerings are not to be found in SCORPION WITH TWO TAILS, which is quite surprising considering its “pagan sacrifice” central concept. Once again, starting its life as a TV mini-series probably has much to do with it, but the outcome is a film that looks like a lot of its late 70s and early 80s cousins, but feel and plays so much more like something from much earlier in the 1960s due to its PG nature. Add to that a cast that has a couple of Americans, John Saxon and Van Johnson, who were long past their heyday and a mix of Italians of varying acting talent and then a pair of language options (a bad English dub job or Italian without subtitles) that make viewing this film a little more challenging, and you’ve got a flick with loads of potential but that may miss its audience. Most people who enjoy slightly more modern Italian horror films are fans of Lucio Fulci and his ilk, but SCORPION WITH TWO TAILS has very little in common with a Fulci film except a small similarity when it comes to occult mind twistings. For those who prefer older Italian horror fare like that of Mario Bava, SCORPION WITH TWO TAILS will lack that classic feel and will not have the sense of pageantry.

As extras go, SCORPION WITH TWO TAILS has a few interesting tidbits. In addition to being able to choose your language option, there is a small and somewhat redundant poster gallery. What can be enjoyed are the existing excerpts from the original TV version, which are a collection of three deleted scenes and an alternate opening credits sequence, all of which are in Italian but thankfully have been subtitled in English. The TV mini-series excerpts were quite interesting and shed further light on the history of this ambitious project.

Whenever you’ve got a movie that can’t easily find its home among viewers, there is a potential problem. SCORPION WITH TWO TAILS wasn’t a bad film, it just didn’t seem to know what it wanted to be. It looked good on many levels and had a very good premise. Had it not been a TV mini-series to begin with and had a few more bloody and spicy bits, it may have been a better version of LAND OF THE MINOTAUR which had a bit more salaciousness but lacked palpable atmosphere. If you like a film that feels right and has got a much older sensibility to it, SCORPION WITH TWO TAILS is probably right up your alley.

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