Written by: Lucio Fulci, Roberto Gianviti, José Luis Martínez Mollá, and André Tranché
Directed by: Lucio Fulci
Starring: Florinda Bolkan, Stanley Baker and Jean Sorel
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Biting, Gnawing Terror Claws At Your Brain!
In 1971, neither Lucio Fulci nor Carlo Rambaldi were Lucio Fulci or Carlo Rambaldi. Sure, Fulci had already directed a staggering 22 films and Rambaldi had done some notable effects work, but neither men had established the reputations that would eventually make them famous. However, as A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin reveals, neither were too far away from that stature at the time; it comes as no surprise that Fulci was just on the cusp of starting a run that would cement him as one of Italy’s best shlock-masters, while Rambaldi was beginning to chart a course that would eventually land him a couple Oscars for stunning effects work on the likes of E.T. and Alien.
The recently deceased effects maestro might have received the best “compliment” of his career with his work with The Maestro on this film, as some of his mutilated props were so convincing that Italian courts were convinced the two had engaged in animal cruelty. If not for Rambaldi’s intervention that proved he had just used special effects, Fulci would have served two years in prison, and who knows what might have come of the “Godfather of Gore.”
Because of this, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin probably has a reputation for being a thoroughly graphic shocker; in reality, there’s really only a handful of literal corpses (and some figurative ones). The story hinges on one corpse in particular: that of Julia Durer (Anita Stringberg), who is stabbed to death one night under mysterious circumstances. For neighboring Carol Hammond (Florinda Bolkan), those circumstances might not be so mysterious. In the days leading up to Julia’s murder, Carol has had explicit sexual fantasies involving her neighbor, and she even had quite a lucid dream where she imagined herself as Julia’s killer. Between this and the discovery of her possessions at the scene of the crime, it becomes clear that Carol may have actually murdered her lover, however unwittingly and unconsciously.
That seems a little bit too obvious, of course, and it’s just the launching point for a labyrinthine psycho-sexual thriller that takes you deep into a woman’s psyche that’s turned inside out and lain prostrate as Fulci turns his lens into a psychologist’s couch. Carol often finds herself in the company of her psychiatrist, who cooks up his own theory that the flustered housewife unconsciously acted out of sexual repression when striking against her sultry, amoral neighbor whose noisy parties and orgies represented a decadence that Carol’s own subconscious couldn’t confront. Fulci’s focus on psychology results in a film that’s often in stark contrast to the more visceral work that would define his career, as A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin presents twisting story replete with multiple suspects, motives, and misdirection.
At the center is the psychological ambiguity surrounding Carol; A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is often classified as a giallo, but, like many earlier examples of the form, it doesn’t quite fit the mold. It’s actually much more reminiscent of the paranoiac thrillers of Roman Polanski, right down to the apartment setting. A little bit of Repulsion residue is spattered about as Fulci hovers with invasive handheld camerawork that often smothers the characters as they’re entangled in this elaborate web. Fulci does tap into the surrealist imagery that would eventually make him famous whenever he explores Carol’s fractured psyche, whether it’s in her dreams, fantasies, or her waking nightmares. These dreamy sequences allow Fulci to play havoc with perception, as the elliptical editing, distorting of space and time, and Morricone’s nerve-wracking score create a disorienting effect that enables viewers to get lost within Carol’s mind. She finds herself surrounded by corpses and stalkers at various intervals as she trudges through her the bowels of homes and sanitariums, both of which become demented funhouses with kaleidoscopes of eviscerated dogs and blood-spattered friends and family.
Clearly, this is one crazy broad--or has she just been manipulated into psychosis? That’s one of the many possibilities proffered here. Whereas a lot of murder mysteries get so hung up in presenting a scenario that’s so obvious that it essentially becomes its own red herring, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin presents a serpentine script that’s difficult to wrangle as it uncoils false confessions and possible witnesses in the form of a duo of perpetually strung-out and smoked out hippies who also provide a glint of 60s counterculture that was quickly being extinguished at the time. The film doesn’t proceed like a typical giallo because it’s not a string of murders that need to be solved; while some more corpses eventually join Julia’s, the film is mostly concerned with uncovering the identity of her killer. Even still, it manages to sprawl, almost to the point of exhaustion as it eventually spirals into a breathless series of twists typical of most gialli.
As such, the film hits a little bit of snag at its climax, when it becomes quite talky since it has so much to untangle. The murder seems to be solved multiple times, but Fulci continually pulls the rug out from each explanation in order to keep peeling layers back. Sometimes, it feels a little maddening, but the final destination is a satisfying one that embraces the usual lunacy of these films. By the end of it all, Fulci has crafted an intriguing film full of remarkable characters; Strinberg’s Carol is obviously a fascinating figure constantly that mixes rattled innocence with hints of darkness--like the script itself, it’s hard to put your finger on her. She’s joined by her father (Leo Genn), a lawyer and politician who is diligent in proving his daughter’s innocence. For once, it’s nice to see a decent male figure in a giallo, a genre that’s typically full of misogynist, macho leads with a certain disdain for women. The somewhat terrible male quotient is eventually filled in by Carol’s unfaithful husband (Jean Sorel), but even he’s not written as an obvious caricature--in fact, Fulci shifts loyalties over to his side when it turns out he might be unfairly targeted as having crafted a conspiracy to drive his wife mad.
A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is compelling through and through, and, ultimately, the whole thing feels kind of like the end of Psycho writ large. For about 100 minutes, Fulci delivers a psycho-analytic spiel that attempts to account for all of the events, only to reveal that it all comes down to some pretty primal urges of self-preservation. While I don’t think Fulci was trying to make much of a political statement with the film, it’s difficult to ignore the subtle criticism about a hypocritical and false sense of self-righteousness against perceived amorality. This is a film that’s really about guilt and concocting an escape route to subvert that guilt into psycho-sexual hogwash. Shriek Show released the film twice on DVD, but the latter release, which carries the “remastered” tag, is the way to go since it presents the film fully uncut in its original aspect ratio, where it looks quite well, albeit with some natural print damage. Both the original Italian mono and a 5.1 English track are featured alongside the original Italian titles, a Fulci trailer reel, a history of the film’s censorship, and an interview with Fulci expert Paolo Albierio. In the Fulci canon, it’s one of the earliest signs of brilliance from both him and Rambaldi, who would continue his path of destruction in Bava’s Bay of Blood that same year; unfortunately, these two masters never crossed paths again, but their lone collaboration is a quite a touchstone in the Euro-horror canon. Buy it!
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