A dreamy, sensuous, and deliciously “off” Italian giallo classic.
By Paul Mavis
Looking for something decidedly “anti-holiday,” I picked up Mondo Macabro’s pristine Blu-ray release of A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, the 1971 Italian/Spanish/French (and some say English) co-production from director/screenwriter Lucio Fulci (The Beyond, Zombie 2), and starring an A-list cast: Florinda Bolkan (her best performance), Stanley Baker (glumly slumming), Leo Genn (paying the bills), Jean Sorel (handsome and blank), Silvia Monti, Alberto de Mendoza (satisfying the Latin actor quota), Edy Gall (minx), Penny Brown, and Anita Strindberg (satisfying everyone).
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Notorious with early giallo fans because of a scene supposedly depicting the vivisectionism of four dogs, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is far more memorable today for Fulci’s lush, eroticized, and hyper-violent take on a Hitchcockian murder mystery framework, a formative giallo vision beautifully amplified by cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller’s trippy frames, Giorgio Serrallonga’s non-linear editing, and composer Ennio Morricone’s strange, menacing score. Mondo Macabro states this gorgeous-looking Blu-ray transfer—the first U.S. Blu release taken from the original camera negative—is the longest, most “complete” version of A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin thus far (…that is, until someone digs up a longer one from the seemingly dozens of international cuts of the movie that went out in 1971).
The last druggy, dying days of “Swinging London,” late 1970. Rich, stunning housewife Carol (Florinda Bolkan) is married to handsome barrister Frank Hammond (Jean Sorel), who works for influential Edmond Brighton (Leo Genn), a senior jurist seeking political office…who also happens to be Carol’s father. Carol is also reluctant step-mother to Joan Hammond (Edy Gall), Frank’s sexy, snotty daughter. Carol enjoys “chilly sexual relations” with her husband, Frank, so Carol is having a lesbian affair…in her sweaty, naughty dreams.
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The object of her forbidden lust is ex-actress Julia Durer (Anita Strindberg), a neighbor in Carol’s swank block of Mayfair townhouses. You see, Julie has fully embraced the decadent hedonism of the growing hippie counterculture, and her uninhibited orgies are the subject of much tortured scrutiny by sexually frustrated Carol. When Carol reports a rather startling new development in her nighttime reveries to headshrinker Dr. Kerr (George Rigaud)—she dreams of viciously stabbing Julia to death—the line between reality and illusion begins to blur for Carol when Julie is indeed found murdered in exactly the way Carol envisioned.
Inspector Corvin (Stanley Baker) and Sergeant Brandon (Alberto de Mendoza) of the Flying Squad are called in. However, it won’t be an easy case to solve, what with Carol, her cheating husband, her overprotective father, her scheming step-daughter, and tripped-out murderous hippies Jenny and Hubert (pop stars Penny Brown and Mike Kennedy), all viable suspects.
After watching and listening to the hours of extras on this Mondo Macabro release of A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, it seemed a pretty convincing case was being made as to the important transformational position Fulci’s movie had within the giallo genre; specifically, its early-on embrace of outsized gore and edgy sexuality which helped to usher in the genre’s more outrageous excesses of the 1970s and 1980s. In full disclosure, it took a minute or two for this reviewer to connect up this restored version of A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin with my (very) vague memories of the edited AIP release (titled Schizoid), which I caught at a seedy drive-in on the bottom of a triple-bill, quite some time after its 1972 U.S. premiere.
Even then, Schizoid had a reputation among hard-core gore, drive-in, and exploitation fans here in the States as a foreign thriller that really “delivered the goods,” so to speak. In those pre-internet days, just a mention in the trades of the U.S. version being edited, accompanied by reviews that pointed out the movie’s high shock quotient, could fuel whispered speculation for years about what forbidden, heinous exploitation delights might be missing—in A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin’s case a situation exacerbated by its many edited, compromised VHS and DVD releases.
Certainly with A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, its scandalous scene of doggie vivisectionism has long been touted as its main claim to fame, at least in terms of attaining its “classic” exploitation status (I’m sure I didn’t know Fulci’s name back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, even though I was a fan of Zombie 2 and The Beyond). Seen today, after countless gore-fests have numbed us to most proto-splatter efforts…the canine scene is still impressively gross. Special effects wizard Carlo Rambaldi’s hollowed-out coyote skins filled with spraying blood and realistically pumping and vibrating viscera give you that kind of “sweet jumping jesus” moment that only truly tasteless, perfectly executed schlock can summon up (the frequently quoted true story about Fulci being taken to court over this, and Rambaldi saving his bacon by bringing in the animatronics to prove they didn’t really torture dogs on the set, seems so ridiculous it sounds like publicity stunt eyewash).
I was just as impressed with Franco DiGirolamo’s hyper-realistic torso and breast created for the extreme close-up stabbing of Stringberg, as well as Rambaldi’s madly swirling electro-motor bats for Fulci’s The Birds homage. These moments are stand-out set pieces, to be sure…but they don’t dominate the movie’s run time. As for A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin’s then-taboo sexuality, there’s certainly nothing wrong with seeing knee-weakening Florinda Bolkan and Stringberg in various stages of undress…but the lesbian angle is now tame at best.
So if the gore and violence isn’t non-stop, and the sex chaste, then why is A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin so compulsively watchable? Well…it’s certainly not because of the largely familiar Hitchcockian murder mystery framework, either. Fulci cheats left and right in the clues, the characters’ motives, the mystery’s logical progression, and even the most basic representations of the facts of the mystery, either because he’s unusually adept at fragmenting the movie’s interior logic (agree), or because the movie was edited or dubbed out of comprehension (certainly a possibility), or because scenes are still missing (who knows).
If you like your murder mysteries to “make sense” so you can follow along and try and solve the case yourself, you can safely skip A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin; it’s not that kind of cozy village murder mystery outing (although the giallos’ literary origins do owe something to that genre, such as Christie’s work).
Fulci’s script, co-written with Roberto Gianviti (Don’t Torture a Duckling), Jose Luis Martinez (A Bullet for Sandoval), and Andre Tranche (Long Live Robin Hood), touches on numerous frictions of opposing forces and themes. Carol used to be a lawyer, but now she’s a bored housewife. She married a successful, extremely handsome lawyer who now occupies her slot at her father’s office, and who doesn’t make love to her anymore. Carol is supposed to be an happily married woman abiding by the relatively conservative norms of her upper-class society, and yet she guiltily desires sex with her female bohemian neighbor.
Her husband speaks of morality at the same time he sleeps with his wife’s best friend, while Carol’s father runs for public office while secretly dealing with some kind of blackmail (I’m not telling). The peace and love hippies that are changing orderly London society are alternately wigged out on drugs or homicidal, while the blasé cops think the upper class Hammonds are decadent libertines, and no better than the wacko flower children they have to bust. All of this is quite interesting…but Fulci isn’t intent on exploring these juxtapositions; they’re merely tantalizing little points of interest to further unsettle the viewer in between his trippy freak-out scenes.
That doesn’t mean A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin has nothing on its mind, or that Fulci isn’t interested in such themes—it’s just that the poetry of his vision seems to be more important to him…or at least more forcefully expressed. The point of A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is the sensuousness of it all, rather than any inherent intellectual parlor games. It’s a sick, mordantly funny comic opera, not a term paper. The remarkable opening dream sequence with Carol being made love to by Julia (an event we later learn is false in a way I won’t spoil), is a stunning mix of color (the blood red bed against the black void backgrounds) and slow motion movement (Carol fighting through the writhing bodies in the long white hallway, the revealed texture and color of Carol’s fur coat as it’s blown by an incongruous wind in the bedroom), made palpable by the beauty of Bolkan’s and Stringberg’s bodies, and composer Ennio Morricone’s off-putting, atonal score. Later, Fulci will repeat this luxurious delight, but pervert it with a graphic stabbing that’s just as beautiful, in a completely twisted way, as was their lovemaking.
The contrasts of his visual aesthetics are far more interesting than any antagonistic socio-political themes in the script: the silky, elegant slo-mos versus his shaky, paranoid hand-helds and extreme zooms onto people’s eyes; the constant jump cuts to further discombobulate the viewer; the downright pointlessness of many of his scenes, from police interrogations that yield no information, to lying, false flashbacks and most famously, doggie vivisectionism and bat attacks that have absolutely no validity in the story proper, only serving to overwhelm the audience’s senses.
By the end of A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, when Fulci gives us a typically Hitchcockian “wrap up” scene where flatfoot Baker explains to the puzzled audience what really went down, it’s a total on-purpose cock-up. We don’t know what the hell he’s talking about…nor would we believe him if we did. We don’t know if anything we saw in A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin was “real” or a fevered dream. And that’s why A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is enjoyed so much more if taken like listening to a piece of music—something to be just experienced, rather than “figured out.”
Some quick words about the extras on this Mondo Macabro Blu-ray release of A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, since they’re so good. First, a full commentary track featuring MM’s Pete Tombs and director Kris Gavin. Tombs in particular is an encyclopedia of minutia on this movie and the giallo genre (and that’s a good thing), so the track is quite illuminating (it’s also amusing to hear enthusiastic Gavin repeatedly cutting off Tombs when Tombs is almost ready to make a point about something). The two funniest remarks? When Tombs references the “10 people who are going to listen to this” track…and his theory that the CIA introduced LSD to distract socialists from changing the world (hee hee!).
Next, Dr. Lucio Fulci’s Day for Night is an absorbing interview of Fulci directed by Antonietta De Lillo, that finds the director discussing his troubled career. I have to imagine Fulci probably didn’t like how De Lillo made it seem as if he was droning on an on by repeatedly fading out his image and voice before he finishes a thought, before she jump cuts to another milestone in his life (it all sounded interesting to me; I’d rather have had the entire interview than “smart” editing). Some best quotes? “I’m not a monster — I just entertain people with monsters,” “I want to be judged, not loved or hated,” and “I’m a liar,” said with a sad smile.
Next, 2003’s Shedding the Skin, which was included on a previous DVD release of A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, is hosted by Penny Brown, and features background on the movie’s production, with interviews of some of the (then) surviving cast and crew, including Bolkan, Sorel, Kennedy, Rambaldi, and Franco DiGirolamo (director Kris Gavin has a commentary track for this doc, if you want to hear how he shot this). Next, When Worlds Collide features author Stephen Thrower discussing the various dramatic themes in A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin. It’s a fascinating discussion of Fulci’s work and his career (apparently, the director burned a lot of bridges throughout his troubled life and career), but jesus couldn’t somebody back that goddamn camera off Thrower for two seconds? He’s uncomfortably close to the lens, always looking down, perhaps, at his right foot, with the overall effect at almost half an hour being ridiculously claustrophobic.
Next, From Burton to Baker finds actor Tony Adams—blink and you’ll miss him in A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin—reminiscing about working with Richard Burton on the unjustly neglected crime thriller Villain (which has nothing to do with Fulci’s movie, by the way), before basically stating he hated Stanley Baker. Not terribly illuminating…but fun gossip. Two peripatetic radio ads from AIP’s 1972 Schizoid re-title are included (if I heard that on the radio today, I’d line up the day before to see it). Remember: “Schizoid is not recommended for persons with schizophrenic tendencies!” Check.
PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.