For fans of European horror, the year 1971 was a prime vintage. The Italian giallo boom was at its peak, while a slew of films that married high (art) and low (exploitation) values reached its most prolific and hedonistic. A highlight of the year, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin was Fulci’s second stab at entering the giallo cycle, remaining both a highlight for the sub genre, and a film that asserts the director as one of the most dynamic and artful filmmakers to work within the ‘70s giallo sphere. Although it is not without its own controversy, given that it landed the director in court for suspected cruelty toward animals, this is a stunning example of virtuoso Eurocult, crafted at its most decadent and delirious. It is certainly a film that demands to be seen as closely as possible to the director’s original vision, especially considering the strong emphasis on a visual rather than plot driven narrative. Now upgraded to Blu-ray by Mondo Macabro (hot on the heels of the French BD release earlier in 2015, Mondo’s is a slightly longer cut) it is presented in its full eye popping glory. This is about as close as you are going to get to 35mm in the realm of home video. The print presents a faithful and respectful restoration of the piece, which is nothing less than it deserves; allowing the viewer to really appreciate Fulci’s psychotic sex-art-horror and dreamlike montage that comes dripping in vibrant colour and graphic imagery, in glorious high definition.
All eyes are on Carol Hammond (played by Florinda Bolkan giving her usual 500%), a neurotic middle class housewife who has lurid sex dreams about her more sexually liberated neighbour Julia (giallo regular Anita Strindberg). That is until Julia turns up viciously stabbed to death; an act Carol apparently saw in a dream the night before it happened. The dream points to Carol being a killer, and as the daughter of a politician, the family are anxious to avoid scandal, yet she lacks any motive or real life connection to the dead woman. The script is stuffed full of explicit Freudian subtext, combined with a strong feeling of claustrophobia and dread, that works well most of the time. While the plot snakes with twists and turns, chucking up plenty of giallo-standard red herrings.
There is no denying that actress Florinda Bolkan was a star of some considerable talent. Her portrayal of the neurotic and fragile Carol in A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is one of her most memorable roles in European horror. And if anyone needed further proof of the actress’ ability, you only need look at her heartbreaking exit scenes- as the local “witchy woman” Maciara- in Fulci’s slightly more realistic, and exceptionally grim later giallo, Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972). Bolkan also put in a strong performance for Eurocult classic Flavia The Heretic (1974), played a key role in Petri’s Oscar winning Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970), as well starring in the surreal thriller (and borderline giallo) Footprints on the Moon aka Le Orme (1975). Her role in the latter bears some connection to her part here, for Fulci, in that they both home in on women fighting to obtain the truth about their existences, while being haunted by flashbacks and disturbing dreams. Jean Sorel returns to work for the director again, after a lead role in Fulci’s previous thriller Perversion Story (1969) aka One on Top of the Other, as Carol’s cheating husband Frank Hammond. Although he doesn’t have an awful lot to do compared to his previous part, he puts in a solid turn nevertheless. Stanley Baker is marvellous as Inspector Corvin who is like a dog with a bone when it comes to catching the killer.
A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin belongs to a group of early ‘70s Italian genre films that revelled in visual, sexual, and violent excess, mixed with heavy surrealism. Within this context the film becomes something of a trend setter for horror that combined the artistic flourish of arthouse with the provocative nature of exploitation film. Other cinema in this camp includes Sergio Martino’s All the Colors of the Dark (1972), Renato Polselli’s Delirium (1972), Avati’s The House with Laughing Windows (1976), and Barilli’s The Perfume of the Lady in Black (1976), with the cycle finally peaking with Argento’s Suspiria (1977). Produced in 1971, Fulci’s piece stands as a forerunner for this mood and line of thinking in Italian genre film. The film also aligns with post-Manson family cynicism, lashing out a bleak moral sting in its tail, warning about the excesses of sex, drugs and hippiedom- a common theme of the day- while trading on the psychedelic vibe of the period- much like Tinto Brass’ Deadly Sweet (1967), and the previously mentioned All the Colors of the Dark– to ultimately produce a lush avant garde aesthetic that showcases the era in all the best ways possible. Ennio Morricone’s sublime score, slipping effortlessly between sultry jazz, demented psychedelia and paranoia infused urgency, ices the cake to perfection.
It was Fulci who once said “violence is Italian art”, here in A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin he demonstrates exactly why this is the case. Hardly surprising when you consider cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller’s pedigree; which saw him work on, not only some of Elio Petri’s most impressive pieces, but also Dario Argento’s Deep Red (1975) and Paul Morrisey’s Flesh for Frankenstein (1973) and Blood for Dracula (1974), before going on to photograph Fulci’s explicit and sexualised slasher The New York Ripper (1982).
A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, as noted by Stephen Thrower in his seminal text on the director Beyond Terror, really is a forerunner for the set pieces seen in Fulci’s later work; especially The New York Ripper, with shots of Julia’s full frontal, splayed, naked and gutted carcass, being mirrored in the 1982 feature to even more shocking effect. Therefore as a genre piece the film provides one of the first links in the chain that would see Fulci go on to become of the most provocative makers of Italian horror. In fact, so shocking was Carlo Rambaldi’s FX work on a rack of dogs supposedly being experimented on in a surreal scene where Carol is lost in a hospital- the canines shown in a state of near death, their hearts still beating, their innards exposed- that the director and crew members were later hauled into court to testify no animals were harmed in the making, and to provide proof that the scene was faked. Controversy was a key theme in the director’s later career, Fulci earning himself three banned titles on the British Video Nasties list, while The New York Ripper was given a police escort out of the country when it was deemed completely unfit for certification due to its levels of sexualised violence.
Overall, it must be said that A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is a highlight in Fulci’s extensive career. Alongside the beautiful print Mondo packages everything up with a tasty bunch of extras too, including: Shedding the Skin documentary, Dr Lucio Fulci’s Day for Night – interview with director, Interview with writer Stephen Thrower, Interview with actor Tony Adams, audio commentary with Kris J Gavin, as well as trailers and radio spots for the main feature; thus making this a must buy for all lovers of ‘70s Eurocult.