1971, Lucio Fulci
Starring: Florinda Bolkan, Stanley Baker, Jean Sorel, Ely Galleani, Anita Strindberg
Carol, the daughter of a renowned politician and the wife of a well-off lawyer, has been regularly attending therapy for anxiety and insomnia. With her doctor, she discusses reoccurring nightmares that involve her debauched neighbor Julia, a beautiful, mysterious woman who throw raucous parties that frequently turn into orgies. In Carol’s dreams, Julia often seduces her. One night, she dreams that she has murdered Carol and soon after, the woman’s dead body is discovered next door. Meanwhile, Julia’s father confronts her husband, Frank, about his potential infidelity, and a mysterious caller attempts to blackmail him. Thanks to a fur coat found at the scene, Carol is the number one suspect in Julia’s murder, though someone is following her and trying to kill her.
Lizard in a Woman’s Skin – Fulci’s second thriller after One on Top of the Other and what I would call his first giallo – is one of my favorite of his works and among my favorite giallo films. What begins as a confusing story of a mentally disturbed woman’s nightmares of murder – that coincides with a real death – quickly transforms into a lurid tale of infidelity, blackmail, illicit sex, perversion, and hysteria. Carol is one of the giallo genre’s consummate unreliable narrators, and through her, Fulci leads us down a path that crosses rapidly between increasingly dangerous reality, nightmares, and anxious visions of violence – including a scene where Carol stumbles across a room full of canine vivisection that was so realistic, special effects master Carlo Rambaldi had to appear in court and swear they were only props.
Written by Fulci and his regular collaborator Roberto Gianviti, Lizard includes some typical giallo conventions, despite its early appearance in the genre. Suspicion and a dizzying pile of evidence point towards Carol, her husband, and a number of other unlikely suspects. There are the usual red herrings, false confessions, and seeming non-sequitors that change the plot on a dime, but this laundry list of twists and turns is not what makes this film stand out. Neither is Fulci’s excessive use of the zoom lens, for that matter.
What makes Lizard in a Woman’s Skin one of my favorite films, and what often endears it even to Fulci haters, are the sexual, menacing, dreamlike elements that somehow come together and tie in with the plot undercurrents. The dream sequences are masterful and they are among Fulci’s best technical film work. Her obviously repressed, lesbian desire for Julia is a dark force that moves through the film’s underbelly, gradually coloring everything. One of my only complaints with the plot is that Fulci starts off with Carol as the protagonist, but slowly move away from her. In doing so, he also creates distance from her repression, psychosis and dreams, making the film a little more mundane. I know why this happens, but I won’t give away any spoilers.
Fulci’s camera usually remains aloof from its protagonists, but here it absolutely worships Florinda Balkan (Footsteps on the Moon, Flavia the Heretic), who is wonderful as the icy, repressed Carol. Her enigmatic stare carries some of the plot deficiencies a long way and even her costumes – which usually feel like an afterthought for Fulci – are spectacular and work towards character development. Giallo regular Anita Strindberg (The Case of the Scorpion’s Tale, Who Saw Her Die?, Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key) is breathtaking as Carol’s hated/desired neighbor, and though she isn’t in the film very long, she manages to haunt the proceedings as a symbol of lust, wanton excess, and cruelty.
Another of my favorite things – on the planet, not merely in this film – is Ennio Morricone’s creepy, foreboding score, which is one of his finest and most underrated in his truly incredible catalog. It is dark, dissonant, jazzy, and fits perfectly with the film’s themes. Death Waltz has blessedly released a double-EP of the whole thing, which comes highly recommended.
The only major problem with Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is the DVD release situation. To look at a side-by-side comparison, read the DVD Beaver explanation. The version I own is Shriek Show’s single disc, which is supposed to be a complete print that combines the US and Italian cuts, but is sadly imperfect and is missing scenes. Their double-disc, which features the US and Italian prints separately, plus a documentary, has been long out of print. There’s also a region 2 disc from Optimum, the first to be sourced from the negative. While the Optimum is currently the best version available, I’m still waiting for an ultimate, restored Blu-ray of the film.