A Lizard in a Woman's Skin: Remastered Edition Review
Warning: this review contains spoilers.
"Your conscience forces you to disapprove of that woman's way of life, but, at the same time, her freedom excites your curiosity. You feel attracted."
Begun under the initial working title of "The Cage", 1971's A Lizard in a Woman's Skin (Una Lucertola con la Pelle di Donna) was the second giallo by Lucio Fulci, who had made something of a splash the previous year with his first effort in the genre, the convoluted and sexually charged One on Top of the Other. A jobbing director whose filmography reads like a virtual catalogue of popular genre cinema movements in Italy during the second half of the twentieth century, this workman for hire somehow managed to infuse his films with his own trademark nihilism, in doing so blurring the boundaries of the distinction between auteur and metteur en scène. Released at a time when the quality of the director's output was at an all-time high, the film stands as both a cracking thriller and a virtual exposé of a society at a crossroads between pre- and post-1968 ideologies.
The mystery revolves around Carol Hammond (Florinda Bolkan), a frustrated London housewife who has begun experiencing vivid nightmares involving sexually-charged encounters and her own repressed lesbian tendencies. At the centre of these dreams is Julia Durer (an uncredited Anita Strindberg), her beautiful and morally suspect next-door neighbour. Julia's raucous parties, involving all manner of sexual exploits and illegal substances, are a constant cause of irritation for Carol's family, including her lawyer husband Frank (Jean Sorel) and her father (Leo Genn), but they quickly come to a halt when, following a particularly vivid dream in which, during a bout of steamy Sapphic action, Carol brutally stabs her neighbour to death, Julia's body is discovered in a manner suggesting that she died in the same manner as in Carol's dream. Husband and father both immediately set out to prove Carol's innocence, but even Carol herself seems unsure, and matters are not helped by the presence of her coat and fingerprints at the scene of the crime. Did Carol kill Julia, and if so did she do it in full consciousness? What has Carol's precocious step-daughter Joan (Ely Galleani) got to do with it all? And who are the two hippies (Penny Brown and Mike Kennedy) who seem rather intent on silencing Carol permanently?
What immediately sets Fulci's film apart from the bulk of the gialli produced following the explosion of the genre's popularity as a result of the success of Dario Argento's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is how internalised it all is. Eschewing the genre's traditional iconography of black-gloved serial killers armed with straight razors, Fulci concentrates almost entirely on the brittle and increasingly unstable Carol's state of mind, with any externalised conflict serving as a projection of her mental anxiety. Engaging with Freudian psychoanalysis perhaps more than any other giallo - and certainly rejecting the Jungian trappings of Argento's efforts - Fulci takes the viewer on a convoluted journey through Carol's psyche, with the various endless corridors, winding staircases and labyrinthine buildings through which she finds herself being pursued (whether by actual physical forces or her own subconscious) reflecting her confused and deeply convoluted mental anguish.
Carol is one of the most fascinating protagonists in giallo cinema: a real ambiguity, it remains unclear whether she is genuinely mad or a mere manipulator; a fragile housewife seduced and blackmailed by her beautiful bisexual neighbour or in fact a seductress herself who has successfully pulled the wool over everyone's eyes. Even the filmmakers seem unsure of the answer to this puzzle, and the perfunctory ending, which explains Carol's neurosis as a brilliant but completely fabricated performance and is the film's one major flaw, is difficult to accept as a conclusive statement on the matter, given that it was forced on a reluctant Fulci, who wanted a more ethereal conclusion. (The other problem with the film, its seemingly irrelevant title, was also attached, against its director's will, by producer Edmondo Amati, who wished to capitalise on the wave of gialli with animal iconography in their titles.)
Regardless of the ending, though, it's difficult to deny that Fulci makes skillful use of all the tools at his disposal to portray Carol's state of mind, continually placing the audience in a state of unease through his use of handheld camerawork, fragmented editing, and the sudden zooms towards shifty eyes that have long since become a trademark of the director's work. Especially in the two key dream sequences depicting Carol's encounters (real or imagined) with Julia Durer, Fulci ellicits a feeling that lies somewhere between allure and nausea: the corridors of writhing naked bodies, and Julia's red-carpeted (signifying blood or passion, or perhaps both) chamber, seem both erotic and sordid in equal measure, exemplifying the dual relationship that gialli tend to have with their subject matter, so many of which both exploit and condemn certain forms of sexuality at the same time. Such a paradox is even directly referenced in the film by Carol's psychologist, Dr. Kerr (Georges Rigaud), to whom the quote at the beginning of this review is attributed, implying a level of self-awareness that goes beyond most films of this genre.
All of this is aided by an impressive performance by Florinda Bolkan, who had previously appeared in Elio Petri's Oscar-nominated Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion. She played a very different character in that film - a sly seductress who ends up dead, in much the same manner as Julia Durer - and this, combined with her harried performance as the "witch" Maciara in Fulci's Don't Torture a Duckling, serves to solidify her position as an extremely versatile performer. Hers is a character fairly common in gialli, especially in the domestically-oriented melodramas that tended to be the norm for the genre before Argento arrived on the scene and launched an obsession with modern urban thrillers, but Bolkan's performances gives Carol an added dimension not normally associated with these films. It also helps that, in the English version of the film, she is exceptionally well-dubbed, giving her a sincerity that is normally absent in the often crudely-dubbed gialli. (As it happens, all of the dubbing performances are of a high standard. The English track was recorded at Pinewood Studios, and as a result is comprised of a cast of genuine English voice-over artists, with none of the dreaded Mockney accents that tend to crop up in London-based gialli.) The supporting cast is similarly excellent, combining famous British faces - The Guns of Navarone's Stanley Baker and Quo Vadis' Leon Genn - with giallo regulars and semi-regulars: Jean Sorel, Georges Rigaud, Alberto De Mendoza, Silvia Monti, and, in her first film role, the Swedish model Anita Strindberg, who never looked more striking than she does here.
As with his next and, in many circles, most highly acclaimed giallo, Don't Torture a Duckling, Fulci may be telling a pulpy tale, but his treatment is anything but superficial. The film is set against the backdrop of a Swinging London buzzing with unrest, and the director's portrayal of an eternal battle of the classes is, if a little naïve, nothing short of riveting. The conflict is framed as one of the previous generation's conservatism versus the hedonistic anarchism of the younger generation. Aged 44 at the time of the film's release, Fulci was very much a product of the former, and the various long-haired hippies of his film certainly don't get an easy ride (and his description of an acid trip is, given his medical background, mind-bogglingly unrealistic), but neither is the older generation portrayed in the most positive light. The world that Carol and her family inhabit is crushingly oppressive, revolving around insincere displays of politeness which conceal the fact that everyone is screwing everyone else, and the very fabric of their society is decaying around them. The sequence near the start of the film which intercuts a Hammond dinner-party with one of Julia's orgiastic raves is a perfect illustration of this, as Fulci combines cross-cutting and splitscreen footage to contrast the simmering tension of the Hammonds (notice how the young Joan subconsciously taps her foot to the beat drifting through the wall from next door) with the uninhibited indulgence of Julia and her guests. Whether or not Carol was fully conscious when she murdered Julia, the rage that exploded from within her clearly had as much to do with the tension instilled in her as a result of the restrained life she was forced to live as the need to silence her lover.
Despite the largely internal nature of the narrative, Fulci and his collaborators are certainly not short of opportunities to indulge in some solid horror/thriller tropes. Aided by cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller (who later went on to lgiht Argento's Profondo Rosso and Fulci's own The New York Ripper), who gives the film a raw but expertly composed appearance, and composer Ennio Morricone, who contributes one of the most haunting musical themes in all of giallo cinema, he serves up some nail-biting set-pieces, the strongest of which see Carol pursued through first a mental asylum and then the Alexandra Palace. The latter features a bat attack clearly influenced by Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, while the former culminates in Carol barging into a room filled with dissected dogs, their stomachs ripped open and their hearts still beating. The effect in question was so shockingly realistic that Fulci, Kuveiller and effects technician Carlo Rambaldi (better known to mainstream audiences for his work on ET - The Extra-Terrestrial) found themselves in court having to demonstrate the operation of the animatronic puppets used for the scene. Even today, the effect remains stomach-churningly believable, and has gained a level of notoriety despite being missing entirely from English-language prints of the film. The appearance in Carol's second dream of rotting corpses inspired by a Francis Bacon painting glimpsed on the wall of the Hammond dining room, meanwhile, is a magnificent touch.
These days, Lucio Fulci may be best known to gore fans for the bloody horror films he peddled from the early 1980s to the end of his life, but I am very much of the opinion that the quartet of gialli that he made in the 70s were his finest achievements, with A Lizard in a Woman's Skin being the best of a highly impressive bunch. Far from the literal retread of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage that Alan Jones and Kim Newman decried it as during their audio commentary for that film, A Lizard in a Woman's Skin is a unique giallo, solidly plotted, expertly directed and wonderfully acted - one of those rare movies that may cause you to rethink the entire filmography of its director.
To fully understand the convoluted situation out of which this "remastered edition" of A Lizard in a Woman's Skin arose, a brief history lesson is in order.
Media Blasters first released the film on DVD back in February 2005 after a lengthy period of delay during which they had tried and failed to get their hands on an uncut film element. (See my original review here.) Rather than hold the title back indefinitely, they chose to release a compromised edition, putting out a two-disc set containing two versions of the film. The first was a film-sourced, widescreen presentation of the cut US release from American International Pictures, known in some circles as Schizoid. In addition to removing a handful of key dialogue scenes, it also omitted the now-notorious "eviscerated dogs" sequence, as well as making substantial trims to the film's violence, nudity and sex scenes. The second was a fullscreen presentation of the Italian theatrical release, standards converted from a PAL VHS tape and presented in Italian with English subtitles. This version was substantially more complete than the AIP version, but the quality was, unsurprisingly, poor, and it too was missing some brief material (which, ironically enough, was present and correct in the AIP version). Fan reaction to this release was rather mixed. Some praised Media Blasters' efforts to do the best they had with the limited materials available to them; others (myself included), were suspicious that corners had been cut and lambasted the DVD makers, finding it hard to believe the claim that these were the best materials available.
The position of the latter was somewhat vindicated in July 2006 when the Italian label Federal Video put out a new DVD, featuring (broadly speaking) the Italian cut of the film, in film-sourced widescreen throughout. Evidently an actual print source of the Italian version had materialised, albeit one in something of a state of disrepair, and this, in conjunction with the same AIP print used by Media Blasters, was used to fashion a new version of the film. As good as this release was, however, it was plagued by a few problems. In particular, it featured the same two cuts by the Italian censor that also affected the second disc of Media Blasters' release, while the film's second dream sequence, which features the murder of Julia Durer (Anita Strindberg), was botched, featuring a combination of the American version, which was slightly cut and included a "ripple" effect of the entire image in order to obscure some full frontal nudity, and the Italian version, which was unrippled. A couple of dodgy splices also resulted in some abrupt audio cuts, and even a scene in which the same piece of footage appeared twice. More fundamentally, however, this version was presented in Italian only - a major problem, and not only for non-Italian speakers, given that this London-based film, which features the actual speaking voices of co-stars Stanley Baker and Leo Genn, not to mention excellent post-dubbing all round, plays much better in English than it does in Italian. This version did, however, contain a brief dialogue scene between Jean Sorel, Silvia Monti and Ely Galleani not seen in either of the versions provided in Media Blasters' release.
Media Blasters' new "remastered" version, due for release on March 13th, is the third release of the film in as many years, and I am happy to report that they have well and truly done their homework with this version. Mindful of past criticisms, they have put together yet another new version of the film, using the same elements uncovered for the Federal Video release. However, they have been careful to avoid Federal's pitfalls, resulting in a version that contains almost every snippet of footage known to exist. There is nothing on this DVD that has not been present in a previous release in some form, but this is certainly the first time that all of this material has been assembled into a single cut, and, in the case of the second dream sequence, this is the first DVD to present it completely unrippled and in widecreen. Unfortunately, there are still a few seconds missing here: a comparison between this release and Disc 2 of the previous Media Blasters release reveals that, in the earlier VHS-sourced version, the shot of Anita Strindberg kneeling at Florinda Bolkan's feet lasts several seconds longer, continuing to follow her as she slowly stands up, running her hands up the inside of Bolkan's coat as she does so. (On the VHS version, this shot lasts 22 seconds; in every other release, it runs for a mere 8 seconds.) This piece of footage is mentioned by Professor Paolo Albiero in his discussion of the film's censorship (see below) as being removed at the demands of the Italian censor, so the question is perhaps not why it isn't present in this release (or on Federal Video's DVD) but rather how it ended up on the Italian VHS in the first place. Either way, I believe Media Blasters when they state that they went to great lengths to make this DVD as complete as possible, so I suspect that, in this particular case, the shot in question is simply not obtainable.
As far as image quality goes, Tim Lucas noted that this new disc had a rather oversaturated look, and it is true that the colours are more punchy, but only in relation to the Italian DVD: a comparison between this new release and Media Blasters' previous disc reveals identical colours. As I stated in my comparison between the first two releases, the Italian release has more naturalistic colours and also looks slightly sharper. This remains true, and the rather distracting blue-tinting problem that occurs during the middle of the film is still present (the Italian release, in comparison, has a rather desaturated but far more natural look during these scenes). Federal Video's handling of the portions sourced from the AIP print, therefore, remains superior to that of Media Blasters. On the flipside, though, the material culled from the battered Italian print is treated far better by Media Blasters, who have eschewed the heavy noise reduction techniques employed by Federal. This means that the material has a harsher look with more noticeable print damage, but it is vastly preferable to the smudged look seen on Federal Video's DVD. On the whole, therefore, I would say that the relative strengths and weaknesses of the image quality of the 2006 and 2007 releases cancel each other out, and I can't say that I prefer one over the other.
As with the previous Media Blasters release, English audio comes in both 2.0 monaural (incorrectly labelled as stereo in the previous release but here correctly identified as mono) and 5.1 surround variants. The latter showcases some rather impressive sound design, combining stereo stems of Ennio Morricone's music score with 5.1 sound effects. However, it is not a faithful representation of Lucio Fulci's intentions: the foley track is comprised entirely of newly-sourced, "modern" effects, which feel out of place in comparison to the more strained vocal track, and at times drown out the score and dialogue. As such, the mono version is definitely the way to go, although curiosity-seekers may also wish to give the Italian track a look. Bear in mind, though, that the English version is vastly superior in every way. The whole film can be watched in English or in Italian with English subtitles (although three dialogue scenes for which English audio either never existed or was not obtainable are presented in subtitled Italian on the English track).
When Federal Video released A Lizard in a Woman's Skin on DVD last year, they did so with a completely different set of extras from Media Blasters' 2004 2-disc release. In addition to the original Italian opening titles and a "deleted scene" containing footage missing from the Italian cut but included in the US cut, it also included two interviews with Fulci expert Professor Paolo Albiero, in which he discussed, in the first, Fulci's career and the history of A Lizard in a Woman's Skin, and, in the second, the censorship history of the film. It is these extras, rather than the array of image galleries and the Kit Gavin documentary Shedding the Skin, that have been included on this new Media Blasters release, although the Albiero interviews are of course now subtitled in English, while the "deleted scene" has not been included, given that the footage has been successfully integrated into the film itself.
The Gavin documentary was apparently omitted due to disc space concerns, but its absence is a shame nonetheless, since it would not have been too hard to include an extra disc dedicated to the bonus materials. In any event, the Albiero interviews, which have a combined running time of 36 minutes, are of a high standard. Albiero is a confident and charismatic speaker, providing a considerable amount of information in a staightforward and easily digestible manner. The interviews are not exactly technologically advanced - he simply sits behind his desk and addresses the camera - but it's an effective means of conveying information, and he reveals a great deal that had hitherto been unknown to me, including the film's original working title, the controversy surrounding the ending, and the uncredited writing contributions of Ottavio Jemma.
The usual Fulci trailer reel and bonus trailers for other Media Blasters releases are also included.
All in all, Media Blasters have put together an excellent DVD, and one which more than makes up for their previous release of the film. It would, of course, be wrong to say that the disc is perfect: the bonus features are incomplete, the image quality variable and a brief snippet of footage still missing. The first problem could easily have been solved by simply including all of the extras from the previous Media Blasters release (I suppose this gives us a reason to hang on to both versions). The other two were probably unavoidable. It's looking increasingly likely that the extended shot of Strindberg kneeling before Bolkan and then standing simply cannot be sourced from any known print, while the variable image quality is down to the condition of the available materials. Tim Lucas believes Studio Canal to be in control of the original negative, but it seems that they are unwilling to surrender it to a third party, and, in any event, there's no telling what state it is in, or how complete. It is entirely possible that this new composite DVD contains material no longer present in the original negative, and, as such, I think we should be thankful that we now have, on DVD, a cut of the film considerably more complete than any other version commercially available.
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