A Lizard in a Woman's Skin Review
The name of Lucio Fulci has become permanently linked with the schlockiest and cheapest of all exploitation cinema, and indeed not without reason. By the time of his death in 1996, he had helmed some of the most sordid and unsubtle gore-fests in existence, including The New York Ripper and City of the Living Dead. Yet, for a brief period in the early 1970s, he proved that he was as capable of stringing together a tightly-plotted giallo as any of the genre's most notorious writers and directors. This period of Fulci's 30-year career as a filmmaker led to the likes of the celebrated Don't Torture a Duckling and, reviewed here, Lizard in a Woman's Skin.
Carol Hammond (Florinda Bolkan) suffers from vivid and disturbing dreams involving sex, murder and debauchery. One particularly vibrant dream involves a sapphic encounter with her hedonistic party girl neighbour, Julia Durer (Anita Strindberg), ending in Julia's death. The next day, when Julia is in fact found dead with Carol's coat and knife on the scene, Carol is immediatley the prime suspect. Her husband, Frank (Jean Sorel), and her father (Leo Genn), set out to prove her innocence, but with even Carol wondering if she did in fact kill Julia, answers are clearly not going to come easily. Adding further confusion to the mix are a couple of hippies who seem intent on doing away with Carol, her mysterious step-daughter Joan (Ely Galleani), and the canny Inspector Corvin (Stanley Baker), who suspects that there is more to this mystery than meets the eye.
A Lizard in a Woman's Skin is arguably one of Fulci's strongest films. Tightly plotted and well-paced with a genuinely surprising conclusion, it shows just what Fulci was capable of when he invested sufficient effort in his writing. Functioning as an allegory for the conflict between conservatism and liberalism, it clearly paints the counter-culture movement of the 60s and 70s in a negative light, equating it with naive debauchery and presenting lesbianism as indicative of insanity and murderous tendencies. In this respect Fulci is not entirely unlike most of his fellow giallo filmmakers who, with the exception of Dario Argento, demonstrated a largely simplistic and uninformed attitude towards sexuality. (Argento, with his sympathetic portrayal of homosexuals as misunderstood social outcasts, was very much ahead of his time.) Still, he uses this conflict to good effect and elicits a wonderfully palpable air of kinkiness that makes the film feel charmingly like the product of a different era. Fulci clearly had a somewhat conservative viewpoint, even if Don't Torture a Duckling was to come down as deeply anti-establishment.
Gialli tend not to be populated by great actors so much as strong screen presences, and a number of the genre's mainstays show up here. Leading the cast is Florinka Bolkan: a regular in a number of Fulci's projects, the Brazilian actress walks a fine line between being strait-laced and completely off the wall, and her mental breakdown is quite believable. Genre veteral Jean Sorel also shows up, as do a handful of relatively distinguished British actors, including Stanley Baker (of The Guns of Navarone fame) and Leo Genn. The film also marks the first movie appearance of beautiful Swedish model Anita Strindberg, who would go on to make a name for herself in multiple gialli, including Aldo Lado's excellent Who Saw Her Die? Usually cast as a victim, she fits into that role here too, but her character (shown only in flashbacks) is anything but passive while she is alive. Ely Galleani, who appeared in several Euro horror movies, including Mario Bava's 5 Dolls for an August Moon and Corrado Farina's Baba Yaga, also puts in an appearance, although she is somewhat underused as Carol's sultry step-daughter. Dubbing-wise, the English soundtrack is pretty good, although it does feature a few overdone English regional accents.
The film begins within a wonderfully disorienting dream sequence full of quick cuts, bizarre imagery, slow motion, and some superb psychedelic music from Ennio Morricone (his only collaboration with Fulci). Much of this is mangled in the American edit, as the various cuts to obscure nudity completely bungle the rhythm and make the whole thing more confusing than Fulci intended. Ignoring the mess made of the film by the American distributors, this is definitely Fulci at his most stylish, experimenting with camera angles, fairytale imagery and, the trick that would later become his favourite technique, the zoom lens. The location of London, which featured in quite a few gialli made around this time (including What Have You Done to Solange? and The Case of the Scorpion's Tail), is used to excellent effect and does a wonderful job of evoking the afforementioned struggle between two very different cultures. Photographed by Luigi Kuveiller, the same man behind the camera in Argento's Profondo Rosso, it certainly possesses an accomplished, professional look that belies its low budget. Fulci also provides us with two of the best stalk sequences in the genre, the first being a highly effective trip through the corridors of a mental hospital, culminating in a truly horrifying vivisection scene (missing from the American print) which landed Fulci in hot water until he was able to prove in court that it was simulated. The second features a chase through a disused theatre, climaxing in a highly effective bat attack highly reminiscent of the scene in which Tippi Hedren is attacked in the attic in The Birds. Moments like these demonstrate both Fulci and the giallo genre as a whole at their most effective.
It's not all plain sailing, however, and A Lizard in a Woman's Skin demonstrates, albeit in minor form, a number of the flaws that would become full-blown problems Fulci's later efforts. Chief of these is his gratuitous overuse of zoom lenses, a technique that can be extremely effective when used in moderation, but which is at times used here with careless abandon. Whereas most directors would probably limit themselves to zooming in or out, Fulci enjoys zooming both in and out, repeatedly, in rapid succession. The effect quickly becomes tiring and threatens to take the viewer out of the film. Equally annoying is the sometimes wobbly handheld camerawork. A forerunner for of the infuriating "shakycam" style of shooting that seems to have infiltrated virtually every film and television show in the last decade, most filmmakers use it during tense, fast-moving scenes; Fulci, however, at times uses it in the most inappropriate places, the most baffling being during a fairly sedate conversation between two characters during the first act. One could also take issue with regard to the fact that both the body count and list of suspects are somewhat limited; the relative lack of on-screen blood and guts, however, distinguishes this from the director's later efforts and, as would be the case with Don't Torture a Duckling, suggests that he produced his best work when showing restraint. And that is exactly what A Lizard in a Woman's Skin is: one of the best films ever to carry the name of Lucio Fulci.
Shriek Show really dropped the ball with this release, failing to secure an uncut print of the film and instead opting to use the censored American version as the primary viewing option, including a pan & scan video-sourced copy of the uncut Italian version as a "bonus". What sours the whole affair even further is the fact that a composite could easily have been created, allowing viewers to watch as much of the film as possible in good quality and in its aspect ratio, only dropping to video when material was missing. Instead, audiences have two viewing options when watching A Lizard in a Woman's Skin: good quality (relatively speaking), original aspect ratio, and cut; or poor quality, cropped, and uncut. This makes it rather hard to recommend this release at all, because the uncut version is little better than any of the numerous bootlegs already doing the rounds on the grey market (indeed, I am under the impression that it is even possible to obtain it in its correct aspect ratio). It looks blurry, smudged and claustrophobic, and the fact that the source material used was a PAL tape means that it suffers from all manner of PAL to NTSC conversion artefacts. The audio track on this version is the standard Italian mono recording, presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, with optional English subtitles.
The first disc, containing the butchered North American release from American International, fares better in terms of audio-visual presentation, but is soured by the mess the US distributors made of the film. This version was pieced together from a composite of various different prints of numerous generations (making the decision not to insert the cut footage all the more baffling), and while the first couple of reels and most of the second half of the film are in good condition, showing a nice level of detail and grain, and rich colour saturation, a number of sequences, especially in the middle of the film, are soft, speckle-ridden and green-tinted, with blown-out contrasts and some noticeable colour bleeding, looking suspiciously like they were sourced from a poor quality dupe print from someone's private collection. This is a shame, because this appears to be Shriek Show's first ever progressive scan-encoded DVD, with the technicians seemingly having finally listened to the much-deserved complaints that have hounded them for years.
The primary audio option on the first disc is English mono, presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 and listed as "stereo", although in fact both channels produce exactly the same sound. It's pretty reasonable as far as audio goes for releases such as this, although age has not been kind to it, and there has been some distortion and reduction in the fidelity. Also included is one of the worst 5.1 remixes I have ever heard. Featuring copious surround-encoded sound effects that were never a part of the original soundtrack, this remix completely bastardizes the feel of the film and as such should be ignored even by those that demand 5.1 audio on all their movies. There are no subtitles for this version of the film.
I should probably also point out that this release comes in one of those cheap imitation amaray cases in which the holder for each disc is on either side of the interior, leaving the paper documentation (a reproduction of the original US press kit, and a Media Blasters catalogue) rattling around with nothing to secure them.
The extras included on the first disc take the form of various trailers and teasers, including the original theatrical trailer and two radio spots, in addition to a Fulci Trailer Reel showcasing six of the director's other films (Zombi 2, City of the Living Dead, Touch of Death, House of Clocks, Sweet House of Horrors and Demonia), as well as a promo trailer for Death Trance, a rather interesting-looking Japanese kung fu film.
The second disc houses the real meat and potatoes, the principle feature being a 33-minute documentary entitled Shedding the Skin. Narrated by Penny Brown (who played Jenny the hippy girl in the film), this retrospective interviews a number of the principal players, including actors Brown, Florinda Bolkan, Jean Sorel and Mike Kennedy, animatronics designer Carlo Rambaldi (the designer of ET: The Extra-Terrestrial) and effects artist Franco di Girolamo. Although it suffers somewhat from a rather unprofessional production (many of the interviews are shot in extremely harsh light, with all manner of background clatter audible), the material is of a very high standard, with all of the participants imparting a great deal of information about the making of the film. This is especially true of Bolkan, who worked with Fulci on a number of occasions and relates some wonderful nuggets of information about his personality and working methods. Also of note is Carlo Rambaldi's demonstration of the vivisected dog apparatus, clearly proving that what was seen in the film was not real but an extremely skilful trick.
Also included on the second disc is a large Photo Gallery, comprised mainly of pictures of Bolkan and Strindberg, but also including reproductions of various press and promotional materials.
Lucio Fulci may have something of an unsavoury reputation, frequently presented as a lowest-common-denominator exploitationist, but A Lizard in a Woman's Skin is proof of his skill with the giallo genre. Unfortunately, the mess Shriek Show have made of the presentation of this seminal giallo makes it difficult to recommend this release. Those who already own an uncut VHS (whether legit or bootleg) are not really missing anything by picking up this 2-disc set, unless they feel that the price tag is justified by the Shedding the Skin documentary.