A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (Una Lucertola con la Pelle di Donna, 1971)

A former workaday director who debuted with a comedy starring beloved Italian comic Toto, Lucio Fulci began his journey toward becoming one of Italian cinema’s most illustriously disreputable auteurs when he started making horror movies, and was taken to court over A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin. The charge was animal cruelty, stemming the infamous vignette in which the film’s heroine is confronted by some vivisected dogs in a hospital’s secret research clinic. Special effects maestro Carlo Rambaldi, with his legacy work on E.T. still more than a decade off, had to prove in court how he faked the sequence. As with much of Fulci’s oeuvre, this legendary incident promises verboten spectacle the actual movie can’t quite live up to, although the scene in question is certainly still almost as mythical a moment of gore unbound as Zombi 2’s (1979) eyeball-skewering scene – and not recommended for animal lovers. Controversy aside, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin must count as one of the most eye-catching and well-made works during the vogue for the “giallo” style of Italian horror movie, at least before a severe case of last-act letdowns. And yet A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin also reveals Fulci as ill-at-ease in that aesthetic milieu. Fulci’s visual palette differs importantly to the colourful widescreen effects of his giallo rivals like Bava, Argento, Sergio Martino, et al. Modern art was a key point of reference for giallo cinema’s fascination with visual texture as its own end, but what naïf and cubism were for Argento, Francis Bacon and Dali are for Fulci. His London, even with all the touristy beats struck like the Tower Bridge and the Albert Hall, is turned into a looming, overcast living cemetery. Fulci paints in drained hues, except for the fleshy, flashy surreal dream sequences that punctuate the first quarter, where red satin beds float in blackness with promises of sexual neverlands, and supermodels hover in hair-flinging gusts of Sapphic lust.

The underlying politics of A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin seem on the face of things reactionary, depending like much giallo on exploiting images of the age of sexual liberation whilst maintaining a crusty old moralist’s view of those people who indulge sex (especially – gasp! – homosexuality) and drugs as deserving all they get. This variation comes complete with a coda that depicts the death of the patriarchy as one self-induced through shame. But the vividness of the film’s depiction of upper class repression crashing against neo-Bacchanalian spirit transcends this mouldiness to a great extent. Fulci steals the core idea from Wonderwall (1968), sticking an uptight clan of establishment progeny in an apartment neighbouring a model dedicated to libertine excess, and forcing them to listen to the tantalising, infuriating din of another world through the brickwork, each feeling the call within but mouthing disdain for each-other's benefit. The bourgeois family seems solid: Frank Hammond (Jean Sorel) is a successful lawyer. Wife Carol (Florinda Bolkan) is herself the offspring of Frank’s boss, the eminent Edmond Brighton (Leo Genn). Daughter Joan (Edy Gall) is a prim and pretty miss. Except that Frank is boffing a neighbour on the sly, Joan is actually the offspring of one of Frank’s earlier marriages with her own nurtured proclivities just starting to bubble over, and Carol reports to her therapist that she’s tormented by dreams of carnal escapades with Julia Durer (Anita Strindberg), the pagan goddess next door. Eventually Carol tells the therapist that she’s dreamt about murdering Julia. Shortly after, Julia is found brutally slain in her apartment, killed in a manner exactly the same as what Carol recounted. Inspector Corvin (Stanley Baker), parsing the evidence with the help of eccentric forensics expert Lowell (Ezio Marano), determines that the circumstances do suggest that Carol was the killer, or possibly that someone close to her might have exploited Carol’s dream to commit a killing and frame her for it.

Dream images of Carol being clawed by disembodied hands and wrestling through strange settings filled with masses of rutting humans and misshapen figures, suggest the influence of Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), which was, perhaps not coincidentally, also written by Wonderwall scribe Gerard Brach. Visions of Bolkan fleeing unseen evils through vast, echoic spaces where time, space, and consciousness seem to have lost meaning, have similarity to the trippy asides in the same year’s The Last Movie. The erotica fantasias of Bolkan and Strindberg’s encounters suggest Jésus Franco’s lush, decadent brand of cheapjack surrealism, and the early part of the film strongly recalls Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos (1970) in depicting the call of forbidden sexuality emerging as a subliminal force. Fulci goes one better as he offers split-screen effects depicting the Hammonds trying to have a polite dinner party whilst Julia and friends descend into a maelstrom of excess, Julia herself stalking the midst of her party stark naked with lordly force looking for some body to plunge upon: Strindberg, an agreeable feminist heroine in Martino’s The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail the same year, here has Amazonian authority on the screen, seeming to gain armour as she strips down. Carol’s dreamscape also featured two glowing-eyed freaks gazing down at her in the void, witnesses to her psychic murder of Julia. Soon she and Joan encounter the two, Jenny (Penny Brown) and Hubert (Mike Kennedy), for real. They seem to have no recollection of ever having seen Carol before, but Hubert shortly begins stalking Carol. Carol is placed into care at a hospital by her father as Corvin’s investigations point to her as the killer, but Hubert chases her around the grounds, culminating in her fleeing into a room where she’s confronted by grotesque animal experimentation. 

A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is awkward on the script level. The plot doesn’t so much resolve or climax as trundle rather to a halt once it has exhausted its potential twists. Most of what transpires in terms of action and complication proves to be a particularly large catch of red herrings, which, combined with touches like making Corvin a compulsive, annoying whistler, have a paint-by-numbers quality as far as giallo goes. Which perhaps explains why Fulci quickly left the style behind: the giallo subgenre was based around taking the essentials of a certain kind of tricky, trashy mystery fiction and overlaying them with a sense of psychological oddness, and a deliberately schematic conflation of story pattern with visual approach, games about games of murder. Fulci found himself greater notoriety in less structured, more overtly oneiric horror films that push towards the pathological. Nonetheless this film remains powerful and often hypnotic on the level of sensual experience, for even when Carol isn’t dreaming, Fulci maintains an eerie, hallucinatory mood, and recreates the texture of a certain kind of anxious dream, his grim ambience punctuated with fish-eye lensing to contort space into approximations of the caverns of trance-state disquiet, the normal world seeming to become cancerously overgrown and oppressive, its corners dank and decaying and expanses like the glare of a desert sun, inescapable and slowly killing. An epic chase sequence late in the film, when Hubert pursues Carol through an underground labyrinth and then up into a colossal empty church (actually the Alexandra Palace, an old entertainment venue), is one of the high-points of horror cinema from the era, for the way Fulci purely evokes that sense of nightmarish pursuit, as tiny humans dart through spaces alternatively dark and swooningly bright, dominatingly large and claustrophobically small. Carol contends with bats in the literal belfry, clawing at her hair and face like embodiments of her spiky, neurotic sense of other people’s eyes judging her for her wayward inner life, whilst on the run from a faceless pursuer who could have loomed out of a billion Freudian case studies. 

Carol is eventually caught on the rooftop, a vast plain of rutted metal before a chasm, but Hubert is frightened off by a gun-wielding luvvie who pops up out of nowhere. Fulci brilliantly exploits his locations, evoking Jean Cocteau’s similar use of decaying infrastructure to mimic psychological landscape in Orphée (1949), especially during the pursuit through the dank and shadowy basement, whilst also readily recalling Hitchcock and Carol Reed’s use of such locales as stages for thrills. It’s even arguable that Fulci does an ever better job of utilising places redolent of the 20th century’s troubled inheritance of the crumbling infrastructure of the past, to stage a drama of survival both immediate and yet highly surreal, than Nicolas Roeg would manage two years later with Don’t Look Now (1973). Alan J. Pakula's use of architecture in The Parallax View (1974) and All the President's Men (1976) is likewise anticipated. Elsewhere Fulci beadily eyes a hippie commune as a draughty and cheerlessly perilous clasp on respectability by the down-and-out, and shoots the looming facades of Enlightenment justice like a citadel on a drizzly part of Mars. A society matron gabbles about the sinfulness of others on the phone whilst her chauffeur gets dressed in the background. A painting of a swan with a vaginal portal swirling on its chest turns up in one of Carol’s dreams, swooping over her like Leda, seguing into a hat-tip to the Dali-designed dream sequence of Spellbound (1944). 

Fulci’s framings offer fetishist panoplies, Strindberg’s leather-encased legs and Bolkan’s fur coat filling a shot, before craning upwards for the coup-de-grace, whilst later Bolkan swans about Swinging London dressed up in suits and hats left over from some forgotten ‘30s modernist melodrama starring Garbo. Fulci laces in cineaste references, recalling distant giallo ancestor Green for Danger (1946) by casting Genn, who also starred in John Moxey’s Circus of Fear (1966), from which Fulci steals a gag involving a police superior’s cigarettes. Bolkan had played the doomed village witch of The Last Valley (1971), and brings with her the same air of atavistic intensity, except that where she was a conscious rebel against the modern order in that film here she’s locked tight within her own hypocrisy, doomed to go as mad within as the world is without. Fulci’s sarcastic avatar in the film is the hippie artist Jenny, a frizz-haired, insolently bisexual urban guerrilla who tosses paint-soaked knives at canvases to create art, and grabs Joan’s hand and shoves it down her pants just to find out what will happen. Joan turns up dead shortly after, the answer to that transgressive question. “I saw a lizard in a woman’s skin,” Hubert confesses to the cops when recounting the acid trip he and Jenny had whilst witnessing Julia’s actual slaying, coining the title, and the image of the reptilian monster inside the woman proves the film’s slyest, bleakest, most essential metaphor: the alienating indulgence of LSD nonetheless served its purpose and laid the world inside out, the monster within unveiled. In Fulci’s mean sense of a repressive world, everyone seems a little like those unfortunate dogs, strung up with their bodies still working, their insides turned out for all to see. For all its beady-eyed negativity and a slack conclusion, this is still a major horror work, depicting a genre already in transition.

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