CAPSULE: A LIZARD IN A WOMAN’S SKIN (1971)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Florinda Bolkan, Jean Sorel, Stanley Baker, Leo Genn, , Mike Kennedy, George Rigaud, Anita Strindberg

PLOT: A neurotic woman dreams that she kills her hedonistic neighbor, then finds herself accused of murder when the crime actually happens just as she dreamed it.

Still from A Lizard in a Woman's Skin (1971)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Despite the powerful psychedelic dream sequences, Lizard is a bit too rational in its plan—something Lucio Fulci was seldom accused of.

COMMENTS: Lucio Fulci is best known in horror circles for his brutally gory and none-to-coherent “spaghetti zombie” movies, made as cynical cash-ins on  hits, but he began his career working in the distinctively Italian exploitation/mystery hybrid known as the giallo. While the gialli—which relied on trashy psychologies of sex and violence and sexual violence—seldom approached the level of high art, they were more stylish and serious-minded than the typical B-movie. Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is a classic of the genre. Fulci shows his aptitude for mildly surrealistic montages in the two precognitive (?) nightmares suffered by poor, prudish Carol—they’re luxuriant visions of blood and nudity, and they evoke dreamlike sensations of falling and traveling through corridors that reference the psychological horrors of Repulsion and Vertigo. Fulci and cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller also produced some excellent, evocative effects with special “wavering” lenses that made parts of the dream sequences look like they were shot through funhouse mirrors.

Of course, even in his worst films, Fulci was known for his ability to craft arresting images, while he had an equally profound reputation for paying little heed to plot or continuity. (Fulci would have made a great music video director if that format had been prominent during his career). In contrast to his later movies, Lizard stands out for its comparatively complex and detailed storyline. Of course, there are a few slip-ups. A red-headed woman who appears to lives with Carol and her family is never properly introduced, and figuring out who she is or why she is always around is almost as big a mystery as the murderer’s identity. And while Lizard‘s ending is tighter and perhaps not as much of a cheat as some commentators suppose—although serious questions about the timing of events do linger—it’s not completely satisfying, either. The fast-moving denouement is delivered clumsily, so that the mystery is still a little confusing even after everything has been wrapped up. Some characters have their stretched motivations, and they clearly exist only to increase the number of suspects and red herrings: these elements utilize the logic, not of a dream, but of a paranoid hallucination. Perhaps this is why Lizard‘s narrative fumblings don’t seem to matter that much in the overall scheme. Although there may be a comforting rational explanation to events at the end, the parallel construction of the film as a portrait of a woman undergoing a breakdown (the original U.S. release title was Schizo) fits better with Lizard‘s atmosphere, tone, and theme of sexual deviancy.

Lizard in a Woman’s Skin has been released on DVD in various versions with different running times. Many prints omit a controversial scene with vivisected dogs (don’t worry, it’s fake, although it was convincing enough at the time to force the filmmakers to demonstrate how it was done to defend themselves from charges of animal cruelty). The 2016 Mondo Macabro Blu-ray release incorporates all the footage known to exist and, at 104 minutes, runs the longest of any of the Lizard‘s releases.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Fulci was not, at this point, as invested in the conscious surrealism of Bava or Argento, and in particular his attention to gory effects, far above and beyond those men (he was easily the most bloodthirsty of the major Italian horror directors), grants A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin a grounded, visceral realism that makes its psychedelic excesses far more punch than they might have had.”–Tim Brayton, Antagony & Ecstasy (DVD)

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