That “trying” assuredly comes into play in regard to A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, Fulci’s hallucinogenic and violently carnal giallo thriller of ’71. More eye-popping than femme fatale Anita Strindberg’s fake breasts, it’s a tale of murder sexier and more visually innovative than it has any right to be; a dash of Dario Argento's pigmentation fetish and a dash of Jesús Franco’s adoration for naked flesh goes a long way, it turns out. This promises that the film’s sensorial fires be far more interesting than its actual storyline. But because Fulci so delicately conjures up so many passages of intoxicating psychedelia, we’re wont to excuse the feature's shortcomings. It's exceptional style-over-substance filmmaking.
It stars the angular Florinda Bolkan as Carol, the daughter of a highly revered local politician. Bored even by her ability to have and do anything she wants, Carol’s trite existence as of late has been interrupted by a series of vivid nightmares — nightmares in which she’s gently fornicating with her neighbor Julia (Strindberg) atop a rotating silk-sheeted bed against a stagey black backdrop. Her therapist tells her that these sleepytime fantasies are the results of her simultaneous attraction to and disdain for Julia. Every night, the hedonistic latter hosts wild sex parties where the moaning’s just as loud as the Velvet Underground-lite that blares. Carol’s annoyance that such events are happening is just as potent as her interest in joining them.
But the situation goes south when Carol kills Julia with a paper knife in one of her dreams. Upon waking would the former like to think that this means these recurring scenes of softcore will finally come to an end. But the police say no. After getting ready for the day, Carol finds out that Julia has in fact been murdered, and that the crime scene looks almost exactly the way she left it in her dream. An age-old thriller question comes to mind: Is someone setting her up, or did she actually commit murder?
The answer's a lot simpler than you'd think, but Fulci confidently throws so many red herrings at us you’d swear he were a cinematic Goose Gossage and that you didn’t actually see the final reveal coming. We’re fine with all the nonsense. Because Fulci so conclusively stitches together a nightmare world in which debauchery is basically synonymous with getting your throat cut, losing oneself in the labyrinth of his gussied-up cruel world is just as attractive a prospect as getting lost in Bolkan’s chocolate eyes.
Even though it’s one of the finer examples of the giallo genre, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin has nonetheless become something of a sensation for one of its exhibitions of gore — perhaps a taste of the movies for which Fulci would come to be better known. In the much-discussed sequence, we see dogs being experimented on in a creepy hospital, their insides cut open and plugged into various machinery as they squirm and squirm. The scene was so realistic that the movie’s special-effects artist, Carlo Rambaldi, had to go to court to save Fulci from a two-year prison sequence. (I hope he at some point said I'm just that good.) Such infamy has since become much more discussed than the feature itself. Jaded viewers should be able to tell that all is just a terrific display of practical effects, but how undeserved it is that a feature’s merit be undermined by a gratuitous scene that does little to enhance the evocative ambience. (Though it is still pretty impressive.) A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin exemplifies just how thrilling a genre giallo could be, and how easily its best offerings could stick with us if the mind-fucking were done right. B+
1 Hr., 43 Mins.
A Lizard in a Woman's Skin November 23, 2017
Turns out Lucio Fulci was actually a pretty good horror filmmaker before deciding around 1979 that red-dyed corn syrup turned him on more than sexual mania and sweating suspense. As evidenced by mid-'70s murder mysteries Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972) and The Psychic (1977), Fulci could make gorgeously atmospheric slasher whodunits when he tried, ensuring the now-common claims that he’s a hack who depended on gore for attention come with a rebuttal. “Not quite!,” enthusiasts might exclaim.