Part of the Italian Horror Blogathon at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies

There's an argument to be made that Lucio Fulci had the most varied career of any director in history. Certainly, among those filmmakers chiefly known for their contributions to the Italian genre machine, I can think of no-one who directed films in such wildly different styles and registers: sex comedies, Westerns, political satires, gory horror films, and more than a little bit of shading within those extremes (I believe he made at least one of every commercially viable subgenre of horror available during the span of his career except for an exorcism movie, for example). But his fandom rests on his great horror films, which he produced in two waves: four gialli dribbled out between Perversion Story AKA One on Top of the Other in 1969 and Murder to the Tune of Seven Black Notes AKA The Psychic in 1977, followed closely by a much more compact grouping of zombie-esque films from '79 to '81 (after this, he continued to crank out quite a lot of stuff, though I think that we can confidently assert the adjective "great" rarely to never needs to be brought up in discussing them).

Today, we are gathered to pay tribute to the second of his gialli, and perhaps the most exemplary among the four, A Lizard in a Woman's Skin AKA Schizoid. Though if anybody has used the latter title since American International first released a compromised cut of the film in the U.S. in 1973, I cannot imagine why, because the longer one is fantastic. The film is something of a snapshot of the giallo as it existed in 1971: situated in the cultural hangover from the Swinging '60s, set (and shot) in a version of London that nevertheless feels unmistakably Italian in attitude and tenor, driven by sexual perversion and repression. And, too, it is snaspshot of Fulci's career as it had evolved by that point: enthusiastically sleazy with just enough outré imagery that you can't quite call it exploitation, fascinated by violence to a rare degree even for an Italian genre director, driven by sexual perversion and repression.

That A Lizard in a Woman's Skin is all about the id could not be any clearer from its very first scene: a brunette woman that we'll eventually learn is named Carol Hammond (Florinda Bolkan) is trapped in a writhing bisexual orgy, driven to the brink of outright madness by the ecstatic looks on the revelers all around her. It doesn't take more than a second or two to figure out that this is a nightmare, and it proves, indeed, to be a recurring one: Carol has even been seeing a psychotherapist, Dr. Kerr (George Rigaud) to find out why she's so obsessed with this setting, which she associates with another resident of her apartment complex, the libertine hostess Julia Durer (Anita Strindberg, probably the most prominent cast member, though that wasn't the case when she made this film, only her third, and the first under that name). You don't need that medical degree, or even to know the tropes of a giallo, to grasp that Carol is being torn into emotional pieces by her desire to be more sexually adventurous, or that her repression ends up being a primary force in the mystery to follow.

You can also guess, based on the title, that her sexuality is to a certain degree vilified, though I'm not absolutely certain how much that holds. There's never a real sense that the film thinks of the orgiastic free-for-all she sees in her mind's eye is healthy, and Julia (the film's embodiment of liberated female sexuality) is surely not presented as being an especially nice or sympathetic human being. Still, the problems in Carol's life all come from her denying her sexual appetites, and if she'd just own up to what she wants, there'd be far less to build a movie around. Probably, Fulci and his fellow writers weren't really thinking in those terms: to be a giallo in the early '70s was necessarily to be involved in corrupted sexuality, and that's not really what A Lizard in a Woman's Skin cares about.

If anything, the film's alternate U.S. title gives us the best clue what the film is really about: the perception of a disturbed, fragmentary mind. One night, Carol's dreams involve Julia's violent death, as a pair of dead-eyed hippies (Penny Brown and Mike Kennedy) watch; a few days later, Julia's body is found, having been dead for most of a week, and under the exact circumstances that Carol dreamed of. The head investigator from Scotland Yard, Inspector Corvin (Stanley Baker) immediately starts to put details together and concludes that Carol must be the primary suspect, though his attempts to prove this are stymied by her politician father, Edmond Brighton (Leo Genn) and her devoted teenage stepdaughter Joan (Ely Galleani) - Joan's father, Carol's husband Frank (Jean Sorel) is too busy having affairs to give a damn. Carol goes from "high strung" to "paranoid" in the blink of an eye, and spends the rest of the movie in something of a fugue state, seeing things that can't be there, experiencing places that can't exist, and having no idea if she's responsible for Julia's death or not, but sure as hell not wanting to take the fall for it.

There is one critical flaw with A Lizard in a Woman's Skin that's enough of a piece with the bulk of gialli (where sensation mattered a little bit more than narrative logic, though not to the degree of Fulci's later "Gate to Hell" movies) that it almost shouldn't matter: the ending doesn't work. It's the kind of thing that makes it openly impossible for most of the film up to that point to have actually taken place in the way we've seen it take place, given what certain people should know and thus how they should behave when we see them alone. I think that's vague enough to be meaningful without spoiling the 42-year-old genre classic.

Now, nobody needs to point out that gialli aren't particularly known for sticking the ending, or making anything that resembles coherent psychological sense. Is A Lizard in a Woman's Skin particularly obnoxious in this regard? Probably not. I think it's more that the first 85 minutes or so of the film are so terrifically above-par that for it to slide into stock genre nonsense at the end is a bit more disappointing than if the whole thing had just been an average giallo comme une autre. At no point does the film give Don't Torture a Duckling (AKA nothing at all; with a title like that, who would dare change it?) a run for its money as Fulci's greatest work in the subgenre (though it is certainly more typical of the things the giallo does best), but at its best - where it frequently lives - this is one hell of a heady rush of terrifying imagery filtered through Carol's distressed mind. The dream sequences are obviously impressive, warping physical reality itself in a series of stagings that resemble dioramas of sex and murder (cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller, who wouldn't work with Fulci again until after his descent began, does some wonderful camera tricks to distort the image with genuinely dreamlike obscurity), but the way the film starts to break Carol's awake reality are even more impressive. The infamous scene of vivisected dogs (make-up artist Carlo Rambaldi had to demonstrate how he created the effect in court, to save Fulci from doing jail time for animal torture*) is the most obvious example, but the later sequence of Carol running through the bizarrely industrial spaces of the Alexandra Palace is even better, depicting a nonstop stream of huge, hellishly abandoned rooms that spill into each other with only the vaguest sense of physical continuity.

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. Which is not to say that his approach is any better, only that it leaves the film fare grungier, and that gives it a hell of a lot of personality and impact. By making the film grounded in physical actuality and more lingering, disgusting gore, Fulci and Kuveiller and the rest of the filmmakers were able to make the moments of drug or psychosis-induced fantasy pop that much more, and somehow, having just a little insanity ends up making the whole film feel more deranged than if it always occupied that heightened place. For as long as it works, A Lizard in a Woman's Skin does as good a job of exploring what a mental breakdown might actually consist of as well as any giallo ever did, and given the genre's huge enthusiasm for psychiatry, that's one heck of an achievement.

*I imagine this is why Spielberg contacted Rambaldi to design E.T.