A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin Blu-ray Review (originally published 2016)
Carol Hammond (Florinda Bolkan) is the frustrated wife of Edmond Brighton (Leo Genn), a successful London lawyer and politician. Lately, Carol has been suffering strange, erotic dreams about her free-loving, orgy-throwing neighbor, Julia Durer (Anita Strindberg). One night, during a particularly rowdy, drug-fueled celebration, Carol dreams of stabbing Julia to death, then wakes to discover that her neighbor has, indeed, been murdered. Now, she and Scotland Yard’s Inspector Corvin (Stanley Baker) are following the evidence to discover if she has been framed… or if she is having nightmares of her own forgotten crimes.
Though not as esoteric as his Gothic zombie movies – specifically City of the Living Dead (Italian: Paura nella Città dei Morti Viventi; aka: The Gates of Hell, 1980) or its follow-up, The Beyond (Italian: ...E tu vivrai nel terrore! L'aldilà; aka: Seven Doors to Death, 1981) – Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (Italian: Una Lucertola con la Pelle di Donna; aka: Schizoid, 1971) might be Lucio Fulci’s most outrageously arty film, thriller or otherwise. Technically, he was simply following the trends, as gialli had already started to embrace the concept of dream logic in the early ‘70s. This was, in part, a reaction to the role that subjective flashbacks played in Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Italian: L'Uccello dalle piume di cristallo, 1970). In Argento’s film, the protagonist keeps recalling the attempted murder he witnessed at the beginning of the film, hoping to remember something he missed. The impressionistic editing, slow-motion inserts, and enigmatic focus-pulling Argento and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro had made famous was then mimicked by the workhorse directors who had found a niche in the giallo boom and became a mainstay of the formula. Lizard in a Woman’s Skin was not the only dream-logic giallo, but it was among the best in this regard, joined by the likes of Sergio Bergonzelli’s In the Folds of the Flesh (Italian: Nelle pieghe della carne, 1970), Sergio Martino’s All the Colors of the Dark (Italian: Tutti i colori del buio, 1972), and Pupi Avati’s The House with the Laughing Windows (Italian: La casa dalle finestre che ridono, 1976) – all films that managed to tie their psychedelia to their plots and themes, rather than using them strictly as visual flair.
Fulci and cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller rarely give the audience a chance to observe the film objectively. When they aren’t shifting focus and crash-zooming, they’re still implying perverted paranoia with more subtle editing techniques. Even expositional and procedural sequences are skewed by the maddening juxtaposition of wide angles and extreme close-ups. And, when Lizard in a Woman’s Skin directly engages in nightmare sequences, Fulci pushes the dream-logic to its illusory limit with dizzying geography (the nightmare locations make no visual sense and appear to stretch into infinity), overlapping images, skipped frames, split-screens, and bloody, surrealistic special effects. Though he hadn’t yet scored an international breakthrough with Zombie (Italian: Zombi 2, 1979), Fulci was still experimenting with extreme gore and, in its uncensored form, Lizard in a Woman’s Skin was one of the most graphic films of the early ‘70s slasher boom. What sets it apart is probably the fact that so much of the violence is tied directly to hallucinations, rather than the murder sequences as they happen. Sure, there is a relatively long chase scene that ends in a (non-fatal) knife slashing, but, for most of the movie, the audience is left to wonder if the bloodletting is real or imagined. Even the stabbing murder at the center of the plot is only viewed from the perspective of Carol’s nightmares. We never quite get an authentic, straight-forward version of what occurred.
One sequence actually got Fulci and his producers into legal trouble for animal cruelty. In the scene, Carol hides from a stalker in a sanitorium and stumbles across some kind of grotesque experiment in which four living dogs have been strung up with their insides exposed. Tubes carry their blood to parts unknown and they whimper as their hearts continue beating and their guts leak gory sludge into stainless steel basins. Italian authorities charged the director on suspicion of animal cruelty. Actors were forced to testify on his behalf and, when that didn’t work, special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi (the future inventor of the E.T. puppet) appeared in court with the dead dog props to prove that Fulci hadn’t actually tortured innocent creatures for his movie (though, for the record, the effect was achieved using previously tanned coyote hides).
Speaking of plot, Lizard in a Woman’s Skin definitely won’t please the critics that complain about the giallo genre’s penchant for form over function. The storyline, credited to Fulci himself, Roberto Gianviti, José Luis Martínez Mollá, and André Tranché, is pretty unsatisfying in terms of narrative function, mystery, and a satisfying climax. It is told largely from the point of view of a narrator so unreliable that she can’t even trust herself and the denouement is pretty obvious from the outset (and semi-recycled from his first giallo, Perversion Story [Italian: Una sull'altra; aka: One on Top of the Other, 1969]). In addition, Fulci and company don’t even really engage with the bodycount formula that basic gialli operated on. So much of the danger is explained away as delusion that I can imagine even genre fans might be disappointed, similar to slasher fans’ original reactions to Fred Walton’s April Fool’s Day (1986), in which (spoiler alert) the entire movie is revealed to be an elaborate prank. However, Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is a special case where the mechanics of typical giallo plotting – police procedure, murder mystery, multiple suspects, et cetera – are merely window-dressing around the more potent themes. It’s a film about the loss of identity, where nothing can be trusted as real as long as we’re in the mindset of our lead protagonist, who is also her own antagonist. Other gialli featured criminal cabals attempting to gaslight women into committing murder or suicide, but few were highlighted by women haunting themselves.
Lizard in a Woman’s Skin has a convoluted history of alternate cuts, including: a 95:30 minute, heavily censored US theatrical version; a 97:52 minute Italian video cut that featured most of the violence, but deleted some expositional scenes; and a supposedly complete 103:44 cut. It was so rare on home video for so long that fans happily passed around bootleg versions, until Shriek Show released an official DVD. Unfortunately, that DVD was a bit of a fiasco. It included an anamorphic version of the US cut and a 1.33:1 cropped version of the Italian video cut, which the company claimed was the only available source. Soon after Shriek Show released an anamorphic ‘remastered’ DVD of the 103:44 version, which was frustrating. Other uncut or very nearly uncut anamorphic discs were put out by Federal Video in Italy and Optimum Releasing in the UK. The first Blu-ray was released as part of a limited edition, BD/DVD/CD soundtrack combo-pack by Le Chat qui Fume in France. According to specs, it ran a slightly shortened 102:59. Now, Mondo Macabro has released the first-ever North American Blu-ray (technically two of them – one LE with a red cover and one standard release with a blue cover) and it runs 104:11 minutes, making it the longest available version.
Mondo Macabro’s press release claims that this 1.85:1 (maybe closer to 1.87:1?), 1080p transfer was remastered from the film negative, but they don’t supply any source specs (based on the Studio Canal intro, it’s safe to assume that it came from a French source). Italian genre fans have learned to be suspicious of such claims, because (as regular readers will remember) a number of Blu-rays were culled from inferior CRT negative scans from the region. Happily, that doesn’t seem to be the case here. While it isn’t the absolute best transfer of its kind I’ve ever seen, it exhibits very few of the typical telecine noise and DNR effects that have plagued similar releases. The majority of the grain structure appears accurate – none of those streaky digital blips – with only select blurry images showing the fuzzy telltale signs of CRT mistakes. The Shriek Show DVD, in comparison, was taken from multiple prints, which meant that the previously censored sequences were in significantly rougher shape, including big tears, overcranked whites, and blotches. The Blu-ray is more homogenous with far fewer print damage artifacts and a more constant gamma/contrast balance. The Blu-ray features more vivid and consistent hues, but it skews ever so slightly yellow compared to the DVD. Having never seen the film in theaters I can’t claim that one color timing is more accurate than the other, but I am drawn to the slightly cooler version.
Shriek Show DVDs included unnecessary and underwhelming 5.1 remixes, but Mondo Macabro has wisely stuck to the original mono English and Italian tracks. Both are presented in uncompressed LPCM 2.0 and, for the record, both are dub tracks, because Lizard in a Woman’s Skin was shot without sound. I often say I prefer an English dub because English-speaking stars tend to dub themselves in these movies, but, this time, the bulk of the cast is Italian, French, Brazilian, Argentinian, or German (among the leading cast, only Stanley Baker and Leo Genn are native English speakers). There’s also very, very little difference between the two tracks aside from the dialogue. Sound effects, music, and even non-dialogue vocals (whistling, grunting, screaming) tend to match. The English track has the slight edge in terms of volume consistency and elemental separation, especially when it comes to the music. Composer Ennio Morricone supplied variations on the avant-garde jazz riffs he’d developed for The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. The most clever thing about this particular score compared to the many similar ones Morricone composed for other gialli is the fact that the lead detective whistles the dissonant theme song.
There are a handful of scenes that are not available in English. In these cases, the subtitle track automatically displays subtitles for those listening to the English track.
Commentary with Pete Tombs and Kit Gavin – Tombs, the author of Mondo Macabro: Weird & Wonderful Cinema Around the World, and Gavin, the director of Paura: Lucio Fulci Remembered (Volume 1), which was a three hour and forty-five minute long collection of interviews with Fulci’s colleagues and collaborators, come together for this brand new retrospective track. It’s a well-paced, info-packed commentary that covers the behind-the-scene story, the histories of the various contributors, Fulci’s artistic inspirations, and (most valuable to myself) they mark the differences between this longest cut and the shortened versions. Unfortunately, the sound of the film itself is too loud on the track and it can be difficult to discern what they are saying, especially when Morricone’s music kicks in.
Shedding the Skin (33:50, SD) – This 2005 retrospective featurette was directed by Gavin and was originally included with Shriek Show’s original two-disc DVD. Hosted by actress Penny Brown, it covers the early history of giallo and Fulci, leading up to the release of Lizard in a Woman’s Skin. It includes interviews with stars Florinda Bolkan, Jean Sorel, and Mike Kennedy, and makeup artists Franco Di Girolamo and Carlo Rambaldi.
Dr. Lucio Fulci's Day for Night (32:10, HD) – This rare video interview with Fulci (conducted sometime before his death in 1996) was conducted/directed by Antonietta De Lillo. The maestro, who is seated in a wheelchair, but still quite lively, talks and talks and talks about his childhood, his education, his musical talents, his early films, and his success in spaghetti westerns, gialli, and, of course, horror films. There are some brief clips included as well, though they are artfully projected against a wall in pink monochrome for some reason.
When Worlds Collide (29:10, HD) – A new interview/video essay with Stephen Thrower, the author of Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci, concerning the themes, filming techniques, and storytelling styles of Lizard in a Woman’s Skin.
From Burton to Baker (12:30, HD) – The final new interview is with actor Tony Adams, who, like Fulci, begins the interview talking about his childhood and early career, before eventually discussing Lizard in a Woman’s Skin.
Alternate Italian opening credits (1:30, HD)
International, US, and Italian trailers
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.