A Lizard in a Woman's Skin (1971)
In the early 1970s a new genre called giallo became popular in Italy, and eventually with international audiences. Influenced by some of the works of Mario Bava as well as cheap crime novels, the films were typically full of nudity, plot twists and violence. Along with Bava's influence there was also that of directors like Alfred Hitchcock. Lucio Fulci, an established director who had been making a variety of films - largely comedies and a few westerns - naturally jumped on board when he saw how popular the films were. He wanted to be the Italian version of Hitchcock.
Problem was, a young upstart named Dario Argento had already claimed that title with his debut movie, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, in 1970. Argento's film was a well-done, but rather tame, representation of the genre, and Fulci was already familiar with moving into sleazier territory with copious amounts of nudity, already evidenced in his Hitchcock-inspired movie One on Top of the Other. Add a bit of psychedelic drug use and political intrigue, and an desire to not be outdone by his younger competitors, and we get A Lizard in a Woman's Skin.
Carol Hammond (Florinda Bolkan) is the wife of an up-and-coming advocate named Frank (Jean Sorel) and the daughter of well-known British lawyer and politician named Edmond Brighton (Leo Genn). She is seeing a psychiatrist (George Rigaud) due to frequent erotic dreams she is having of her free-spirited neighbor, Julia (Anita Strindberg). After the dreams turn violent one night she is shocked when Inspector Corvin (Stanley Baker) shows up stating that Julia has been murdered, with Carol's letter opener and fur coat found at the scene of the crime.
She becomes the prime suspect but, when it turns out that Julia had information about infidelity, suspicion soon falls on Frank, who is having an affair with a family friend. The truth may lie in two witnesses that were at Julia's party, a pair of hippies named Hubert (Mike Kennedy) and Jenny (Penny Brown), both of whom appear to be friends with Carol's stepdaughter Joan (Ely Galleani). When given the opportunity to find out who the real killer is Carol finds herself pursued by someone who wants her out of the way, while Baker continues to piece together what happened.
The early part of A Lizard in a Woman's Skin features quite a bit of surreal dream imagery before the story starts to coalesce into a by-the-books mystery story. At that point it slows down quite a bit and, though it was obviously meant to give Inspector Corvin a recognizable tic, Stanley Baker's whistling is beyond annoying. Still, despite the fact that his later horror films are all over the place, I have noticed that Fulci's earlier movies are pretty straightforward in plot and have a logical conclusion. This one does as well, even though the reason Hubert attempts to murder Carol, resulting in a riveting chase sequence, is never thoroughly explained.
Many of Fulci's movies resulted in controversy and this one was no different. While convalescing in a clinic Carol is stalked by Hubert and at one point sees a number of eviscerated dogs hanging with their entrails out, with one still moving as if it is alive. The only significance of the scene is that it is never explained whether it is real or a hallucination, but the artist who designed the animatronic prop had to present it as evidence to help Fulci avoid prison time after it was alleged he used real dogs. While the chase scene through an abandoned Catholic church is the most memorable sequence in the film the dogs provide the over-the-top gratuitous shot typifies many exploitation films.
Despite some pacing problems this is still one of the better gialli. Florinda Bolkan's withdrawn performance, and the fact she has few lines throughout the movie, keep the viewer guessing about what truly happened. It never gets as surreal as the beginning promises, but it is definitely one of the more satisfying examples of the genre.
A Lizard in a Woman's Skin (1971)
Time: 103 minutes
Starring: Florinda Bolkan, Jean Sorel, Leo Genn, Stanley Baker
Director: Lucio Fulci