Would I pay good money to see a film titled Lizard in a Woman’s Skin? Yes!
Were I were a producer, would I invest in a movie called Lizard in a Woman’s Skin? Yes!!
If they gave Oscars for films with the most kick-ass titles ever, would Lizard in a Woman’s Skin win? Yes!!!
As you may have guessed by now, Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is one of my all-time favorite titles for a movie ever. I’m absolutely crazy about it, and have been since first seeing a poster ad for the film in the “pink section” of the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle back in ’71. The US release dropped the superfluous “A” from the beginning of the title, making this hallucinatory Italian-French-Spanish co-production sound even more enticingly like a retro, Creature Features programmer, or one of those nifty ‘50s monster flicks spoofed on MST3K.
It’s such an intriguing title to me. Even now, as I type out the words Lizard in a Woman’s Skin - I’m made aware of having roughly the same reaction to it I had forty-five years ago: “That is one GREAT title!”
|Although she doesn't appear in the film, fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 may recognize|
the model on this poster as Leslie McRea, star of Girl In Gold Boots
Perhaps too much so, I’m afraid. For (irony of ironies) the very provocativeness of the title proved to be precisely the hurdle my parents were unprepared to surmount when, at the ripe old age of thirteen, I (a little too-casually) told them that a friend and I were headed downtown to see Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (I also seem to recall a request for bus fare squeezed in there, somewhere). Turning a deaf ear to what I believed was a very reasonable argument on my part: that 13-year-olds were doubtless the age group most likely to be attracted to a title like that - my folks nevertheless laid down the law. The film was R-rated, its ad copy included the word “erotic,” and it was playing on a double bill at one of the seamier grindhouses on Market Street. Case closed.
And since it was an American-International Pictures release (whose films were known in our house as El Cheapo), I couldn’t even fall back on my usual “It might be up for an Oscar!” argument. No, I’m afraid my folks (rightfully) detected the low-brow in my eyes.
Was it worth the wait? Yes!!!!
A hypnotically surreal, psychedelic, totally over-the-top experience, Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is a tense suspense thriller with so much going on in the way of sex, graphic violence, and overwrought visual excess...it practically hyperventilates.
Best of all, it’s a film that ultimately lives up to its bluntly ambiguous/subtly sensationalist title! A title which—like those of the best exploitation movies, pulp novels, and tabloid magazine headlines—evokes more than it explains. A quality that can also be said to be one of the chief attributes of this seductively baroque and entertaining thriller.
|Florinda Bolkan as Carol Hammond|
|Jean Sorel as Frank Hammond|
|Edy Gall as Joan Hammond|
|Leo Genn as Edmond Brighton|
|Silvia Monti as Deborah|
|Stanley Baker as Inspector Corvin|
|Anita Strindberg as Julia Durer|
|Alberto de Mendoza as Sgt. Brandon|
It boggles my mind that ANYTHING but Lizard in a Woman’s Skin was ever considered for this film, but during production the title alternated between the drab The Cage and the mundane The Trap. For the wide US release, the cryptic Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (which I suspect was retained in metropolitan areas) was jettisoned in favor of the derivative and artless Schizoid, and in some international markets it was known simply as Carole.
Similarly, depending on where and when one saw the film, its length (edited for sex and violence) and language (dubbing and subtitles differ) varied significantly.
The fully restored version is quite the experience, with Italian director Lucio Fulci creating a giallo thriller that feels like full-on “Alfred Hitchcock meets Ken Russell with a nod to Russ Meyer.”
It's hard to look at Carol's visually stylish dreams (all furs, lingerie, slow-motion,
and wind-blown lesbianism) without wondering if it served as the inspiration for that
memorable Columbus Circle photo shoot sequence in that American giallo, Eyes of Laura Mars
As Carol’s dreams grow increasingly nightmarish, her psychoanalyst (George Rigaud) reassures her that the contradiction of content (though disapproving and repulsed by the carnal shenanigans of her neighbor in real life; Carol nevertheless dreams of being seduced by her) is merely a manifestation of the conflicted feelings of resentment and repression within her own life (after marrying, Carol suppressed her desire to follow in her father’s legal footsteps), combined with the estrangement she feels from her husband (enhanced by the self-insinuated omnipresence of his gorgeous secretary, Silvia Monti) and aloof stepdaughter.
Unfortunately, just as Carol comes to be convinced that her dreams are merely her subconscious providing her with a healthy outlet for her inner conflicts, her neighbor is found murdered. And in a manner uncannily similar to one of Carol’s bloodier nightmares.
Did Carol suffer a blackout and commit a brutal murder? Is someone familiar with her dreams trying to frame her? Was there an unknown witness to the crime? Is there really someone trying to kill her, or is she imagining it all? And who placed that mysterious phone call?
I can’t remember when I’ve had a better time trying to solve a murder mystery amidst so many false leads, numerous red herrings, and gleeful misdirections. Nor can I remember a detective crime thriller so spectacularly shot or filled with so many gripping moments of suspense and cover-your-eyes horror setpieces. There's never a dull moment in Lizard in a Woman's Skin, and now having seen it, I'm seized by how well-suited a film it is to be promoted with the tagline used for Ken Russell's Tommy in 1975: Your Senses Will Never Be The Same.
|Venus in Furs|
In one of her dreams, Carol envisions herself trapped in a corridor full of naked couples
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
A 1978 film review citing Faye Dunaway’s Eyes of Laura Mars as an American take on the Italian “giallo” was the first time I’d ever heard of the film classification. Typically a detective/crime thriller combining elements of exploitation, suspense, horror, sex, and gore—all with a hyper-Technicolor overlay of stylized visuals and dramatic music; giallo films are relatively new to me (I’ve only seen about four), but of the few I’ve seen, Lizard in a Woman's Skin stands out as something pretty special.
What with that cheesy title I love so much and my history with American-International releases, I came to this film with understandably low expectations. I’d have been more than happy had the film proved to be just an amusingly dated, campy exploitationer full of big hair, ‘70s fashions, and that glaring red poster paint they used for blood in those days.
And while Lizard in a Woman's Skin indeed features all of the above (to spare!); it also blew me out of the water by being such a surprisingly effective whodunit and a tension-filled suspense thriller. I know “Never a dull moment” is an oft-used cliché, but Lizard in a Woman's Skin seizes upon it like a mantra.
|The Age of Aquarius|
Mike Kennedy as Hubert and Penny Brown as Jenny
Old London's clash with the hippie counterculture plays a significant role in the film's puzzle
This well-plotted puzzle loaded with suspicious-looking characters locked in questionable relationships and harboring dubious motives, leaves you scant time to catch your breath. Between the gorgeous, color-drenched cinematography (with swooping, subjective camera angles, split screens, dizzying wipes, and jarring jump cuts); over-the- top gore effects; Ennio Morricone’s unsettling music score; and the pitch-perfect performances of the entire cast (everyone looks like they’re up to something), Lizard in a Woman's Skin gives giallo a good name.
|You can't really go wrong when a thriller indulges in elaborate costuming and |
enormous hairdos while framing the actors in melodramatic soap opera tableau
I learned from the DVD commentary that colorful supporting characters are something of a staple of giallos, and on that score Lizard in a Woman's Skin doesn’t disappoint. Stanley Baker as the whistling detective, Jean Sorel as the something-to-hide husband, and especially Leo Genn as Carol’s concerned father, are all top-notch. But for me, the entire film worked exclusively because of the outstanding performance by the beautiful Brazilian actress Florinda Bolkan.
|Carol's father visits her after she's jailed for a murder she swears she didn't commit|
I’ve never seen her in anything before, but I think I’m going to have to search her out. Not only is she stunning in that intelligent, no-nonsense way of so many of my favorite ‘70s actresses (Glenda Jackson & Julie Christie come to mind); but she commands the screen in a tense, tortured performance that reminds me of the best of the Hitchcock heroines (Hitchcock references abound in this film). Like Janet Leigh in Psycho or Kim Novak in Vertigo, Bolkan magically allows a wealth of tortured inner conflicts to play out over a face that is, in the context of the story, trying hard to reveal very little. I don’t know how any actor does that, but Bolkan is actually mesmerizingly good. I suspect her voice is dubbed, making the overall effectiveness of her portrayal even more impressive.
|Ersi Pond as busybody neighbor Mrs. Gordon. And Piero Nistri as her...chauffeur|
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
I tend to have two reactions to grotesque images or bloody violence in real life: 1) If I’m lucky, I can avert my eyes quickly enough before my brain has a chance to formulate a clear (read: lasting) image of what I thereafter tell myself I never saw. 2) My least favorite. I see it briefly, but before I turn away, my eyes perform a rapid zoom and my mind does this kind of “Terminator-vision” thing where far too much detail and information is clocked in a nanosecond. Thus, long after I’ve stopped looking, my mind’s eye is still seeing.
The cinematography and editing in Lizard in a Woman's Skin recreates both types of reactions, often to disturbing effect. Lizard in a Woman's Skin has several scenes of gory violence that must have been very shocking for its time (most notably an unpleasant animal vivisection scene that looks quite fake today, but was realistic enough in 1971 to get the producers hauled into court on animal cruelty charges and made to show the prop animals). For me, this is where the limitations of 1971 special effects are a blessing.
|In a Hitchcockian sequence prominently featured in the film's advertising,|
Carol is attacked by a room full of bats
THE STUFF OF DREAMS
After now having seen Lizard in a Woman’s Skin twice, I have to say I owe my parents a serious debt of gratitude for sparing me the untold years of nightmares and trauma this thoroughly out-there movie most assuredly would have wreaked upon my young psyche. I’m also thankful to have been able to experience this unique film for the first time in its uncut entirety; probably looking and sounding even better than it did when originally released.
But most of all I’m glad I (re)discovered Lizard in a Woman’s Skin at an age when I’m better able appreciate what an intelligently-conceived, artfully realized film it is. I've noted countless times in previous posts how much I adore hallucinatory, dreamlike films. So much so that I frequently resort to the term "fever dream" to describe those films of particular visual and emotional intensity. Well, Lizard in a Woman's Skin is all that and a bag of chips.
Exploitation films tend to get a bad rap, but movies like Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness, and now, Lucio Fulci’s Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, remind me that sometimes it's only in the low-rent subgenres of film where truly unconventional directors are allowed to be their freest.
|Mike Kennedy (aka Mike Kogel) plays a hippie drifter in Lizard in a Woman's Skin and was the lead singer of the '60s pop group Los Bravos. Watch the music video for their 1966 hit "Black is Black"|