The career of Italian director Lucio Fulci offers a fascinating contradiction in terms. Like many regularly working directors in the Italian film business of his era, he was a journeyman who worked in a variety of genres: comedies, musicals, westerns, sci-fi, horror, thrillers, you name it. However, unlike a lot of his fellow journeyman, Fulci developed a highly personal style as his career went along, mixing bold stylization with a particularly jaundiced vision of life and humanity. A Lizard In A Woman’s Skin is one of his forays into Italy’s giallo thriller style and it shows that personal style firing on all cylinders.
Like many a giallo, A Lizard In A Woman’s Skin begins with a woman in trouble: Carol (Florinda Bolkan) has a difficult time despite her privileged lifestyle: her husband Frank (Jean Sorel) is cheating on her with an unknown woman, her stepdaughter Joan (Ely Galleani) doesn’t like her and she lives next door to playgirl Julia (Anita Strindberg), who constantly throws wild parties. Carol has disturbing, sexed-up dreams that involve Julia – and a dream that involves her killing Julia coincides with Julia turning up dead. Inspector Corvin (Stanley Baker) considers Carol the prime suspect but his investigation reveals that no one involved in Carol’s life is quite what they seem to be.
Fulci is known to a lot of horror fans for films with dream logic and obtuse plots but he was quite good with the more rigorously plotted style of the giallo, as shown by Perversion Story and Don’t Torture A Duckling. A Lizard In A Woman’s Skin fulfills the giallo template beautifully like those aforementioned films: the script, co-penned by Fulci, sets up a seemingly obvious crime scenario but throws in an array of twists and surprises that keep the viewer guessing up to the last moments. It cleverly shifts its audience identification figure from character to character throughout the film, creating an experience that constantly throws viewers off-balance in a way that draws them in.
A Lizard In A Woman’s Skin also benefits from a strong cast. Bolkan makes a fascinating lead, arousing sympathy and suspicion in equal measure as she makes her way through the labyrinth of the plot. Sorel and Strindberg were both stalwarts of Italian genre fare during this time and acquit themselves nicely: Sorel uses his good looks as a Sphinx-like mask to keep the audience wondering about his motivations while Strindberg throws herself into the film’s “object of desire” role with appropriate lustiness. Baker has to carry a lot the film’s plot on his shoulders and he handles it with cool efficiency.
Best of all, A Lizard In A Woman’s Skin shows Fulci comfortably settling into his own array of themes and stylistic tics. The story shows a bleak view of humanity: the hippies don’t look too bright or scrupulous but the upper-crusters who seem to be the protagonists are all hypocrites with something to hide. Fulci applies his developing style to the material to create a queasy atmosphere of society collapsing in on itself, effectively deploying creepy, surreal dream sequences that hint at his cycle of surreal ’80s horrors, right down to mangled zombies and cataract-covered eyes. With the help of future Deep Red cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller and composer Ennio Morricone, he creates some great extended setpieces like a chase through a hospital that ends on a gruesome final tableau and nerve-wracking cat-and-mouse scenario that unfolds in an abandoned church.
In short, A Lizard In A Woman’s Skin is a vivid example of the still-underrated Fulci taking a familiar genre and applying his cynicism and edgy style to create a personalized take on it. Anyone interested in his work will discover it shows him working at the height of his misanthropic, surrealism-inclined powers.