Sex leads to death in Lucio Fulci’s psychedelic psycho thriller.
In the tawdry and terrifically titled A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, fantasy merges with reality in the addled mind of our haunted (soon to be hunted) heroine. It’s a nightmarish take on sexual liberation and experimentation, turning vice into a deadly game. From serial terroriser Lucio Fulci, this grisly 1970s giallo features a divinely deranged Ennio Morricone score and scandalously good Carlo Rambaldi special effects.
Set in London and featuring an eclectic international cast, it begins in dream-mode, deep inside our protagonist’s (t)horny mind. The exotically attractive, prosaically named Carol Hammond (Brazilian actress Florinda Bolkan) is frantically negotiating what starts out as the corridor of a train before becoming the scene of an orgy, with naked young couples rather than elderly commuters now blocking her path; her audible anxiety is transformed into near orgasmic groans. As she reaches the end of the corridor, Carol finds herself plunging through darkness and into the grasp of a feline temptress, who laughs witchily before proceeding to seduce her.
The next day Carol discusses the dream with her psychoanalyst, Dr Kerr (George Rigaud) and it transpires that such lurid lesbian fantasies have become commonplace. The seductress is revealed as her disreputable neighbour, Julia Durer (Anita Strindberg), and the scene of the orgy is the flat next door. Mysteriously, Carol claims never have to set foot in there and to not be an acquaintance of the woman in question. The psychoanalyst explains that, in this dream, Julia "represents degradation" and that her freedom excites Carol.
However, matters take a sinister turn when – in what Dr. Kerr describes as "a liberating dream" – Carol imagines murdering her fantasy lover during a tryst. This is not in itself a cause for concern except that, soon after, Julia is actually found dead, stabbed and splayed half-naked on her scarlet bed, in the exact manner of Carol’s nightmare.
On one level, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is an old-fashioned whodunit – with the suspects comprising Carol’s nearest and dearest, including her adulterous husband Frank (Jean Sorel), his daughter Joan (Edy Gall) and Carol’s politician father Edmond Brighton (Leo Genn). On another, it’s wild and utterly unconventional – like a delirious and dangerous trip. There’s the appearance of a maniacal swan, an assault by bats and some sinister hippies.
In a bizarre turn of events, the film’s Italian director Lucio Fulci was prosecuted for offences relating to animal cruelty due to the disturbingly realistic nature of a sequence where Carol strays upon a macabre vivisection experiment, involving live dogs. Special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi (who would later go on to design E.T. and produce the effects for Alien, nabbing an Oscar for both) was forced to present the animatronic models in court to prove real animals had not been harmed.
Fulci is known as the ‘Godfather of Gore’ and A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin was one of many controversial films that he directed. He started out as a comedy director but by the late sixties had moved into the thriller/horror domain with memorably unpleasant results. His work in this field attracted world-wide controversy (as well as myriad slavish devotees), with films such as Zombie (aka Zombie Flesh Eaters) and House by the Cemetery; his output during this era was routinely subject to censorship and occasionally outright bans.
Seriously seedy, but miles from mere trash A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin makes manifest fears regarding sexual transgression. It’s an imaginatively executed sex and gorefest, a murderous riddle and a psychologically credible portrait of a tormented mind.
A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is showing at The Prince Charles Cinema, London on Wednesday March 28 at 20:45.