Wednesday, October 6, 2010


As a film buff, there's always the search, nay the hunt, for new works to satisfy.  It never stops, and it's especially tough when one comes up against a director, long gone, whose body of work takes weeks, months, years to scarf all down, and even then there's the mysterious odd-obscure one that is hard to reach (such as Alejandro Jodorowsky's Tusk, which I have finally tracked down and will review in all of its bad-quality glory, but I digress).

One of these filmmakers if Lucio Fulci.  After seeing several of his films (i.e. The Beyond, House by the Cemetery, Zombi 2, Zombi 3, Don't Torture a Duckling), he falls into a category that I hold for the likes of Spike Lee, Brian De Palma and Jean-Luc Godard: there are a handful of pictures that are flat-out brilliant, if not masterpieces than near close, that show the directors at top form, then another handful of films that are good, solid works but flawed... and then those other handful that are just awful, hard to defend, the talent that the filmmaker has revealing them in their flaws to go even further than a hack would.  Fulci really is a high-caliber director, and despite first glance of some of his trashier works (New York Ripper comes to mind), he knows how to make effective, visceral thrillers that have a raw quality to them via low-budgets and varied casting.

Case in point - Lizard in a Woman's Skin

This tale, from 1971 (and it's hard not to tell the time period here), and it's about a woman, Carol (the coldly beautiful Florinda Bolkan), who is fairly well off, practically bourgeois, and the daughter of a lawyer/politician.  She's also having some very strange dreams.  She finds herself on a train, recurringly, stuck and unable to leave in a mass of people.  She also has some very hot sex dreams involving another woman who Carol knows, Julia (Anita Strindberg).  Julia is involved in lots of drug-and-sex orgies (again, it's 1971, probably shot in 70), and it's pretty crazy.  Not so crazy as what happens next, which is Carol being implicated as the primary suspect in Julia's grisly murder by stabbing.  Carol dreamed the killing, and there are her prints all over the place.  She claims she didn't kill her, but then who?  Who can Carol's father find and put the blame?  Will the police detectives come in and solve the crime, which could be a set-up, possibly by two zonked-out hippies?

This is what one would term 'Giallo', if only because it's a) by an Italian director of many Giallo, and b) it has the typical murder-mystery elements, and the moments of shocking horror.  Fulci's camera here isn't the likes of Argento, and it's not even the likes of Fulci's other Giallo movies such as the great Don't Torture a Duckling.  The camera style has a raw quality to it, and if it does have a particular style it's hard to see outside of the obvious - the psychedelic era it's coming from.  This is like an Italian knock-off of exploitation pictures AIP were putting out at the time involving crazy shit going on when people are surrounded by LSD and rampant sex and (ultimately) the violence that comes from taking that pesky acid.  And yet it's better than a lot of those movies because Fulci has a kind of underlying point with the time and place and the mood.

This is swinging England, after all, and it's more than conceivable that there's this split between the rich class and the less-well-off druggies and sex party animals, and that a criss-cross can happen.  But it's also hard to neglect Charles Manson style crimes when violence does occur.  Later in the film Carol is chased by a maniac with a knife that leads up to the roof.  I couldn't help but see Fulci's bitter satire of the entire hippie movement here as the hippies, being seen as the decadent and depraved lot, were not to easy to see as being heroes or villains, though at certain times we're meant to believe they're surely the latter.  That, or just downright creepy, as with the one hippie chick with pale almost zombie-blue skin who sometimes accosts Carol and later in the story hypes the virtues of LSD: "I can see so many things coming at me, hahaha!" (or dialog close to that).

The camera moves around such times in its rough style not due to its intended approach but due to budget.  It's easy to tell when this happens, that certain moments are cheap or, as due to the Giallo approach, procedural, conventional, expected.  It's when Fulci lets his surrealist-side go mad that things get interesting.  Carol in these dream scenes, either on the train or in sexual poses or doing whatever-it-is she may or may not be doing in reality, is kind of staggering to watch, especially as Bolkan as an actress makes Carol hard to peg.  She seems an innocent, but then Bolkan's cold stares and quiet or angry way she respond to questions or comments amps the mystery.  Other actors like the one playing her father or the head investigator do their part to make the film better than the average pulp.  But mostly it's Bolkan's show, by way of Fulci's dream-like staging.

It's certainly flawed in some respects, and just because of the problem of watching the film (aka Schizoid) dubbed.  One of the problems I had was a small one but one that wouldn't have been so bad if it had only been a once-or-twice occurrence, but it's often: the inspector, when he's on a crime scene or just asking some intriguing questions, whistles a tune.  Sometimes this tune carries over (or seems to carry over by Fulci's unintentional misdirection in the music), but it doesn't always work for the mood of a scene, and it becomes an annoying quirk.  Another sign of a pacing issue is music.  A good musical accompaniment, especially in Italian thrillers of the 1970's variety, is hard to hate, but it unnerves when put into small scenes that are unnecessary.  This is a minor bone to pick, but when it comes to the skeleton of what is otherwise an effective movie it stands out.

Lizard in a Woman's Skin challenges by the nature of its unusual (sub)genres: it's a psychedelic melodrama with fluorishes of the kind of violence that Fulci would go further to exploit in his horror films.  The female protagonist is given a real head-trip, and moments of real anxiety and fear and bewilderment, and we're put along for the ride.  This ride has its merits by its tricky pacing and a B-movie level of Bunuelian bourgeois consciousness-meddling.  And the twist at the end is a kicker, if a little over-explicated by the detective.  In Fulci's cannon it ranks high up there as an imperfect of-its-period gem.  It tickled me as a fan of psychedelic-inspired drug-sexy-kill frenzies that stay grounded in a good story. 

I hope soon, I should add, to have more Fulci reviews before year's end, as I have his entire oeuvre that I've yet to see on my Netflix queue at the top of the list.

PS: I just realized Ennio Morricone did the score to the film, as he did for so many other Italian thrillers and genre pictures at the time.  That might explain it, that 49 times out of 50 he's magnificent and that one time he just goes a little too far.  Still, it's not a bad score by any means, especially during the dream sequences.  It's just the over-abundance of music at times and the whistling that's annoying. 

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