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Lizard in a Woman's Skin, A (Optimum DVD)

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Lucio Fulci
Florinda Bolkan
Stanley Baker
Jean Sorel
Leo Genn
Anita Strindberg
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Soaked in the hallucinogenic juices of a spent psychedelic London just as the bright culture of the Swinging Sixties had turned violent and sour, and saturated through with the bitter misanthropic melancholy of Italian director (and also the film’s co-writer) Lucio Fulci at the very apex of his film-making prowess, the 1971 psycho-thriller “A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin” -- known to some as the director’s ‘London giallo’ --  takes the distinctive pulp-derived excesses of this very Italian interpretation of the thriller form to levels of giddy visual sophistication and bravura only later matched by Italy’s prime exponent of the giallo, himself -- Dario Argento. Years later, in the early eighties, Fulci was to garner a whole new reputation as the purveyor of lurid exploitation fare, with his suite of gory zombie flicks and a slew of cheaply -- often crudely -- made shockers; but here he demonstrates a flair and an intrinsic feel for the art of cinema forged during his early years of mixing with the giants of the Italian film industry, by producing a demonstration piece of the genre that revels in all the complex twists and turns of typical gialli plotting, while consistently confounding viewer expectations and undermining the clichés already becoming hardened by this point by the success of Argento’s ‘Animal Trilogy’ in Italy and around the world.

Fulci’s direction positively  sizzles with the free-form, bohemian art-rock experimentation of the period also familiar to Argento’s recent “Four Flies on Grey Velvet”; while the unsettling and disorienting rhythms of the film’s strange dreamlike imagery are edited to insistent, atonal jazz cues by that habitual composer for Italian thrillers of the time, Ennio Morricone -- here providing the film with a distinctive and diverse score, yet one characteristic of its type all the same. “A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin” is one of the all-time great gialli of the seventies and its reputation can only be enhanced by this newly restored and vibrant-looking transfer, taken from the original negative retained in the vaults of Canal Plus, and now released by Optimum on a UK disc that presents the most complete version of the film ever seen in a home viewing format, and in the most lush and lurid colours imaginable.

While the giallo, particularly in the hands of Dario Argento, often made typical use of  the narrative device of ‘the stranger in a foreign city’ trope in order to spark a sense of mystery and unease (usually an American or an English tourist cast adrift in Rome or Venice or Florence etc., but sometimes a native visitor, out of place among the uncouth inhabitants of some remote Italian village or town), Fulci’s story takes a very different approach, making the gialli form a vehicle for his somewhat outlandish surrealist study of a foreign city and its fracturing society at the beginning of a troubled decade. Home-grown British exploitation films which attempted to deal with the counter culture and its popular manifestations were fairly common at this time and had been since the early sixties, but Lucio Fulci’s treatment of a picture postcard London populated by dangerous acid-soaked hippies, dissolute film star hostess’s, hard-bitten Scotland Yard inspectors and adulterous, upper-class attorneys, has little time for singling out any particular culprit for disapproval or blame: everyone is equally culpable in this characteristically bleak social landscape of Fulci’s making.

Loosely inspired, one would imagine, by scandals such as the Profumo Affair of 1963, where glamour, sex, espionage and politics were mixed into a heady tabloid-pleasing brew when working-class good-time girls Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies associated with upper-class politicos in wild country house parties, and indulged in adulterous assignations with senior members of the British political establishment, the film begins by depicting the confused, violent nightmare of Carol Hammond (Florinda Bolkan): the wife of an ambitious attorney in her father’s prestigious law firm -- as she recounts the experience to her psychoanalyst, Dr. Kerr (George Rigaud).

In her dream she finds herself pushing through a train carriage which turns into the corridor leading to the flat of her downstairs neighbour at Carol's Belgravia home. Inside she finds herself naked apart from a fur coat, with a beautiful woman beckoning her from the rich, red mattress on the floor. The erotic encounter turns murderous and she stabs the woman three times in the torso with a large dagger, leaving her to bleed to death on her bed from fatal stab wounds.

The dream eludes to the racy antics of the Hammonds’ downstairs neighbour Julia Durer (Anita Strindberg), a gorgeous blonde starlet who mixes with a rather bohemian set of friends who would not normally be connected with the respectable inhabitants of the sort of grand, stucco-fronted terraces that line Belgravia and Knightsbridge. She holds LSD-soaked orgies in her garishly decorated pad, while upstairs the Hammonds eat lavish evening meals in their tasteful dinning room, in frigid silence. When Julia Dreyer is murdered by the exact same method as is depicted in Carol’s dream and in the same surroundings, wearing knee-length leather boots and apparently watched over by a zonked-out hippie couple from the ornate balcony across the room from the bed, Scotland Yard put the tough Inspector Corvin (Stanley Baker) on the case.

The case opens up a hornets’ nest of vice and duplicity that’s seething beneath the respectable upper-middle-class veneer of the Hammonds’ public life. Carol is at first suspected, since her dream predicted every feature of the murder scene; Carol’s father Edmund Brighton (Leo Genn) packs her off to a sanitarium while he prepares a defence for her based on a plea of insanity.  But when detailed diary notes about the dream are discovered to have been written by Carol before she recounted it to Dr. Kerr, Brighton  suspects his son-in-law Frank (Jean Sorel) of having set up his daughter. Frank has indeed been having an affair with a family friend, but a strange phone-call attempting to blackmail Edmund soon shifts the blame to him, while association with the hippy couple from the dream, who now seem to be stalking Carol across London with murder on their minds, also implicates step-daughter, Joan (Ed Gall).

“A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin” is a film of contrasts, oppositions and juxtapositions. Fantasy collides with realism, both thematically and in Fulcio’s directorial approach to the material itself: the baroque and the grotesque spill across the screen in abundance as the director fleshes out strange, disturbing fantasy/dream sequences full of images from the paintings that line the walls of the Hammonds’ apartment: Francis Bacon-style nightmares of bodily decay and distortion un-spool alongside bizarre swan imagery in a kaleidoscopic array of crash zooms, dreamy slow-motion shots and the decadent glamour of scenes of haut couture-swathed sex and murder.

Meanwhile, the dour gloom of the Hammonds’ tense home life is directly contrasted in pre-Brian De Palma split-screen with the ‘swinging’ dope-fuelled orgies going on downstairs in Julia’s flat. As a nervy Carol tries desperately to ignore the noise percolating up from the riotous downstairs partying, the camera homes in on step-daughter Joan surreptitiously taping her foot in time to the groovy acid-jazz beats. Fulci augments these tonal contrasts with competing shooting styles which conspicuously  jar with each other throughout the movie: the languorous surrealism and gaudy decadence of Julia Dreyer’s world (whether imagined or directly portrayed) is opposed by the -- at that time -- unusual hand-held camera work of Luigi Kuveiller, which brings a shaky ‘verity’ realism to the concrete, regimented world of the Hammond family.

The modern decadence of hippies and dope parties is placed in marked contrast to the majestic Victorian formalism of the recognisable London landmarks Fulci chooses to use as the backdrop to the film’s unfolding mystery: the majestic splendour of the grounds of Woburn Abbey (which is doubling for the family home of upper crust attorney Edmund Brighton), the neo classical exuberance of the Royal Albert Hall and the imposing architectural centrepiece ‘rose window’ of the Alexanda Palace, provide the film with an overbearing sense of place that makes the film’s sudden lurches into nightmare dream imagery all the more evocative. The latter site becomes the location of the film’s major suspense sequence in which Florinda Bolkan is the subject of a terrifying chase which is fully the equal of anything Argento had yet put on to film at that point, during which she is stalked by a knife-wielding, long-haired maniac through seemingly every inch of the grandiose building, the director resorting to an armoury of techniques -- wide-angle lenses and unusual camera set-ups and the like -- to ratchet up more suspense with every passing second. There is even one segment of this long sequence that seems to prefigure the locked-room prelude to the ‘razor wire’ scene in “Suspiria”.

Beautifully made as it is, the consummate cast really elevate the film way above its ‘pulpy’ origins. Florinda Bolkan is inscrutable and brittle as the repressed Carol, Jean Sorel is the ultimate smooth-talking urbane husband, and Leo Genn is a gem as Carol’s patrician father Edmund. Anita Stringberg is unnerving in the non-speaking role of the victim, Julia -- bringing a steely slither of manic intensity to the lesbian dream sequence she shares with Bolkan. Veteren Stanley Baker, meanwhile brings great authority to a thin role as Inspector Covin. This is a film that gets better with repeated viewings, crammed full of visually dynamic exuberance that continues to beguile long after the improbabilities of the labyrinthine plot have been exhausted. This is the best ever version to see the light of day on DVD thus far, rendering all other editions obsolete. It only has a full-screen American trailer as an extra, but it is the marvelous anamorphic widescreen transfer, painstakingly compiled by archivist Marc Morris, which is the only justification necessary for upgrading to this latest release by Optimum Releasing.

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