Carol Hammond (Florinda Bolkan), the daughter of a prominent lawyer and aspirant politician Edmund Brighton (Leo Genn), is plagued by a nightmare in which she seduces and murders her next door neighbour, Julia Durer (Anita Strindberg; very much cast for her looks here, in that we do not ever see her speak any lines).
The red blob perhaps relates to the drug vision that gives the film its title - "Under the effect of acid I look at you here and all I see is a red blob" / "I remember that night seeing a Lizard in a Woman's Skin"
Her analyst Dr Kerr (George Rigaud) produces a perfectly rational explanation and orthodox interpretation, that the nightmare is an expression of Carol's conflicting feelings towards Julia's hedonistic lifestyle:
"In your dreams you always see her as a prostitute or a striptease artist. In fact for you that woman represents degredation. The flat next door is a symbol of vice. You've referred to this woman before as someone who is not quite respectable."
"No, she certainly isn't."
"That's it. Your conscience forces you to disapprove of that woman's way of life. But at the same time her freedom excites your curiosity and you feel attracted. This conflict, which is responsible for your actual state of anxiety explains the recurrence of your dream."
In Carol's nightmare / fantasy the crowded train carriage mutates into a madhouse orgy; the white passage here also looks similar to that in the clinic later on, whether by design or not.
Carol falls into the void
Where Julia awaits
It is not the lesbian who is perverse, but the situation she finds herself in, perhaps
Carol awakens from her dream, in a scene either cheats or destabilisies temporality and alerts one to questions of the truth value of the image, depending on your perspective
Then Julia is found dead. Carol's distinctive paper knife, scarf and fur coat are at the scene, which is also exactly as she had described it to Dr Kerr on her last visit if decidedly more tangible:
"You killed Julia Durer. By killing Julia you killed a part of yourself, a part attracted to degredation and vice. The conflict has been resolved by an act of violence. A firm decision. All of which shows exclusively that we're dealing exclusively with a liberating dream. Even our appearances in the paintings surrounding you and your house have a specific meaning of liberation"
Is someone trying to frame Carol, perhaps to get at her father? Or did she murder Julia? If so, was it a conscious act? Might then her nightmare be understood as a calculated attempt at preparing an insanity defence?
Inspector Corvin (Stanley Baker) of Scotland Yard is called in to investigate the case and soon uncovers a morass of blackmail, drugs and illicit affairs.
While perhaps not quite ranking with Don't Torture a Duckling as a giallo masterpiece, Una Lucertola con la pelle di donna / Lizard in a Woman's Skin is undoubtedly one of Lucio Fulci's most accomplished films and confirms his status as one of the best directors to work in the form.
The first 20 minutes in particular are a truly dazzling display of technique - jagged edits, void spaces, slow motion, split screen, whip pans, frenetic handheld movements, dramatic angles, distorted images etc - but also, crucially, serve to present the viewer with a plethora of clues and symbols to try to interpret and put into some sort of order.
Split screen contrasts the staid life of the Hammonds with Durer's wild parties
But Carol's stepdaughter Joan's foot-tapping to the freak beat signals that things are going on beneath the surface here as well
While things do settle down somewhat subsequently, the viewer remains engaged throughout. Besides the assured performances from the leads, with the battles of wills and wits between Baker, Genn and Bolkan a joy to watch, and Fulci's evident eye for location and detail – note for instance the visual inspiration given Carol's nightmare visions of her dead father, husband and daughter-in-law by the Francis Bacon painting that hangs on one of the walls – the thing that really stands out is how well the shocks and set-pieces are integrated into the overall design, most notably two suspenseful stalk-and-chase scene through the evocative environs of a strangely deserted hospital and the then-abandoned Alexandra Palace.
The painting in the style of Francis Bacon's Three Studies from the Painting of Innocent X by Velázquez
And its inspiration in turn for Carol's visions
Vaginal imagery is another recurring motif in the film, seen here in the design on the walls of Julia's apartment and also in the painting of the Swan that features in another of Carol's nightmares
The eyes and ears of the analyst's recording Carol's sessions
An allusion to Psycho; Fulci would reprise the same pay (no) attention to the knife-wielding man behind the curtain in The Beyond
Given these the film's weak spots, most notably a tendency to overuse the zoom lens and thereby dilute its power and the odd unconvincing effect – though taken as a whole here Carlo Rambaldi's work here must rank among the best of his Italian productions – are easily forgiven.
Some of the found locations in the film are particularly impressive
Thematically, besides the well-worn notion of woman as mystery and conflations between the detective and the analyst, the film is of interest for its examination of generational fault lines. Unfortunately like others of his generation – Lenzi with Un Posto ideale per uccidere is another example – Fulci comes across as someone who did not quite know how to respond to the changes wrought by the 1960s. (It is also perhaps worth remembering in this regard that Fulci had earlier dealt with the decidedly tamer youth rebellion of the 1950s with 1959's Ragazzi del Juke-Box, co-incidentally featuring a young Antonio De Teffè / Anthony Steffen.)
While Fulci's anti-fascism comes through in such incidental details as the Irishman who presents an all-too-easy solution to the mystery before Corvin asks some pertinent questions, his distrust of hippies and general distaste for or lack of understanding of their scene – read sex, drugs and rock and roll – seem equally evident. ("It could have been me or it could have been her. Anything's on the cards when you take a trip. You're capable of doing anything. Some take a jump and think they can fly. You could kill someone and not know nothing about anything.")
This is also, however, somewhat tempered by being in accord with the character of Baker's (perpetually whistling and cigarette cadging) hard-but-fair cop, as an older figure representative of more traditional authoritarian values (which could as equally be left as right wing) who is clearly resentful of the privileges and power of the Hammond and Brighton families and his superiors and, if his slighly longish hair and modish sideburns are anything to go by, of the kind of freedoms enjoyed by Julia Durer and her cohorts. (“There should be a law against finding bodies on a Saturday.”)
An well constructed, technically accomplished film - cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller later lensed Argento's Deep Red and Fulci's own New York Ripper among others - the icing on the cake is Ennio Morricone's superlative score, with its beautiful main 'Una Lucertola' theme and effective, often experimental but always listenable, suspense and freak-out party cues.
Fulci demonstrates his love of rack focus time and again in the film
In short, about the only area the film seems wanting in compared to the Argento film it seems in some ways to consciously invert / respond to, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, is that its title has an even more tenuous connection to the plot, here stemming from a throwaway line about the kind of thing one might see when on a LSD trip.
Unfortunately for the English-speaking viewer at least there is not yet a completely satisfactory DVD of A Lizard in a Woman's Skin out there, Shriek Show's Region 1 release featuring the slightly cut English version and an unrestored, panned and scanned Italian one, albeit supplemented by some nice extras.