The horror…: “Lizard in a Woman’s Skin”

October 26, 2014 § Leave a comment

It may not be as widely and religiously paraphrased as those two straitjacketing maxims ‘show, don’t tell’ and ‘write what you know’, but consume enough film criticism (both amateur and otherwise) and the act of cheating one’s audience will surely be decried and advised against in due time if not frequently. Of course, the idea of a filmmaker wilfully betraying the implicit trust of a film’s audience might initially appear mean and in poor faith, but if this is an absolute sin, how many passable, good or even great pictures could be considered successful simply on the back of unfair narrative practices? To use an obvious, almost blah example, could the untimely, almost cynical killing-off of Marion Crane in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” be called cheating? Much has been said about the general expectation – at that time in the history of cinema viewership – that Janet Leigh, being a recognisable name, a star, and the clear narrative and emotional focus of the first half hour of the film, would be expected to remain a significant narrative and emotional focus, or at least visually present, for the remainder of the film. Had she been portrayed by a no-name performer, Marion’s death would almost certainly not have been one quarter as scandalous as it turned out to be. And even with the knowledge that Janet Leigh was not quite the drawcard that an Audrey Hepburn or Elizabeth Taylor would have been in that role, she was a big enough screen presence such that it would have been perfectly reasonable for an audience member to expect, even subconsciously, that she should not suddenly cease to exist, or that if she did, that she do so with a little more dignity and glamour. It’s undeniable that Hitchcock predicted the impact that the sudden screeching death of a Hollywood star would have on an audience’s psychology, an audience who – by decades of perhaps inadvertent, perhaps calculated conditioning – had come to place their entire sense of security in that of their leading ladies and leading men. Hitchcock knew this, and he exploited it, and boy did it cause a stir. And while the seismic cultural shockwaves were not always received with positivity, “Psycho” was an overall sensation, not to mention it’s being an enduringly effective thriller; it was the Master of Suspense taking his habit of audience manipulation to its logical extreme.

Running wholeheartedly with the idea that narrative deceit, that is to say, manipulation which is not a result of a viewer simply failing to heed or notice ‘hints’ and ‘clues’ present in a film, is not an absolute no-no and can in fact be a desirable theatrical experience, giallo maestro Lucio Fulci crafted, with 1971’s “Lizard in a Woman’s Skin”, a film whose cinematic form seems to flirt fitfully with the psyche of its central character Carol Hammond, played by Audrey Tatou lookalike Florinda Bolkan. The result is a pleasantly giddy murder mystery with an ending whose expository clunk might annoy whilst, at the same time, a small area in the navel flutters from the knowledge that the film has been one devious, mendacious ride. Like most of the best giallos, this film, about a young woman from money and influence whose homicidal dream about a neighbour/debauched party girl manifests itself stab-for-stab in a real killing for which she categorically denies any responsibility, feels more like a thriller than a horror picture because of its at times consummate craftsmanship to the point of sleekness and its weirdly elegant mode of genre filmmaking. From the very first image, it is clear that this picture will not adopt the apparent observational neutrality of something directed by Rohmer, opting instead to drift in and out of fantasy, misperception and blatant falsehood. In fact, it’s possible that Fulci decides to not simply drift but to wholeheartedly fashion his cinematic language in such a way that it is entirely in service of one particular character’s selective memory, scheming, hopes and dreams, and very possibly their self-delusion and even psychosis. It’s a bold move; one which, as implied earlier, could, probably did and probably still does leave many viewers feeling violated and unsatisfied.

So is “Lizard in a Woman’s Skin” a horror picture and if so, from what exactly is the horror derived? In some ways it doesn’t quite adhere to modern concepts of horror cinema which feature either the traditional supernatural entities or humans that seem to be supernaturally malicious. By its end, this particular Lucio film deviates from most giallos by way of its very tight body count and sets itself apart from most horror films by the nature of its central crime, by the very fact that it has a central, inciting act as opposed to running on the palpable threat of an unpredictable series of acts. What may very well be presented as the fairly straightforward whodunit that it very well happens to be is dragged into the realm of horror by revelling in the mindscape of someone deeply fearful, deeply anxious and prone to terrible violence as a result of it, however momentary the violence. Not to compare it unduly to what many consider the quintessential modern horror film, but “Lizard in a Woman’s Skin” in a way prefigures the manner in which filmic language is used to suggest character psychology as being the predominant narrative perspective in “The Shining.” As is the case with that movie, one can only wonder how often – if ever – Lucio Fulci presents ‘objective’ reality in “Lizard in a Woman’s Skin”, that is to say, the kind of omniscient reality that audiences are privileged with when, for example, dramatic irony is being utilised. It seems that the horror in Fulci’s picture is not really the murder with which the film commences but Carol’s experience of it, her memories, her nightmare, her realisation, her self-deception. This being said, the film has a very shaggy quality about it as do most giallos what with its seedy, pulpy tone and the use of sometimes poorly synchronised dubbing of the kind common to Italian films from that period. In addition, some of the performances feel like one-take compromises and there is a distinctly tits-and-ass feel about it, which is probably not coincidental seeing as it was distributed by American International Pictures with its unabashed dedication to motion pictures with exploitative elements. This shagginess is perhaps the one element of the film which might allow a viewer to grudgingly accept, in hindsight – or realise in the moment – that the images and the sounds that Lucio presents are questionable in their trustworthiness. By the same token, it’s probably also the reason that the formal consideration applied by Fulci to “Lizard in a Woman’s Skin” might go unnoticed by the casual viewer or disregarded by the cinephile. Not that either Fulci or the film itself seem to two shits about it.

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