When we were first discussing August’s Movie of the Month, the 1977 paranormal horror The Psychic, we were all taken aback by the soft hand of restraint Lucio Fulci took with the film. Outside the opening clairvoyant vision in which a woman leaps to her death off a cliff & smashes her face on every rock on the way down, The Psychic felt remarkably restrained for a Fulci work, not to mention for giallo at large. This restraint extended beyond the film’s violence & sexuality to inform the way the protagonist’s visions were depicted onscreen. Unlike in most thrillers where a clairvoyant protagonist solves a murder based on their psychic visions, the clues in The Psychic are not pieced out throughout the runtime in a gradual reveal. Instead, all clues are dumped in the first act deluge of a single vision, then the individual objects of that one premonition (a lamp, a mirror, an ashtray, etc.) are examined in isolation as the mystery is solved. What I didn’t know while watching The Psychic is that Fulci had already made the movie we were expecting it to be based on its pedigree. He had already gotten the violent, erotic, psychedelic genre expectations of a clairvoyance giallo out of his system with a previous picture.
A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is much more at home with the giallo genre’s more lurid tendencies than Fulci’s The Psychic. It’s the inferior film of the pair, but after wondering how Fulci exercised so much restraint in the sex & violence of his latter clairvoyance horror, there was something cathartic about watching him him go full sleaze in a nastier picture with the same solving-a-murder-through-psychic-visions premise. Switching those visions from a single psychic premonition intruding while driving to a series of intense, lingering sex dreams involving orgies & lesbianism should clue you in on just how much trashier A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is than its much classier follow-up. The protagonist in A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin surfers a lot of the same anxieties as her The Psychic counterpart. Both women are left isolated by absent or unfaithful husbands and discuss the disturbing intensity of their visions with the other men in their lives whose skepticism is letting them down, their psychiatrists. Instead of receiving psychic flashes of past, present, and future murders, however, the protagonist of A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin receives her visions in the form of wet dreams. While trying to enjoy stuffy dinners with her family, she can hear the wild orgies thrown by her hippie neighbor on the other side of the wall. This fuels her nighttime fantasies, which typically depict her navigating a complex web of hippie flesh until she can be alone with her neighbor, a meeting that culminates in lesbian erotica staged on red satin sheets. This ritual is disrupted when one of these intense dreams ends with her stabbing the neighbor multiple times in the chest while they make love, an encounter she describes to her therapist & records in her dream journal before discovering it really happened, her neighbor was actually stabbed to death.
The fun of A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is the prurient first act bursts of its wet dream premonitions. The measured way The Psychic handles picking apart the details of a single psychic vision suggests a maturity for Fulci as a filmmaker, but it’s undeniably fun to watch him let loose in a more sophomoric way in this earlier, hornier work. The psychic visions of A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin are prolonged, lingering indulgences that openly gawk at lesbianism & bloodshed. Their penchant for dream logic allows for non sequitur intrusions of strange images like crowded train car orgies, electric chair executions, and gigantic angry swan puppets to disrupt the hedonistic fantasies of the protagonist. You could do worse than watching a film solely to see that kind of visual excess paired with a classic score from Ennio Morricone. The problem is, like with a lot of giallo, after that lurid energy dissipates and the film shifts focus from stylized visuals to setting up the mechanics of a traditional murder mystery, it loses a lot of steam. The Psychic not only shows more restraint in its exploitation of sex & violence; it also does a much better job of constructing a mystery the audience actually needs an answer to in order to leave satisfied. A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is only truly recommendable if you’ve already seen that superior work and are wondering what it would look like if it were driven by Fulci’s more salacious tendencies. It was the movie I was expecting to see when we first watched The Psychic, but it wasn’t necessarily made better for delivering on those directorial & genre-based expectations.
For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the Lucio Fulci giallo picture The Psychic, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and this look at its American counterpart, Eyes of Laura Mars (1978).