Fulci’s Clairvoyant Visions: The Psychic (1977) & A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971)

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).

-Brandon Ledet

Corrupt Lieutenant (1984)

I have a bad habit of occasionally purchasing second-hand DVDs solely for their shoddy cover art. I don’t think I’ve ever topped myself in this trivial pursuit since the day I purchased a bootleg copy of some forgotten cop thriller titled Corrupt Lieutenant. The cover for my obviously unofficial copy of Corrupt Lieutenant is a master work of outsider art & visual anti-comedy. Falling somewhere between rudimentary Photoshop collage & a nightmare swirl of stock photography, it’s the exact kind of utter garbage my terrible raccoon brain can’t help but hoard away at home instead of just letting it rot at Goodwill. Unfortunately, that means these movies sometimes collect dust, unwatched for years until I force myself to follow through on actually giving them a chance. As it turns out, Corrupt Lieutenant not only has some of the best-worst artwork I’ve ever found on one of these ill-advised excursions to the thrift store; it also stands as one of the few select examples I can think of where it turns out the movie itself was actually worth the gamble. As far as cop thrillers go, it’s not exactly mind-blowing, but considering the state of its cover art it’s a miraculously competent picture.

It’s worth noting upfront that my unsanctioned copy of Corrupt Lieutenant isn’t even titled correctly. Although it’s been released under the alternate titles The Order of Death, Corrupt, and Bad Cop Chronicles #2: Corrupt, this Italian crime thriller was originally distributed under the name Copkiller, which is by far its most apt moniker. Since the distributors of the film allowed its copyright designation to slip into public domain status, however, it’s been repackaged several times over in disparate stabs by a wide range of enterprising folks trying to make a buck. This is how Copkiller was retitled Corrupt Lieutenant in the early 90s after its star antihero, Harvey Keitel, was featured in the infamous Abel Ferrara film Bad Lieutenant. The two films don’t really have all that much to do with each other outside of Keitel’s starring role in both. The Ferrara picture plays like an especially deranged version of a Scorsese crisis of faith exploration, while its Italian predecessor is more of a sleazy, giallo-esque knockoff of the crooked cop genre Friedkin ignited with The French Connection. Performances from Harvey Keitel and a typically acting-shy Johnny Rotten combine with a score from omnipresent Italian composer Ennio Morricone to afford the film an air of legitimacy, but its shitty public domain transfers, off-kilter Italian dubbing, and sleaze > substance ethos are all constant reminders of its true place in the world as a forgotten work of mediocre genius.

A killer dressed in a police uniform and ski mask is terrorizing the cops of New York City by murdering them one by one, seemingly at random. A young John Lydon plays a spoiled brat punk who confesses to these crimes to Harvey Keitel’s grizzled lieutenant. Keitel’s either believes the confession or is angered enough by its flippancy to falsely imprison Lydon in his own apartment, since the rest of the force is treating him like a liar and a prankster. After a period of keeping the smirking punk tied up & torturing him for a more detailed confession (he feeds him out of a dog food bowl, shoves his head in an oven & cranks the gas, etc.), Keitel’s forces his prisoner at gunpoint to actually slit a cop’s throat, an ill-considered plan that backfires in a wide variety of ways. While figuring out what to do about that cop’s death, Keitel’s finds himself seducing the widow of the man they killed and Lydon moves into his former captor & newfound accomplice’s apartment on his own free will, nagging him as a kind of spiritually corrupt conscience. The film takes on a tense, slowly ratcheted form of psychological torment from there as the weight of the crime the two committed together and the true identity of the (would-be titular) cop killer eventually driving the whole thing home for an inevitably tragic conclusion.

Corrupt Lieutenant is most notable for the authenticity of its violence & grime. Lydon, formerly Johnny Rotten, is reported to have provided his own wardrobe for the picture, which shows in his convincingly ratty, 80s punk appearance. When Keitel’s corrupt lieutenant goes on a bender and starts bonding with the gross little bugger in the most unlikely of unions, the grotesqueness of their collective downfall looks & feels legitimate, an effect that’s only amplified by the VHS-quality imagery of a shitty bootleg DVD transfer. Similarly, Keitel’s physical violence laid upon Rotten’s scrawny shoulders is a convincing kind of rough-housing and it’s occasionally tempting to worry about the little shit’s physical wellbeing. Instead of reading the punk’s rights, Keitel’s more prone to shout, “Shut the fuck up!” and thrash him around the interrogation room. I’m not convinced the film has anything more to say beyond a Cops Can Be Violent Criminals Too cliché, but the way Rotten worms that idea into Keitel’s head in the back half and the way Beetlejuice/Mars Attack actress Silvia Sidney posits that, “The police create disorder, not order. They inspire us to commit crimes so that we can be punished for them,” makes the idea interesting and more than a little bit slimy. There’s even a hint that Rotten’s confessed cop killer gets a sexual satisfaction out of having Keitel’s slap him around, which is then backed up by the S&M collages plastered on his bedroom walls.

I’m not exactly sure what I expected out of Corrupt Lieutenant/Copkiller/The Order of Death/Corrupt when I popped it in the DVD player, but the sleazy Italian cop thriller I got was a surprisingly entertaining watch. That could maybe be chalked up to the low expectations set by its laughably bad cover art, but I think anyone with a little appreciation for giallo or the post-Friedkin crooked cop thrillers of the 70s & 80s would be able to get on board with it as a minor entertainment. Funnily enough, just about the only scenario in which I wouldn’t recommend the film is if someone were specifically looking for a work similar to Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant. Corrupt Lieutenant has even less to do with that work than Herzog’s “spiritual sequel,” which was mostly about, I don’t know, iguanas & Nic Cage freakouts. Much like the cover art for my DVD copy of the film, that little bit of revisionist rebranding was amusingly brash & ill-considered.

-Brandon Ledet

The Thing (1982)

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I’ve greatly enjoyed every John Carpenter movie I’ve ever seen, save maybe a couple nu metal-era misteps like Ghosts of Mars. As much as I love the director’s landmark films & his soundtrack work, though, there are still a few major titles from Carpenter that I haven’t yet made the effort to catch up with. That’s why it was a godsend that the Prytania Theatre is dedicating the October schedule for its Late Night movie series to Carpenter’s work, culminating at the end of the month, of course, with a screening of Halloween. As I mentioned in my recap of the theater’s recent screening of Cinema Paradiso, The Prytania is a century-old New Orleans institution, the oldest operating cinema in the city, a fine venue for seeing great films for the first time. It was where I first saw Jaws, their frequent selection for America’s favorite holiday: Shark Week. When Robin Williams passed away last year it was where I first saw Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King. And, most recently, it was where I finally watched John Carpenter’s masterful monster movie The Thing, screened on the first truly cold night of the year (how’d they plan that?), so that you could feel a fraction of the chill of the film’s Antarctica setting in your bones. Technically, it’s still fall outside, but when Kurt Russell gripes in the film, “First goddamn week of winter,” it was easy to empathize. All that was missing was a shape-shifting alien & a bottle of Jim Beam.

The Thing is essentially a 1950s Roger Corman monster movie taken to its most logical & most pessimistic extremes. In fact, the short story the film is based on had been previously adapted into an actual 1950s creature feature (and would later be resurrected for an episode of The X-Files & a cheap CGI trifle of a remake). A practical effects masterwork, The Thing‘s titular creature is just as ambiguous in form as it is in name. It’s a grotesque, rapidly evolving mess of undercooked biology, calling into mind the hot mess of vaguely defined monsters in the back half of 1981’s psychological horror Possession. The thing arrives on Earth via a disc-shaped, Millennium Falcon-esque UFO in the opening credits with very little detail provided for its origins. A complicated “organism that imitates other life forms,” the thing is alien in every sense of the word. It transforms in ways that are shocking & disgusting because they don’t make sense in the context of anything we’ve ever seen or understood in biology. Even in cinema, we’ve seen dogs used to create tension or terror, but never by splitting their faces open to reveal a mass of spider-like tentacles. We’re used to monsters killing for sport or nourishment, but not so much a creature that infiltrates a species through physical imitation, like a disease. Cellular activity found in corpses, blood that actively avoids extreme heat, half-cooked human imitations that look just about almost right except for long claw-like hands that resemble gigantic, deep-fried softshell crabs: the thing is far beyond human comprehension of basic biology, constantly opening compartments of itself like horrific Russian dolls to reveal more & more layers of ambiguous terror. Too often sci-fi horror models the designs of its creatures around what we already know. The Thing‘s creature might be the most alien alien to ever grace the screen.

Finding themselves face to face with this unknowable threat is an all-male crew of scientific researchers isolated in Antarctica for the winter. Even as scientists our protagonists have a difficult time making sense of the thing. Kurt Russell’s character exclaims early on, “I don’t know what the hell’s in there, but it’s weird & pissed off, whatever it is.” Once the thing infiltrates their ranks & starts imitating human lifeforms (a computer model helpfully explains, “Possibility that one or more crew members are infected: 75%”), everyone becomes suspect. The group of goofs, once prone to drunkenly playing computer chess, rollerskating to Stevie Wonder, and smoking six-paper joints in the lab, soon has to ask of each & every team member, “How do we know he’s human?” The notorious scene of extensive, pointless, paranoid violence in Carpenter’s They Live (“Put the glasses on! Put ’em on! “) is drawn out here to a full length narrative. Nearly every member of the crew is an affable goof, so it’s a very tense atmosphere in which at least one of them is not what they seem, but instead is a shape-shifting mess of mismatched body parts & gore.

I’m not sure of the exact reason The Prytania is spotlighting John Carpenter this month (not that I would complain if they did so every October), but it does feel like kind of the perfect time to do so. After scoring his own films for decades, the director just released his first studio album, Lost Themes— complete with his first music video & live concerts. Screening They Live earlier this month was a fitting tribute to the recently deceased “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, as it was easily his best work outside the wrestling ring (and I’m bummed to say I missed it). Even in a more general sense, the current cinematic climate is adoringly looking back at the Carpenter aesthetic & it’s all too easy to see echoes of his work in films as recent as The Guest, It Follows, and Cold in July. In other words, everything’s coming up Carpenter.

If I only catch one film during this mini-Carpenter Fest, I’m glad I at least got to experience The Thing for the first time on the big screen. The movie’s visuals are on par with the best the director has ever crafted. The strange, rose-colored lighting of emergency flares & the sparse, snow-covered Antarctica hellscape give the film an otherworldly look backed up, of course, by the foreign monstrosity of its titular alien beast. The film’s creature design  is over-the-top in its complexity and I sincerely hope every single model made for the film is preserved in a museum somewhere & not broken into parts or discarded. Also up there with Carpenter’s best work is the film’s dark humor, not only in Kurt Russell’s drunkenly cavalier performance, but also in the absurdity of the film’s violence & grotesqueries. It played very well with a midnight, BYOB audience. The only thing that’s missing here from Carpenter’s typical masterworks is one of his self-provided, glorious synth soundtracks, but with a pinch hitter like Ennio Morricone stepping in to fill the void, it’s near impossible to complain. The Thing is a perfectly crafted creature feature, one that even satisfies art cinema tastes with a resistance to tidying up its ambiguity in a bleak, mostly open conclusion. It’s by no means a stretch to rank it among the best of Carpenter’s works & I’m grateful to The Prytania for providing the opportunity to see it large, loud, and (in the spirit of the film’s isolated crew of scientific researchers) more than a little drunk with a live audience at a late hour. It was special.

-Brandon Ledet