A Lizard In A Woman’s Skin/Una lucertola con la pelle di donna (1971)

‘Carol, there were no red-haired hippies in the park today.’

The daughter of an eminent politician dreams of having a lesbian affair with her promiscuous next-door neighbour, eventually stabbing her to death in a final nightmare. Then the police find the woman killed in just such a way after a drug-fuelled orgy in her apartment…

High-quality Giallo from director Lucio Fulci, who was one of the first to exploit the opportunity created by the international success of Dario Argento’s ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’ (1969). It was probably inevitable as he’d already delivered the excellent Giallo ‘One On Top of the Other/Perversion Story’ (1969) before Argento’s breakthrough hit. This project would prove to be another winner.

Carol Hammond (Florinda Bolkan) is a troubled woman and feels abandoned by the men in her life. Father Leo Genn is a prominent barrister whose time is taken up with his move into politics, and husband Frank (Jean Sorel) is also focused on his career. To make matters worse, she’s tormented by dreams of neighbour Julia (Anita Strindberg), a tall, statuesque blonde whose wild parties and uninhibited lifestyle have earned the disapproval of all the other residents of Belgravia Square.

Bolkan’s fantasies of lesbian sex with Strindberg progress into a vision of murder, but analyst Dr Kerr (George Rigaud) takes this as a sign that she has overcome her repressed desires. Unfortunately, police inspector Corvin (Stanley Baker) is called to Strindberg’s apartment after she’s stabbed to death in precisely the same way. Bolkan’s fingerprints are on the weapon, but suspicion falls on other family members as Baker tries to solve the puzzle and apprehend the killer.

Fulci teamed with four other writers to thrash out the film’s complex screenplay, including Roberto Gianviti and José Luis Martínez Mollá, veterans of ‘One On Top of the Other/Perversion Story’ (1969). Nearly everyone becomes a viable murder suspect, including Sorel, who is playing away with Bolkan’s best friend Deborah (Silvia Monti) and his teenage daughter Joan (Ely Galleani), who may have read the notes Bolkan made about her dreams.

Matters are further complicated by two hippies; red-haired Hubert (Mike Kennedy) and knife-wielding artist Jenny (the excellent Penny Brown). They appeared as silent witnesses in Bolkan’s murder dream and seem to know more than they are telling about the night in question. After Bolkan is bailed and Baker comes to doubt her guilt, the investigation begins to focus on them, particularly after Kennedy pursues a frightened Bolkan into an empty church. This sequence is one of the film’s high points as our heroine takes refuge behind the pipe organ, gets attacked by bats and flees across the roof with Kennedy in hot pursuit. Cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller assists with some wonderfully contrasting lighting here, with Bolkan as much in danger in the bright sunlight as when she’s hidden in deep shadow. The excellent use of the London locations is enhanced by another masterful score from composer Ennio Morricone.

There are some other memorable set-pieces too, and even the more commonplace scenes are delivered with genuine panache. The work of Fulci’s technical team is excellent throughout, but it’s the combination of Bolkan and Fulci that truly delivers. The combination of the director’s restless camera and off-kilter visuals married to Bolkan’s commitment to the role allow the audience a doorway into the living nightmare of a neurotic woman on the edge of collapse. Screen veterans Baker and Genn provide the necessary grounding, and there’s a nice contrast between Baker’s virile charisma and Genn’s sly wit. Sadly, Sorel can’t do much with the philandering Frank, and Monti is somewhat wasted, although, like Strindberg, her finest hour in the Giallo was yet to come.

The film is also notable for its escalation within the Giallo of both nudity and gore. Argento’s debut had bloodless for the most part, and genre pioneer Mario Bava had generally employed heavy restraint in such matters. Here, the stabbing in Bolkan’s dream is pretty explicit, and there’s a notorious scene involving some disembowelled dogs at the clinic where Bolkan is sent to rest. Animal lovers are likely to find this scene genuinely upsetting, and its presence in the narrative makes no sense at all. The effects were so flawlessly executed that SFX technician Carlo Rambaldi had to produce the canine props to defend Fulci over accusations of animal cruelty.

Fulci directed two more examples of the Giallo: ‘Don’t Torture A Duckling’ (1972) and ‘The Psychic’ (1978). The former starred Bolkan, and both were written in collaboration with Gianviti. However, his lasting fame rests on the series of horrors he delivered during the early days of the video home rental boom. In the United Kingdom, titles such as ‘Zombie Flesh Eaters’ (1979), ‘City of the Living Dead (1980), ‘The Beyond’ (1981) and ‘The House By The Cemetery’ (1981) were targeted for heavy cuts and censorship during the ridiculous, media-created ‘Video Nasty’ circus. Kuveiller teamed with Fulci again on ‘The New York Ripper’ (1982) and was the cinematographer on Billy Wilder’s ‘Avanti!’ (1972) but it’s probably best celebrated for his work on Dario Argento’s ‘Deep Red’ (1975).

Bolkan was a Brazilian actor who was playing leading roles soon after debuting in all-star hippie romp ‘Candy’ (1968) with Richard Burton and Marlon Brando. She acted opposite Peter Falk and Britt Ekland in ‘Machine Gun McCain’ (1969), with Franco Nero in ‘Detective Belli’ (1969) and in Luchino Visconti’s acclaimed production of ‘The Damned’ (1969). That same year she won an Italian Golden Globe for her role in ‘Metti, una sera a cena/Love Circle’ (1969) and starred in Elio Petri’s Oscar-winning ‘Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970). More acclaim followed throughout the decade, but her career slowed in the 1980s. However, she remained active in the local industry, writing, directing and starring in the feature film ‘I Didn’t Know Tururu’ (2000). She has also spoken of an alleged affair with US President John F Kennedy.

Although he fails to make much of an impression here, Sorel was almost a permanent fixture in Giallo. His credits include ‘The Sweet Body of Deborah’ (1968), ‘A Rather Complicated Girl (1969), ‘One On Top of the Other/Perversion Story’ (1969), ‘A Quiet Place To Kill’ (1970) and ‘Short Night of The Glass Dolls’ (1971), as well as finding time for a supporting role in Fred Zinnemann’s Oscar-nominated ‘The Day of The Jackal’ (1973).

Baker had been a mainstay of British cinema since the 1950s after his breakthrough role in ‘Captain Horatio Hornblower RN’ (1951). His intense personality found the perfect showcase in ‘Zulu’ (1964), a film he also co-produced. He died far too young in 1976. Genn brought poise and dignity to many authority figures on the screen from the 1930s onwards and was Oscar-nominated as Best Supporting Actor for ‘Quo Vadis’ (1952). He typically played Brigadiers, Generals, barristers and cabinet ministers over the years, but occasionally tackled something different, such as Starbuck in John Huston’s problematical ‘Moby Dick’ (1956).

An outstanding Giallo that brings together a complex, satisfying story with excellent filmmaking technique and a superb leading performance.

Double Face/A Doppia Faccia/Liz X Helen (1969)

Double Face/A Doppia Faccia (1969)‘I had to convince them that you weren’t a cop, just a pervert looking for dirty movies.’

After meeting on a skiing holiday, a couple fall in love and get married. But, as time passes, she loses interest in him and takes a lesbian lover. Then she dies in a car crash, her body burned beyond recognition. He inherits her extensive business empire, but was the wreck an accident and was it her who was driving the car anyway…?

Late 1960s Giallo picture that rounds up some of the usual suspects, but gives them little worthwhile to do in a convoluted tale of murder, false identity and intrigue. Director and principal screenwriter Riccardo Freda was a man with experience to spare but the intricacies of misdirection and mystery seem to have eluded his grasp on this occasion.

The film opens with a thrilling car chase, the pursued vehicle ending up in a fireball after a close encounter with a speeding passenger train. Following are Police Inspector Gordon (Luciano Spadoni) and John Alexander (Klaus Kinski). As the wreck burns, we flashback to more than a year before when Kinski met and wed the gorgeous Helen (a criminally under-employed Margaret Lee) after a whirlwind romance. She’s a very wealthy woman indeed, whose business interests she leaves in the hands of her father, played by Sydney (son of Charlie) Chaplin. Lee cools on their union pretty quickly, becoming far more interested in sexy brunette Liz (Annabella Incontrera). Kinski still loves her, but another vehicular mishap later, he’s a widower with a big, fat chequebook.

Double Face/A Doppia Faccia (1969)

‘Why does the weirdo always sit next to me?’

On the night of his wedding anniversary, he finds mysterious blonde Christine (Christiane Krüger) using the shower in his palatial home. Although this would be just another day at the office if he were a secret agent, Kinski is rather put out by the whole business instead. Especially when she lifts his car keys and forces him to attend some kind of late 1960s ‘happening’.

This event features a couple of guys riding motorbikes in a room full of people, loud psychedelic music and an underground movie show. As well as lots of groovy guys and gals freaking out. Not an event likely to meet with the approval of the seriously uptight Mr Kinski, and his mood’s not likely to get any better when he sees that one of the sex films on show apparently features his late wife!

From there, Kinski increasingly finds himself entangled in some kind of a plot, but he can never be sure exactly what is going on. He gets beaten up going after a reel of the film in question and does start to believe that Lee is still alive. However, he can never lay his hands on evidence that will convince anyone else. It all culminates in a showdown in a church confessional and the car chase that opened the film.

‘…and these are from the weekend we spent down at Brighton…’

This is a middling Giallo at best with a labyrinthine plot that resolves itself in a rather ridiculous fashion. It’s hard to imagine a more unnecessarily complicated conspiracy to reach a required outcome than the one employed here. Kinski makes an uneasy hero too; director Freda deserving some credit for casting against type, but it’s hard to identify with such a cold, withdrawn leading man.

There’s also a problem with the film’s early stages. No effort is made to establish the initial Kinski-Lee relationship or the length of time that has passed when we switch to their early scenes in London. By then, the marriage is failing and Kinski is having an affair with secretary Alice (Barbara Nelli), but, although hinted at, the affair is only clear much later on in the film. It is nice that Lee and Kinski get to see ‘Red Alligator’ win the 1968 Grand National, though, even if that particular horse race is actually held 220 miles away from London at the Aintree course in Liverpool.

In short, this is all a bit messy and, what with some truly atrocious model work trying to pass for one of the car accidents, this has the feel of something that’s been rather slapped together. The warehouse party continue for far too long as well, the scene desperately needing the attention of an editor’s scissors. If all this gives the impression of a film that has been re-edited since its original release, then that appears not to be the case; the cut I saw ran the 88 minutes that is listed as the official version. Some of the raunchier scenes were removed for US television and newly filmed sex scenes added when the film was released in France, but it doesn’t seem likely that any of those changes would have substantially improved the coherence of the final product.

Double Face/A Doppia Faccia (1969)

‘Here’s Klaus!’

Freda was a veteran of Italian cinema, most known in cult film circles for his work with Mario Bava on ‘I Vampiri’ (1957) and ‘Caltiki, The Immortal Monster’ (1959). In the 1960s, he delivered ‘The Terror of Dr Hichcock’ (1962) and ‘The Ghost’ (1963), both starring Barbara Steele, and two Eurospy adventures featuring Secret Agent Francis Coplan. He was also behind the typewriter for most of his projects and contributed the original screenplay here, although four other writers (including fellow director Lucio Fulci) are credited with the story.

The film’s advertising also made much play of the fact that it was based on the work of thriller novelist Edgar Wallace, who enjoyed a huge revival of popularity in Europe in the 1960s. In fact, the box office failure of this film put paid to adaptations of his work for a short time. This was ironic, considering the film actually has nothing to do with Wallace at all! It was just marketing.

Sporadically interesting Giallo picture that looks rushed at times and would have benefitted from a stronger story.

One On Top of The Other/Perversion Story/Una Sul’altra (1969)

One On Top of The Other (1969)‘You drop in for a few bumps and grinds, or maybe a few kicks?’

After the sudden death of his invalid wife, a handsome young doctor finds himself suspected of murder by the police. There seems no evidence of his guilt, beyond a financial motive and his playboy lifestyle. Then a mysterious phone call takes him to a club where he meets a stripper who looks almost exactly like his dead wife…

This is one of the best of the early Giallo films, that species of horror thriller that helped to inspire the American Slasher movies that took the world box office by storm in the early 1980s. Although this example bears little resemblance to the knife-wielding antics of that generation of masked killers, it’s still an engaging and excellent mystery that comes complete with a satisfying denouncement. That’s quite a surprise considering there are not only three credited writers, including director Lucio Fulci, but another three who don’t receive acknowledgement. So many cooks can make for an uneven result, and, although it is true that the film does ramble a little over the 108-minute length, for the most part, it remains tightly focused on its central puzzle and is a fine exercise in audience misdirection.

Doctor Jean Sorel runs a private clinic with his brother Alberto de Mendoza. Whilst the latter does all the actual medical work, Sorel is the public face of the business; a ruthless self-promoter and publicity hound. He spends most of his time tapping up investors with unrealistic promises and screwing around with photographer Elsa Martinelli. Yes, he has a wife at home, played by Marisa Mell, but it’s a marriage in name only; she’s a virtual recluse who suffers from chronic asthma. When she dies, he’s surprised to discover that she’s taken out some heavy insurance policies and made him the sole beneficiary. Of course, that puts him in the crosshairs of police inspector John Ireland, but there’s no evidence of murder and he was out of town on the night in question anyway.

One On Top of The Other (1969)

Rushing the costume fitting had not been a good idea.

Things begin to unravel for our leading man when an anonymous telephone call takes him to a local night spot. Naked girls hang from the ceiling on swings covered in flowers (it was the 1960s) and the floor show features a motorbike and a stunning blonde. The odd thing is that stripper Monica (Mell, again) is the spitting image of Sorel’s dead wife.

Compelled to investigate, he ends up sleeping with her (not creepy at all!) before he’s satisfied that it’s all just a coincidence. But is it? The insurance company have remained suspicious of Sorel and, when their investigator gets a look at his new girlfriend, he goes to see flatfoot Ireland. A quick toss of Mell’s swinging pad turns up a scrap of paper where it looks like she’s been practising the signature of Sorel’s dead wife, and the plot has more than its fair share of twists and turns before it reaches its conclusion.

If this sounds like the template for dozens of erotic thrillers that went direct to video in the 1980s, then there is a definite resemblance, but it owes more to the work of hard-boiled thriller writer James M Cain, who created ‘Double Indemnity’ and ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’. Yes, we have the handsome, morally flexible alpha male and the seductive femme fatale, and a cash prize at the end of it. But who is playing who? And is it really all that simple? Pleasingly, when the answers come, the solution is both surprising and credible.

One On Top of The Other (1969)

The ‘Hart To Hart’ reboot was taking a slightly more adult tone…

However, it is worth mentioning that the film is very rooted in its era, and is a little dated in some respects. It’s not just the fashions and occasional psychedelic trappings, but some of the story developments wouldn’t hold water in more modern times, but it’s fine if you’re prepared to suspend a little disbelief.

It’s also an interesting signpost on the Giallo’s developing journey for a couple of reasons. Here, we get two American stars, even if neither was no longer at the top of their game. Ireland had notable supporting roles in some of the biggest movies of his day; working with John Ford on Oscar-winning westerns like ‘My Darling Clementine’ (1946) and ‘Red River’ (1948) and was nominated for the Academy Award himself for classic noir ‘All The King’s Men’ (1949). Faith Domergue, who plays Sorel’s sister-in-law, had a less stellar career but is fondly remembered for a trio of cult items made around the same time: ‘Cult of The Cobra’ (1955), ‘It Came From Beneath The Sea’ (1955) and ‘This Island Earth’ (1955).

Perhaps a more significant sign that the Giallo was growing in stature is that a large part of the film was shot on location in San Francisco, a fact which director Fulci seems keen to remind us of at every possible opportunity! He was a typical member of the Italian film community, making musicals, comedies, crime capers, Spaghetti Westerns and whatever other commercial product was required at any given moment. Inevitably, there were further Giallo pictures after this, including ‘A Lizard In A Woman’s Skin’ (1971) and ‘Don’t Torture A Duckling’ (1972). Greater fame, and notoriety, came his way at the end of the decade when he unleashed the controversial ‘Zombie Flesh Eaters’ (1979), and followed it with continued attempts to bother the British Board of Film Classification. Stylish horrors such as ‘City of the Living Dead’ (1980), ‘The House By The Cemetery’ (1981) and ‘The Beyond’ (1981) may not have made a lot of narrative sense, but they certainly delivered on the gore and possessed a strange, nightmare-like quality all their own.

This is a fine thriller and a step-up in quality for the burgeoning Giallo movie. Somewhat ironically, however, it would prove to be one of the last of the bloodless ‘murder-mystery’ examples; a touch more horror was just a few months around the corner.

Oh! Those Most Secret Agents/002 agenti segretissimi (1964)

Oh! Those Most Secret Agents:002 agenti segretissimi (1964)‘You think about women too much. I should have your sexual valves checked.’

An American Intelligence organisation give two stupid burglars a fake secret formula so they can draw agents Russians away from the true couriers. A series of comic mishaps and misunderstandings lead to the thieves evading capture, which turns out to be a good thing as they have accidentally been given the real formula…

Franco and Ciccio were a very popular Italian comedy double act, whose screen career lasted from the 1950s to the 1980s, with the duo being particularly popular in the decades in between. Here they bring their juvenile clowning to the secret agent spoof with a predictable assortment of hi-jinks, physical gags and cases of mistaken identity.

Bumbling housebreakers Franco and Ciccio plan to rob a mansion after a column in the local newspaper suggests it will be unoccupied and filled with goodies. However, it turns out to be a trap arranged by American spymaster Fred (Luca Sportelli) and his talking supercomputer Armando. The duo are rendered unconscious, secret microfilm is inserted into one of the fillings in Franco’s teeth, and the two are dispatched to the French Riviera to lead the dirty Commies astray. Rosa Klebb knock-off Carla Calò leads the red contingent and, in another nod to ‘From Russia with Love’ (1963), one of the few gadgets on display are shoes accessorised with sharp cutting implements. What follows is a madcap series of misunderstandings, misadventures and lots and lots of running about.

Oh! Those Most Secret Agents:002 agenti segretissimi (1964)

‘If we look hard enough, maybe we’ll find one of Lewis and Martin’s old gags!’

This isn’t so much a developing story as a series of broad, comic skits almost randomly thrown together. After the initial set up of the first twenty minutes, it’s just Franco and Ciccio being chased around and foiling the various attempts to capture or kill them while being almost totally oblivious to everything that’s going on.

The best sequence involves a series of assassinations at a night club, facilitated by jackets being marked with chalk in what is a (quite probably) unintentional reflection of Peter Lorre’s identification in Fritz Lang’s ‘M’ (1931). There’s pretty much no plot to speak of, and no sense of escalation as the film staggers towards its underwhelming climax.

The most surprising aspect here is undoubtedly the presence of director Lucio Fulci, who also contributed to the screenplay. He’d only been making pictures for a few years at this point and had begun his filmmaking career almost exclusively with comedies and musicals. He’d already worked with Franco and Ciccio earlier on ‘Gil imbroglioni’ (1963) and ‘Two Escape From Sing Sing’ (1964) and was a long way from the cult horrors which brought him such notoriety during the explosion of the home video rental market in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Among other titles, ‘Zombie Flesh Eaters’ (1979), ‘City of the Living Dead’ (1980) and ‘House By The Cemetery’ (1981) all gave the British Board of Film Classification many a sleepless night.

Oh! Those Most Secret Agents:002 agenti segretissimi (1964)

‘I said I wanted Plaice & Chips you idiot!’

Franco Franchi and Ciccio Ingrassia appeared in over 100 films together during their long career. Typically, Ciccio was the ‘straight man’ and Franco was the buffoon who spent most of his time pulling very silly faces. Their humour was broad, to say the least, and is most definitely an acquired taste.

Later on, the duo starred alongside Vincent Prince in Mario Bava’s ‘Dr Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs’ (1966) which is almost universally regarded as the director’s worst film. In terms of a ‘Bond’ spoof, this is a weak cocktail indeed. There are very few gadgets, little action and no notable stunt work. Third-billed Ingrid Schoeller is the main girl on show, but her part is little more than a few scenes where she plays the wife of jealous Doctor Aroldo Tieri, who keeps finding her in vaguely suspicious situations with our hapless heroes. Eurospy babe Seyna Seyn also makes one of her many appearances in the genre. There’s also some vaguely racist business in a Chinese Restaurant where the menu seems to consist entirely of live worms and beetles.

At best, this is a harmless comedy if a little trying on the patience at times. There are barely enough jokes here for a half-hour sitcom, and those that we do get are weak, repetitive and not very funny.

Conquest (1983)

Conquest_1983_Poster

‘Isn’t this an animal you’re eating?’

A young warrior travels through a mystic land encountering monsters and the forces of an evil sorceress. But can he avoid the frequent attacks of deadly ‘sword and sorcery’ clichés, a low budget and an out of control smoke machine?

Italian director Lucio Fulci is best remembered these days for censor-bothering gore classics such as ‘The House By The Cemetery’ (1981) and ‘The Beyond’ (1981). His films didn’t tend to make a lot of sense but boy did they have some moments that it’s hard to forget: the woman throwing up her own intestines in ‘City of the Living Dead’ (1980), the eyeball and splinter incident from ‘Zombie Flesh Eaters’ (1979) and many others. But, long before he helped stoke the fires of the media-created ‘Video Nasty’ debate, Fulci had made westerns, Giallo thrillers, even comedies and musicals.

So, perhaps it’s not too surprising that he tried to shake off the horror tag in the early 1980s by venturing into the sword and sorcery arena, and following it with a stab at dystopian science fiction: ‘Rome 2072: The New Centurions (1984). Sadly, the budgets for these ventures wouldn’t have paid for one day’s catering on a Hollywood blockbuster.

Our hero here is Mace (Jorge Rivero), a young warrior who travels the kingdom to ‘face the darkness’ after believing in a load of vague twaddle spouted by the local wise man. The darkness turns out to be a young woman in a gold mask (Sabrina Siani) who spends rather a lot of time writhing around naked on a cave floor with a snake. Apparently, she’s an evil sorceress. She doesn’t seem to have any real plans or long term goals – I guess she’s happy with her snake – but crosses swords with our hero anyway.

Rivero teams up with Ilias (Andrea Occhipinti), a kind of roguish, Han Solo-type. They bond over lots of fisticuffs, banter and serious life lessons. Solo turns out to be a kind of ‘Beastmaster’ and is able to communicate with poorly animated seagulls. Being Fulci there’s some nice gore, of course, but the special effects aren’t very special and everything is clouded in a misty haze. Apparently, cinematographer Alejandro Ulloa intended his use of soft-focus lenses and a fog machine to conjure an ethereal atmosphere, but instead it just obscures much of the action.

Conquest (1983)

Luke who?

There’s also a smattering of the usual 1980’s clichés; a pounding synthesiser score, extras who stand on top of cliffs so they can be shot and fall off in spectacular fashion, the hero’s enchanted weapon (which is definitely not anything like a lightsaber) and the local native tribe who are covered in mud but never bother to wash.

We’ve seen it all before, and the plot development is almost non-existent; our heroes wandering about aimlessly getting into scrape after unrelated scrape between trite passages of dialogue about the conflict between responsibility and self-interest.

Some have championed this picture because of the photography and score, alleging that it has a unique atmosphere and feel. I can’t agree. Perhaps it’s true, but I kind of like to know what’s going on.