Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Shed It, Baby: Mondo Macabro's A LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN

While I don't think I'd ever peg A LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN/Una Lucertola con la Pelle di Donna as my favorite Lucio Fulci film, I would hold it up as one of his more interesting and polished films before he descended into the sticky pop-madness he'd become so famous for largely in hindsight; despite being yet another "animal" themed whodunnit in the wake of Dario Argento's Bird with the Crystal Plumage, the soundtrack, location, and even the way it's shot are all an interesting contrast to the more familiar spaghetti-thrillers of the period. It's a little nastier, a little more dreamlike than many of the period Italian murder-mysteries I've seen - which, admittedly, is but a taste of a veritable banquet. I can probably name between 15 and 20 giallo I've actually seen, but Italy was cranking these films out to the tune of over two-dozen a year at the height of their popularity in the early 70s, and with the concept so firmly entrenched into the country's cinematic landscape we're still seeing throwbacks like the short Yellow from 2012, and the feature-length The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears as recently as 2013.

Regardless of where it may sit in the pantheon of its contemporaries,  A Lizard in a Woman's Skin remains a comforting reminder that Fulci was more than capable of simultaneously logical and increasingly dreamlike films, in which the substance was just as high a priority as the style; the film's combination of schizophrenia and psychedelic drugs not only give Fulci an excuse to go for broke, but it allows him to use the uncertain state of the heroine's mind to let those increasingly surreal and dangerous images build with the audience experiencing, first hand, that her heroine's own sense of self and reality are falling apart before her eyes. It never gets close to the heights of violent and nonsensical insanity that would cement the director's fame in the next decade's "Trilogy of Death" - three films I absolutely adore, but admit are accidental masterpieces, the result of an angry, petulant artist throwing whatever dumb idea he could come up with at the screen and not particularly caring what stuck - but this was absolutely a precursor to the mounting visual representation of fear and dread that Fulci would gradually allow to consume his films whole.

It also serves as a fascinating counterpoint to Fulci's follow-up, Don't Torture a Duckling/Non si Sevizia un Paperino. A Lizard in a Woman's Skin is, at its core, an examination of morally upstanding blue-bloods in the lap of luxury being threatened by the hedonistic ways of the hippie, while Duckling is about small town simple folk needing to face the realization that they themselves are more than capable of causing their own destruction. Florida Bolkan stars in both, playing mirror opposite characters in films that stylistically couldn't be any less alike, and the contrast between the two makes both films somewhat better as a result. I won't get into why Duckling has a lot to say - to even hint at the central theme of the story would be to betray its ending to anyone who hasn't already seen it - but suffice to say I'm excited knowing that a BETTER THAN EXPECTED Blu-ray release of this is already out in Austria... too bad the only current release is an absurdly over-priced "Leatherbook"  collector's edition that was priced at over $100.

Speaking of overpriced European imports, a combination of unexpected bills and a bad sense of timing, I completely missed my window to get the French Limited Edition via label Le Chat Qui Fume, so for the time being we'll just have to take Michael MacKenzie's word* on the European presentation being decent, but flawed in a number of ways. He does a good job of summing up the surprisingly complex myriad of DVD releases - I think the only one I've kept around is the Optimum UK release, which is both the best looking and most complete SD release we'll likely ever see - and while minor differences have already cropped up, it seems the bulk of the Optimum DVD, Mondo Macabro BD, and French BD are all sourced from the same HD transfer crafted by Studio Canal.

Mondo Macabro has gotten into the habit of doing a "Limited Edition" of 999 copies through their own Big Cartel store front for pre-order, to be replaced by a wide release once that's sold out. A LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN was no different, and while the disc contents will be identical between the two, the now sold-out LE gives you two reversible alternate covers to choose from, an opaque red plastic case and an 8 page booklet featuring an essay by Troy Howarth, author of Splintered Visions: Lucio Fulci and his Films. Each copy is individually numbered, too. It's a nice incentive to buy straight from the source, but as the Amazon price is about $10 cheaper and contains unique artwork not found in the Limited Edition in any capacity, I won't fault anyone for waiting it out for the wide release version. Especially not if they're waiting for reviews, as I was tempted to do but didn't, because God knows I hate having money.

And yes, it really does say that along the bottom of the cover.
At least the superior UK VHS "B-side" artwork is less obnoxious.

If for some reason this is your first visit to my little corner of Internet Hell, I'm not really into "reviews" in the traditional sense. If you want someone to tell you the transfer is "very good 8/10" and go into how much fun the bonus features are... that's not really what I do. I do somewhat more in-depth analytic musings of the transfers, effectively looking for problems, because Blu-ray is (good lord) a decade old. I shouldn't need to be the guy who points out when IRE levels are fucked up or when to junk a 15 year old film scanner, but hey, somebody's gotta' be hated by all the labels he loves so that they might learn...

Mondo Macabro have opted for a BD-25 at an average bitrate of about 22,992 kb/s (ie: 23 mb/s). I mention this largely as a footnote, though - I'm sure nobody would complain about a higher bitrate, but as we've seen for years now when it comes to raw bandwidth on H264, "bigger" doesn't instantly mean "better", and there's really nothing to complain about in terms of banding, macroblocking or any other common compression woes. Don't get me wrong, I'm a firm believer in keeping bitrates high as more of a safety-net than anything, but this is a perfectly acceptable transfer as-is, and from the looks of things, it's better than the

To be fair, I found exactly one scene with visible compression artifacts but the combination of being dark, having several optical effects, and those macroblocks being in the darkest areas that most reasonably-close-to-calibrated displays will crush out entirely leaves them so minor I won't even point out where they are. Leave a comment with the timecode I'm talking about and I'll owe you a cookie or something.

Both the original English and Italian audio options are available as 16-bit PCM mono tracks - calling either a "dub" would be a bit of a misnomer, so the option to watch either-or is nice - with a third audio commentary as a 192kb Dolby Stereo mix. Clear, white English subtitles are available for both the Italian dub (which are often quite different from the English track) and a secondary track to subtitle a scene that was seemingly new dubbed into English at 00:26:35 - anyone with more than a passing familiarity with gialli will likely know what they're getting into. Another scene at 00:31:18 is in Italian and NOT subtitled - though the dialogue is clearly inconsequential, and curiously, the music and effects present here are completely different from the Optimum DVD version of the scene.

The English track sounds surprisingly good, with only a low level hiss during silent sequences; the Italian track isn't bad, but it's clearly been filtered to compensate for unwanted analog noise, leaving the track sounding slightly thin and metallic by comparison.

From a technical presentation, there's really nothing to complain about... but what about from an archival standpoint? Mondo Macabro is the first to present the "complete" version of this film in HD, but at what cost does that preservation bring to a high-fidelity presentation?

David "lyris" MacKenzie has done the mastering for this title, and he's not been shy on the Blu-ray.com forums that over a minute's worth of uspcaled footage had to be used to present the most complete version of the film available. We've seen this a handful of times in cult HD releases, most notably the various European iterations of Dario Argento's Four Flies on Gray Velvet - a process that was done so poorly in the Shameless UK that a German label Koch Media later did an entirely new scan of the scenes they could, and re-upscaled the scenes they couldn't from scratch. I'm very happy to report that the Mondo Macabro presentation - compromised as it may occasionally be - has much more in common with the latter than it does the former.

The Mondo Macabro transfer runs 01:43:57 in total, and makes a proud claim on the package to be the longest version of the film available. The fact that this is being used as a selling point when the French Blu-ray is known to be missing footage, however, isn't exactly a comforting direction for this conversation to start from. It's entirely possible, I suppose, that I've missed some additional sequences, but the following 3 scenes upscaled from what appears to be a PAL Digibeta source:

* The shot of Anita Strindberg kissing down Florinda Bolkan's neck at the end of the
first dream sequence, followed by a close-up of Blokan's face (00:04:24 ~ 00:04:51).

* A full montage cutting between the Hammond family dinner and Julia Durer's
orgy next door, starting with the close-up of Jean Sorrel cracking walnuts,
and ending with a closeup of Strindberg's face before it cuts
back to Bolkan (00:08:40 ~ 00:09:18).

* Two shots of a couple making out on a glass table,
which cuts to a whip-pan (00:09:51 ~ 00:10:04).

All in all,that's about 68 seconds of footage, and roughly in line with David's prior warning of what to expect. It likely goes without saying that several scenes typically cut from prior prints - such as the scene of Strindberg putting her fingers under her skirt before it cuts to the aformentioned shot of Sorrel cracking nuts - are retained in their entirety, in HD, where applicable.

It's unfortunate, but this all ties back to the observations that Michael made about the French Blu-ray being incomplete, which leaves me with no other option but to assume that there simply is no HD version of this footage available. An oddity, to be sure, but having heard second-hand accounts from film labs that would cut a few seconds here or there because of an audio issue or a bad splice they didn't want to freeze-frame around, it's not exactly shocking either.

Do I wish Mondo Macabro would have found another solution - presumably paid to do a new HD telecine for these 68 seconds? You bet your ass I do! Particularly since the SD footage was clearly culled so recently there's little reason to assume that the 35mm element itself isn't still within reach. But it's entirely possible the licensor doesn't want them to disturb the film materials again, and it's even more likely that the cost involved to do so would far outweigh any potential additional sales this particular title would generate in the first place. Lucio Fulci's best known for movies like Zombi 2 and The Beyond - by comparison his gialli are mostly a footnote to careers like Bava and Argento, films that are generally liked by aficionados but have never been a huge commercial success, to the point where Bill Lustig all but guaranteed he'd never bother purchasing the rights to Don't Torture a Duckling in HD. The only reason that fans are so willing to buy this particular film on DVD multiple times is because each release has been such a fascinating clusterfuck in the first place, and I'd wager that most fans who put up with murky, VHS-quality copies to see something even resembling an "uncut" version before will put up with this compromise without much complaint.

It's frustrating, sure, but compared to having the footage simply missing, jump cuts and? It's a compromise I can live with. At the very least it's clear every effort was made to keep the footage looking as close to the HD master as possible, and kud to all involved for doing a job so good, even I don' thave much in the way of suggesting ways to improve it:

HD Native Footage

SD Upscale Footage

I don't have any real insider information here, honestly - I'm simply going to guess that the source used here is the same decent-enough PAL Digibeta the Optimum UK DVD was made from, likely with some additional color correction and filtering to make it match as closely as it's ever going to. Ultimately it's disappointing, but the difference in quality is subtle enough that I suspect a lot of less obsessive fans won't even notice. To put this another way, if "grain structure", "edge ringing" and "chroma subsampling" aren't things you tend to worry too much about, odds are you'll be more than satisfied with the whole transfer.

And it's a shame I've spent so much time talking about this 68 seconds, because most of the other hundred-plus minutes look pretty damn good! Insofar as a low-budget Italian thriller shot on location from the early 70s will ever look, of course. The print used could well be the OCN for all I know, it's certainly in fine shape with nothing to bitch about in terms of scratches, flicker, staining and so on, and while I have no doubt an intensely expensive and carefully corrected 4K master could theoretically yield superior results, I rarely found myself wondering what could be, and instead being surprisingly content with what is now.

One slight annoyance is the presence of some funky chroma scaling issues. Notice the solid white gap between Leo Genn's shoulder and the red curtain behind him, or the almost electric outline of the flower in his lapel;  reds in particular have a slightly diffuse, blotchy look I initially thought was the result of DVNR processing, but the more I see, the more I think the conversion from 4:4:4 color to 4:2:2 went slightly awry and introduced some ugly sharpening artifacts that make the otherwise subdued color information look a bit wonky around the edges. It's a very minor problem, mind - more an academic curiosity than something I'd actually ever get my panties in a twist over.

There is a lengthy oddity though - from about 01:05:37 to 01:08:20, starting with a shot of a cardboard cutout of Strindberg's body on her bed and ending just before Bolkan walks out of her father's office in black, the image quality takes a pretty notable hit; heavier grain, more frequent scratches, density flicker and an odd loss in color fidelity that makes the faces in the crime scene look somewhat sickly and jaundiced. It's pretty clear that for one reason or another the negative was simply unavailable for this footage, and a lower quality dupe element had to be used in its place. Considering how rough the film has looked in the past on DVD, I can't bitch too hard - the slightly funky color timing in the first half of this elemental substitution looked much the same on the Optimum DVD, so I can only assume this has far more to do with physical film limitations than any sudden loss in technical competence.

Also worth noting; there's an odd jump cut at 01:08:20 just after the line "If something doesn't happen, I..." The Optimum DVD is identical, and if there is an extra scene that's supposed to follow here, I've not seen it on any of the various English or Italian language prints floating around. I can only guess this was a last-minute editorial decision that was never properly smoothed over circa 1971.

There's a number of smaller scenes that look similarly rough - for example, a close-up of the reflection in Bolkan's eye at 00:47:29, as well as numerous shots in the following scene of Bolkan speaking at the jail - but looking them over a second time I can only suspect that these scenes involving difficult-to-film reflection effects were simply optically printed to the negative, making the color oddities and grain a natural part of their creation. Whether or not dated optical effects "should" be manipulated with cautious grain removal to make them match the rest of the film is very much a personal call; personally, I'd rather they not bother and let the rough edges show than try to sand them off and potentially do more damage.

Now I'm just nit-picking, but at around 00:08:29 there's a bit of an odd instance of blended frames during the split-screen shot of the swinging party at Strindberg's flat set against Bolkan's more understated dinner... the nature of opticals make such things hard to judge, but could this be a stray deinterlacing artifact? It's not uncommon for European Telecine work to be finished at 1080i 25fps, but not knowing the history of these materials like the back of my hand I can only guess.

Protip: Technical Errors requiring discussion and extra work
happen during nude scenes about 100% of the time.

Another annoying niggle I'll be damned to not mention; the English credits appear to be over-matted to about 1.95, which have actually cut the original copyright information in half. Yes, I've seen actual prints projected in much the same way. Yes, I rolled my eyes and growled under my breath there, too.

The bonus features are quite impressive, culling the best material from essentially every previous release and including a host of new material, too. The only obvious missing piece is the inclusion of the old US print called SCHIZOID for American audiences, which was notable for some bizarre optically printed "dream wave" censorship, along with having . I'd never recommend anyone watch the English cut over the complete composite version offered here - I merely recommend it as a fascinating curiosity, the same way that I'd recommend anyone with a sincere interest in the Lone Wolf and Cub series try watching SHOGUN ASSASSINS, if only once.

At the end of the day, I'm slightly frustrated, but mostly satisfied. Mondo Macabro has been pretty honest about what we're getting, they've done the best they can with a title that's had a long and difficult history on home video, and with this never having been a big hit in Germany I can't see this having a repeat of Four Flies on Gray Velvet; the release is what it is, and knowing what it is, I can say it's absolutely worth the price. It eclipses every prior DVD release in every way possible, and a compromise between an incomplete and a consistently high-quality presentation was made in what I can only describe as the best option available. It's not quite perfect, but the odds of this film getting a better release in the forseeable future look slim, to put it kindly.

If you want to support Mondo Macabro's fine work, pick it up through their BIG CARTEL. My copy is in the 700s, but as far as I can tell they still have a handful available, proving how every single sale really does count for niche titles like this. I don't get any referral money so don't click it on my account, I just think this release is as good as expected, and think anyone interested in it should buy straight from the source. If you're cheap, I get it - Amazon is taking pre-orders for 02/09, which is a fair breath between the initial LE and the wide release. Screw Amazon, Diabolik DVD is notably cheaper even if you have Prime.

And yes, friends... It's good to be back.

* Foot Note: A pity that him moving on to do QC work for Arrow Video will ultimately nullify his spot as one of the handful of reviewers I trust out there; he was a hard man to please, and his penchant for finding quantization problems on discs I'd call "perfect" are admirable, if not potential signs of the OCD.

Still, I can't blame anyone for not wanting to (directly or otherwise) trash talk their own competition, and it's a big part of why - even after all of these years - I still post under the pseudonym "Kentai"... frankly, whatever input I can offer seems less and less useful as labels have become either self-sufficient every step of the way, or willing to release whatever crap they're handed the competition won't touch, with very little in-between. At this point I'm mostly writing this out just to appease my morbid curiosity. And totally not to justify the $28 I've spent on a movie I've bought on DVD at least three times.