Piero Schivazappa, 1969
Starring: Philippe Leroy, Dagmar Lassander
Dr. Sayer, a wealthy, but sadistic man, kidnaps the lovely Maria, a journalist. She’s not the first woman he’s kidnapped, tortured, and killed, and he delights in murdering women when they’re at the point of orgasm. He involves her in elaborate S&M scenarios, but she soon turns the tables on him. Maria has a strange effect on Sayer and he begins to fall in love with her, as their relationship transforms from kidnapper and victim, to something more complicated. He effectively sets her free, but she does not leave — they vacation together and have an afternoon of romance. But does Maria have motives of her own?
Also known as The Laughing Woman, this outrageously stylish, if somewhat wacky film is not quite a giallo, but includes common themes like sexual mania, kidnapping, murder, and a major plot twist. It’s certainly kitschy and you are unlikely to see anything else like it — including the statue of giant legs leading to a vagina-shaped opening with teeth for a door that’s featured in the film’s opening. Director Piero Schivazappa didn’t make anything else particularly noteworthy, but he has a minor masterpiece on his hands here, particularly for films of ‘60s style — and The Frightened Woman is definitely worth seeing for its visuals alone.
Psychedelic and utterly trashy, this has more in common with the Jess Franco-Jean Rollin school of filmmaking than anything by Dario Argento. This is essentially a battle-of-the-sexes comedy taken to extremes — though it will seem pretty tame by today’s sex and violence standards. The somewhat controversial journalist, Maria, kicks things off by interviewing Sayer about male sterilization, clearly a sensitive topic for him. Sayer, the consummate misogynist, decides to invite her back to his swanky penthouse for a drink and access to some private files, but of course this is a ruse to kidnap her and then systematically break down her willpower.
One particularly twist (this is not a spoiler) is that Sayer wants to degrade and manipulate Maria into willingly having sex with him. He refuses to rape her, though they are often nude and in sexual situations — including one where he forces her to kiss and seduce a mannequin of himself — and plans to murder her while she is orgasming. He even shows her a rogues gallery of his previous victims as evidence that he’s old hat at this game of murderous erotica. The room decorated with women’s pictures is a contrast to artwork in his office, a series of strange paintings that depict the microscopic view of a variety of diseases, including the bubonic plague, cholera, and rabies. Clearly, Sayer is into collecting, including a dagger collection and a vast array of items that are all laced with sedatives. He also plants fake weapons, so that when Maria first attempts to kill him, she is thwarted.
In light of the recent release of 50 Shades of Grey and the controversy surrounding it, it’s interesting to examine this somewhat similarly-themed film about a man who forces a woman to submit to his S&M fantasies, but winds up desiring a conventional relationship with her because he — gasp — falls in love. Both films also begin with a female journalist interviewing a wealthy male, a figure of power, mystery, and sexuality. I haven’t seen 50 Shades of Grey yet, so it’s difficult to say which film is more ridiculous, but there is a certain fascinating parallel between the time periods. The ‘60s era of free love and sexual openness was also the time of second-wave feminism, which focused on issues like reproductive and workplace rights — including the introduction of women to more professional fields than they had previously been involved in — as well as sexual harassment, rape, and domestic violence.
Some of these issues, such as domestic violence and workplace harassment, have improved, at least for white women in America. But the contrasting conclusions in these two films is alarming. In The Frightened Woman, Maria is able to turn the tables on Sayer. I won’t give away the twist, though it becomes fairly predictable and imparts the director’s message that men and women are inherently the same, capable of equal levels of perversion and violence. From what I understand, 50 Shades of Grey’s conclusion (as it occurs throughout three books) follows the protagonist as she leaves her night-in-shining-latex and refuses to return until he abandons S&M for conventional romance, marriage, and children. Yiiiikes.
Even if its themes are a bit ham-fisted, The Frightened Woman is well worth checking out. This is an absolute must-see for fans of Eurotrash and exploitation fare and it’s fortunately available on DVD. While the pop-art, sexy, psychedelic visuals are the real star of the film, the two leads — Philippe Leroy (Le trou, The Night Porter) as Doctor Sayer and Dagmar Lassander (Hatchet for the Honeymoon, Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion) as Mary — are solid and compelling, thanks to Leroy’s tendency toward histrionics and Lassander’s cool, calculating beauty.