Rescued from semi-obscurity by Shameless DVD, this wonderfully weird slice of pop art sado-erotica is ripe for rediscovery. Wealthy playboy Dr. Sayer (Philippe Leroy) lures beautiful, innocent Maria (Dagmar Lassander) back to his space age bachelor pad and subjects her to a number of kinky and sadistic mind games. Held prisoner, Maria is sprayed with a power hose, bent into S & M poses, and forced to watch a slideshow of Sayer’s previous victims accompanied by their tortured screams. The plucky girl fights back, confronting Sayer with his own sexual dysfunction, and unexpectedly melts his heart…
Despite the potentially sordid subject matter, The Frightened Woman bubbles with a buoyant wit and manages to captivate, titillate and dazzle the senses in high style. Production designer Enrico Sabbatini worked on Radley Metzger’s wondrous Camille 2000 the same year and delivers another visual feast with futuristic décor, rococo elegance and eye-popping costumes. As Maria is driven from one surreal room into another, the film recalls the classic Avengers episode: “The House That Jack Built”, and pulls off a similar mix of high tension and wry humour. The outlandish treats range from the surreal “vagina dentata” sculpture through which Sayer emerges as a skeleton in one particularly arresting fantasy, the maze of hidden doors, sinister mannequins and revolving mirrors, right down to the square-shaped cups and saucers from which characters sip their tea.
Yet none prove more mesmerizing than the sight of dishy Dagmar Lassander shakin’ her groove thang in an unravelling gauze dress. Known from her haggard appearances in Lucio Fulci’s The Black Cat (1981) and The House By the Cemetery (1981), Lassander is here at the height of her sex kitten glory days and gives arguably her finest performance. As feisty Maria turns the tables on Sayer with her own, seductive mind games, Lassander clearly relishes the deliciously ripe dialogue. Watch for Maria’s jaw-dropping story of how, when she was young, a pet cat made love to her!
The film often evokes the sexy fumetti (Italian adult comic books) of the sixties, but trades their overt misogyny for a genuinely clever story peppered with sly satire. “From an aesthetic point of view, your position is terrific”, coos Sayer, while his knife caresses Maria’s supple flesh with a mixture of fascination and disgust. Sayer is a hilarious caricature of GQ-attired, misogynistic manhood; spouting cockamamie theories about how women plot to rule the world by stealing men’s sperm as a mask for his own, deep-rooted, sexual inadequacy.
Writer-director Piero Schivazappa offers pleasing twists and turns as the briefly transforms into a love story even weirder than the horror fable before it. Surreal invention flies thick and fast: a passing trainload of women suggestively blowing saxophones as a stand-in for oral sex; an interlude at a medieval-themed restaurant; the couple’s coitus interruptus thanks to a leery dwarf; a bout of swimming pool sex shot like a spaghetti western showdown, complete with twangy score and Sergio Leone close-ups. A final twist reinvents Maria as a delicious, feminist anti-heroine, but in an unfortunate subtext slightly suggests women are the scheming vixens neurotic Sayer thinks they are. Topped off with a superb sci-fi lounge score by Stelvio Cipriani, this is the definitive version of Schivazappa’s film. As Shameless state in their intro: “We fell in love with this film and hope you’ll fall in love too.”