Friday, March 1, 2019

Femina ridens (1969)

... aka: Frightened Woman, The
... aka: Laughing Woman, The
... aka: Le duo de la mort (The Duo of Death)

Directed by:
Piero Schivazappa

Newly-hired journalist Maria Egstrom (Dagmar Lassander) shows up at a philanthropic organization looking for material on an article she's working on about forced male sterilization in India. Before agreeing to hand over said documents, organization director Dr. Sayer (Philippe Leroy) first engages her in a conversation about the topic. When she expresses favor for the program as she doesn't feel as if women should always bear the brunt of responsibility when it comes to taking precautions, Sayer gives her a long, impassioned and bizarrely angry rebuttal. To him, the practice is monstrous and barbaric. He likens it to a "permanent incapacity" and insists that "the potency of the male" must always be protected. Instead of taking such drastic measures to curb population growth, he instead wants to focus on sound educational programs and what he feels is "a practical appeal to responsibility." Despite his annoyance, he agrees to allow her access to the research papers, but she has to stop by his home, which is out in the boonies and difficult to find, to get them.

Upon arrival at the doctor's mansion, she's taken aback by his décor, which isn't exactly fitting for someone known for their generosity and philanthropy. For starters he has a massive collection of daggers but even more curious is his idea of charming decorative art including paintings of various bacteria, protozoa and viruses like the bubonic plague, rabies and leprosy. He offers her a scotch, which he's drugged. After she passes out, he takes her to a large, secure bunker, handcuffs her to a wall, threatens to stab her and goes on paranoid rants about a conspiracy of women planning to make themselves both socially and sexually self-sufficient. He believes women have secretly been conspiring together to collect male sperm and deep freeze it, and then incubate their offspring instead of giving birth, in their quest to eventually make men completely obsolete.

This is all the arrogant, crazed doctor's idea of weekend entertainment and Maria certainly isn't the first unwilling female to take part. Sayer likes to document (via audio recordings and still photos) the torture and murder of his captives. He even shows Maria a slide show of his various activities to give her an idea of what she's in for. But before he murders her, he first wants to play with her, torture her and try to break her ("You must face the fact that you are my slave. I can do everything to you for my pleasure.... kill you if I want."). He makes her simulate sex with a mannequin in his likeness and rub his feet and legs. He gags her and makes her watch him eat in silence, cuts off her hair and sprays her down with a high-powered hose. He eventually reveals that the only way he's capable of having sex is through torture as foreplay and then murder as climax.

After about an hour of psycho thrills, this takes an entirely different direction in the final third as we learn that a few things we were led to believe aren't true at all. Sayer remains a disturbed, confused individual, though he explains that as a child he saw a female scorpion eat the male during sex and was forever affected by it. He perhaps would even be open to the idea of Maria potentially "curing" him. However, after the hell he's put her through, she may not even be interested in helping... and who could blame her! There's also the chance she has, and has always had, her own agenda or will opt for revenge now that he's in an emotionally vulnerable state.

Visually, there's some pretty neat stuff in here, most especially the production design from Francesco Cuppini. The doctor's residence; a labyrinth of minimally-dressed rooms which have no real personality, is pretty interesting. Everything is uncluttered, sterile, pathologically orderly and electronically operated by push button. This is the kind of home where if something doesn't serve a purpose or have a direct use there's no place for it, which tells you a lot about the lead male character. The most memorable bit of wacky production design though occurs during a hallucination scene where we get a giant papier-mâché prop of a woman's spread legs with a doorway in the center complete with toothy doors. It's so big it had to be constructed in a warehouse! Subtle imagery it's not. But it's great, anyway.

The kitsch, psychedelia, feminism, psycho-drama, mild camp and Sayer's amusingly demented little monologues all make for a fairly entertaining movie, even if the events and characters don't have much emotional weight behind them. Seeing how we're squarely in the female corner from the very beginning as the male is portrayed as a cocky, paranoid control freak fueled by an irrational and ridiculous philosophy, this isn't so much a "battle of the sexes" as it is an inner battle of a disturbed man who can't handle assertive women.

There's a great score by Stelvio Cipriari, which was released on vinyl by CAM and on CD by Digitmovies, and Carlo Rambaldi, billed by just his last name, is credited with the special effects, though I'm not sure what exactly that entails. He probably either built the leg statue or the car that turns into a boat (yes, there's one of those in here, too). Or both. Or neither. I have no clue. Those seem to be the only real "effects" in the movie.

Some sources claim the uncut version runs 108 minutes but I don't believe it. The 86 minute version commonly available is also the version endorsed by the director himself so I doubt he'd be cool with a version that has a whopping 22 minutes removed! There was a tie-in novelization by Hadrian Keene released in 1970, the same year this debuted in U.S. theaters with an X rating under the title The Laughing Woman. The DVD title is The Frightened Woman. Fans of Italian thrillers / giallo and gaudy art films will most definitely want to check this out.

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