There are two ways we can do this. I could give you a rough outline of the plot and assure you that despite what that may suggest, The Frightened Woman is not quite like any film you're likely to have seen, or I can describe what unfolds in detail and you'll soon work it out for yourself. Let's try the first one.
Attractive young company press office journalist Maria approaches executive Dr. Sayer regarding information she needs for an article she's preparing on male sterilisation. Sayer promises to bring the material in on Monday, but Maria wants to work on the article over the weekend and suggests to Sayer that she pick it up from his house that evening. Once there she accepts his offered drink and is promptly drugged into unconsciousness, waking to find herself tied up and at Sayer's mercy. A proud and seemingly demented champion of male virility, Sayer threatens, lectures and humiliates Maria and reveals that she is destined to be the latest in a line of women he has imprisoned, raped and killed at the point of orgasm. But as the weekend progresses, things do not progress as Sayer planned.
Standard exploitation stuff, you might think, but from the opening scenes there's hardly an element here that's not off-the-wall or even downright bizarre. Take the reception room that leads to Dr. Sayer's office – not only is it the size of a tennis court whose walls are decorated with 30-foot high classical friezes, but the receptionist is a cigar-smoking, wheelchair-bound ringer for From Russia With Love's Rosa Klebb (that she's played by an actress named Maria Cumani Quasimodo is a special bonus). Once inside Dr. Sayer's lair, the wild 60s décor and scene-jump structure play like a twisted variant of The Prisoner. Maria awakes handcuffed to a dividing wall bathed in red light, where she is lectured by a dagger-weilding Sayer on the destructive ambitions of her gender (all women want these days, he claims, is a test tube of sperm). A half-hearted escape attempt gets her nowhere and only exposes her to a car with Christine-like aggression and an upbeat astrological reading entitled "Sexual aberration and the stars." Her bed for the night offers no comfort when, after a ritualistic toning-up session, Sayer raises the wall that divides his half of the room and bed from hers and produces a full sized rubber version of himself that Maria is then ordered to get intimate with.
The sense of surreal is further enhanced Carlo and Sante Achilli's ordered framing and an editing style that discards the bookends of scenes to land us midway through the latest peculiarity and leave us to unravel its purpose. The shot in which Sayer lovingly spreads marmalade over a gargantuan slice of bread, for example, seems a little uncharacteristic for a man with a fitness obsession until, in a perfectly timed cut, we are shown the agitated Marie watching on with her mouth taped up.
If all this sounds like Sayer's misogyny has infected the film then hang on in there. From the moment Sayer lays on a couch and is casually psychoanalysed by Maria, a subtle power shift starts to take place, which is accelerated by a confession from the doctor and dramatic act of seeming desperation by Maria. The later illusion of equality is repeatedly undermined by some carefully orchestrated behaviour on Maria's part, whether it be her dance in a slowly unravelling paper costume (all the more effective for being allowed to play out in its entirety) or the excuses she repeatedly finds for avoiding Sayer's now longed-for moment of mutual intimacy.
Once the couple hit the great outdoors the oddball flourishes continue, particularly at a castle-cum-restaurant where they are greeted by a stoic knight in armour, are interrupted mid-embrace by a disapproving dwarf, and where Sayer hides manically behind the menu from the sniffy waiter. And why take the Mercedes when you have an amphibian car and can take your date for a spin on the lake? It becomes increasingly clear that little is as random as it first appears and that even seemingly inconsequential moments and characters – the high class prostitute and the one-eyed businessman who drop out of the film after their brief but significant-seeming early appearances – are an integral part of a narrative that ties up all of its loose ends in a thoroughly satisfying and pleasingly vengeful conclusion.
The Frightened Woman is the work of a madman with a devilish sense of precision and structure, a film whose fractured surrealism is revealed to have purpose and narrative logic. It's the sort of film around which cults deserve to grow, and this DVD release from Shameless is the perfect launching pad, its remastered print and restored cut has prompting director Piero Schivazappa to remark "This IS the version of my film to watch." You heard the man.
The Frightened Woman kicks off with a similar warning to the one on the Shameless Ratman disc regarding the varying quality of the source material used to construct this cut, but there the similarities end. Save for a few of the restored shots, the 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is damned fine, a crisp picture with excellent colour, superb black levels and spot-on contrast.
The mono soundtrack may not be as sparkling as the picture but it's still in better shape than many of the Shameless releases, betraying only a whiff of background fluff and no serious issues. There is a slight, high-pitched ringing in many of the scenes set in Sayer's lair which I presume is deliberate, so effectively does it contribute to their atmosphere of demented peculiarity. If it is a soundtrack fault them its one of the happiest accidents since workmen dropped Marcel Ducham's The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Batchelors, Even and inadvertently added an an artistic crack to the piece.
Another Shameless trailer that looks suspiciously like an in-house production rather than the original deal. As ever there are also trailers for other Shameless releases and a neat reversible cover.
The Shameless crew have made no secret of their love for this inspired, tightly plotted slice of drug-induced 60s cinematic bizarre. There are no doubt those who will dismiss the film as gaudy exploitation, but not us. We're with Shameless all the way on this one, and although this is normally fellow reviewer Gort's territory, I have, in his temporary absence, little problem in celebrating The Frightened Woman as my favourite release yet from this enterprising label.