Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Thin Line Between Laughter and Fright

I’m pleased to talk about The Frightened Woman because it allows me to segue into my newest feature here at Honors Zombie. It’s a little series I like to call “Where I Draw The Line”. The line, friends is when I see a movie that is just too much for me to ignore, and you’ll notice most of them involve the holocaust or at the very least use of the word holocaust. I can take a lot of things: I’ve seen women brutalized, tormented, raped, and murdered for the sake of some Italian guys making money. I’ve seen genitalia mutilated, men and women eaten alive by people and animals, children killed, real animals being killed for real, real sex inserted into cheap exploitation films and sex with every conceivable sort of monster imaginable simulated all for the purpose of some Italian guys making some money. So, you may ask, why do I get to draw a line? By rights I shouldn’t cause I sat around and watched these horrible things unfold, but at the same time, there are a lot of adventurous kids out there who think it might be a good idea to see these films. This is sort of like my passing on hard-earned knowledge onto younger generations. If someone could learn from my mistakes, maybe having watched them won’t be in vein. Let’s start with the sickest giallo I’ve ever seen. This is a film with no moral compass that makes sex out to be a weapon to be used however you need it to, so long as the other party doesn’t benefit.

The Frightened Woman
by Piero Schivazappa
In true Roman fashion, it starts with a council of well dressed men discussing the mistake of a subordinate. Things don’t look too good for our man. Next we see a suave peer of the doomed man called Dr. Sayer speaking to an attractive female reporter named Maria. She says she’s missing an article about savage tribes that he says he can supply her with. She agrees to come out to his home in the country that weekend to retrieve it so she can meet a Monday deadline. When she arrives, they begin talking about the tribes and their views on masculinity and femininity and Sayer gets into a lather about how he thinks women should be subjugated for a man’s enjoyment. In the midst of this he overpowers her and she wakes up handcuffed in a plush dungeon. What follows is a series of cruel tests of her strength. Sayer will string her up, humiliate her, torment her, chase her with his car, flay her, and do all kinds of weird shit to her while spouting all kinds of nonsense about masculinity and a woman’s place. She finally puts a stop to it one day by overdosing on some pills; Sayer finds the empty bottle and puts two and two together.

When Sayer nurses her back to health, the movie makes a comically abrupt shift in tone. Sayer decides he’s fallen in love with Maria and that he no longer wishes to torment her. They go out for an idyllic Sunday drive complete with muzak by Stelvio Cipriani that borders on Benny Hill-esque lunacy when they begin chasing each other around the field, frolicking like deer. Sayer stops every few minutes to catch his breath and clutch his heart, clearly not used to behaving like a teenager. He takes her to a castle he knows that was converted into a resort. They attempt to have sex but are interrupted by a dwarf, who is also their waiter. When they get back to Sayer’s house, they go swimming and finally have sex after about 12 minutes of Maria teasing her charge. This involves Sayer dreaming about an enormous wooden sculpture of a vagina situated by enormous colorful legs. I shit thee not. When they finally have sex, Sayer has a heart attack and dies mid-copulation. Turns out Maria was sent to kill Sayer and had done the same thing to his colleague from the opening tribunal.
To give you some indication of what Italians thought of this film when they were making it, one of its alternate titles was The Laughing Woman. I wonder if these guys actually thought they were saying something profound. If you had filmed me watching this movie, you would have been treated to an hour and forty minutes worth of my eyebrows getting higher and higher and higher in an arch of profound confusion and profound disbelief. In my defense, I’d never seen or even entertained the possibility that there were movies about sex assassins that make the films of Eli Roth look like sexual harassment seminar videos shown in office buildings. Let’s just examine the basic outline of this film, shall we? A woman lets herself get degraded by a rich Philippe Leroy who lives in a space-age pad in the middle of nowhere so that she can work him up and then murder him with her vagina. And I thought Teeth was grim. This is why there needs to be at least one woman present in every meeting of any film studio, because not only could they provide the voice of reason in so many cases of high-concept films being passed, they might also have been able to stop depraved shit like this from ever going into production. I just take solace in the fact that writer director Pierro Schivazappa never worked in films ever again. He got stuck making Italian TV for the rest of his career and he’s still there. Looks like the jokes on you, dirtbag!

The film itself is made really well, which makes its heinously outdated subject matter and faux-hip message and direction even weirder. It’s one thing to watch old misogynistic trash and have it look as bad as it feels, but these guys spent some cash on this film. It’s pretty jarring watching Dagmar Lassander as Maria dancing around a Jetsons-esque singles pad with J&B Scotch in her hand and then realizing that a lot of people consented to making this movie. A Lot! Not that I wouldn't drop what I was doing if the chance to see Dagmar Lassander in a see-through wrap was in the offing, but I digress. And this film is such a specific kind of bad, it took writing, production design, and a really heavy handed performance by Philippe Leroy to achieve this kind of bad. Even stranger is that they start out with all the torture and then lull you into a state of complacency so that Schivazappa can turn it all around and make Hello Dolly Italian Style. Then the big reveal makes the whole mess even more hateful than you originally thought it was. How plainly illogical would it be for people to pay Dagmar Lassander to get raped and then kill her rapist? Who in their right fucking mind would consent to that? Thank god I'm not a Gialli completist cause if I had to force myself to watch more of these goddamned things I might go out of my mind in a big way.
How much do Italians actually hate women? Did Schivazappa get abandoned by his mother as a child, cause this is some seriously hateful shit? This friends is where I cross the line. Join me next time when Franco Prosperi earns the title of biggest asshole who ever lived.

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