Color, 1969, 84m. / Directed by Piero Schivazappa / Starring Philippe Leroy, Dagmar Lassander / First Run (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1), Shameless (UK R0 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)

Though Radley Metzger didn't actually direct The Frightened Woman (originally Femina Ridens or The Laughing Woman), you wouldn't know it by looking at the actual film. A kinkier stepsister to Camille 2000 (with which it shares the amazing production designer Enrico Sabbatini), this eye-popping trip into a world of pop art S&M is one of the most sensually dazzling films of the late '60s; no wonder Metzger rushed it out immediately under the imprint of his Audubon Films.

Following a cryptic opening in which a frizzy-haired secretary and a mysterious accomplice have a deadly encounter with a man in an eyepatch, the story proper begins with the seemingly mild mannered Dr. Sayer (Philippe Leroy) convincing the sweet, innocent, and beautiful Maria (Dagmar Lassander) to join him at his home. Once there he initiates her into a series of exercises in bondage and discipline (though fairly mild considering the time period), which mostly consists of him spraying her down under a power hose, showing her a graphic slideshow while playing a tape of women screaming, and forcing her to cut her hair. Eventually Maria begins to become a more pliable partner in Sayer's game, and under her influence, he begins to fall in love. However, there's much more here than meets the eye.

Like most soft erotica from Europe during the period, The Frightened Woman is low on plot and only features a few teasing bits of nudity. What makes it so powerful and compulsively watchable (even on repeated viewings) is the impeccable command of both visuals and sound by the filmmakers, with each scene offering a new delight. Whether it's the famous "Sex" sculpture (into which Leroy enters through the memorable vagina dentata and returns as a skeleton during one memorable fantasy) or Lassander's scorching dance in the swanky pad while wearing an unraveling gauze dress, this film tweaks the viewer's imagination and continuously peels off one layer to reveal another surprise underneath. Along with Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion, Lassander has never looked more stunning than she does here; take a look at her in Lucio Fulci's The House by the Cemetery to see what ten years of hard living in Italy can do to a girl. Special kudos go out to composer Stelvio Cipriani, who adds to the film's spell with his brilliant, infernally catchy lounge score. Someone really needs to release it commercially on CD one of these days.

Rarely seen after its initial release, The Frightened Woman turned up on VHS from Audubon in 1995 in a disappointing transfer which slapped a fake 2.00:1 matte over the opening credits and squeezed the rest of the image for the duration of the film. On top of that, image quality was chalky, hazy, and virtually unwatchable. The same transfer was rehashed for First Run's VHS release in early 1999, which coincided with a British PAL edition from Redemption. Beautifully colourful and letterboxed, the Redemption version would seem definitive except for one fatal flaw-- both the slideshow and skeleton sequences were cut! For its DVD debut of The Frightened Woman, First Run has at least gotten two out of three right- the print is uncut and correctly letterboxed. The framing is absolutely crucial to enjoying this film on every level, and it's nice to finally see it back the way it belongs. Unfortunately, while the image quality is definitely a couple of notches above the tape and looks crisp enough, the color is still distractingly muted, almost sepia during several scenes, and the print displays a lot of wear (with some mysterious dropouts in evidence as well). The audio is adequate but very hissy in a few spots. Don't let these shortcomings prevent you from watching the film, though; it's definitely worth seeking out and a guaranteed delight for anyone in love with the surreal delights of European exploitation. The disc also includes Audubon's exceptional original trailer.

Coming much later in the UK was a vastly superior edition from Shameless, which follows the director's original script and notes to present the film in the longest possible version with considerably more impressive image quality. The bulk of the transfer is vibrantly colorful, though a handful of extended alternate shots from the U.S. version have been edited in from the same flawed master. It's a minor quibble though with what otherwise remains a highly recommended release; the only real debit is the "trailer" included, which is a newly-created digital job that doesn't work remotely as well as the original one.

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