The Laughing Woman Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: February 8, 2022 (following October 21, 2021 site-exclusive limited edition)
Audio: English and Italian DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono
Run Time: 90:07
Director: Piero Schivazappa
Maria (Dagmar Lassander) is employed in the press office of a large philanthropic organization run by the stern Dr. Sayer (Philippe Leroy). One Friday, she visits his home and accepts a drink. The next thing she knows, she is chained to a metal frame in a room bathed in a sickly red light. Sayer tells her that she is now his prisoner and he can do anything he likes with her – even kill her. (From Mondo Macabro’s official synopsis)
Piero Schivazappa’s The Laughing Woman (aka: Femina Ridens and The Frightened Woman, 1969) belongs to a wonderfully specific subgenre of anti-romantic dramas/satires, in which a dominant man subjects a subservient woman to sadomasochistic (sometimes lethal) games, only to see the power dynamic shift when he finds that she’s able to endure and overcome his abuse. Its closest cousins are films like José María Forqué’s It's Nothing Mama, Just a Game (Spanish: No es nada, mamá, sólo un juego; aka: Beyond Erotica and Lola, 1974), Just Jaeckin’s Story of O (French: Histoire d'O; based on Anne Desclos’ 1954 novel), Dario Argento’s Stendhal Syndrome (1996), and Kim Ki-duk’s Bad Guy (Korean: Nabbeun namja, 2001), and the subgenre’s spirit lives in mainstream Hollywood fare, like Steven Shainberg’s Secretary (2002) and even Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Fifty Shades of Grey (2015), though The Laughing Woman’s psychosexual battlefield is pretty far removed from most Harlequin romances and fan-fictions (not to imply these are lesser artforms, just that they typically have different creative ambitions).
Once you get past the grand guignol cruelty of Sayer’s machinations, it’s easy to see the central joke that is his arrested development. His games, though dangerous, are played with a little boy’s understanding of gender roles (his fear of women dates back to a moment during his childhood when he saw a female scorpion devour a male while breeding) and his labyrinthine mansion, littered with pop-art sets straight out of Elio Petri’s The 10th Victim (Italian: La decima vittima, 1965) and Mario Bava’s Danger: Diabolik (Italian: Diabolik, 1968), and life-sized human dolls, is like a spoiled child’s playroom. In her book, House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films (FAB Press, 2012), author/critic Kier-La Janisse covers S&M horror/thrillers extensively, digging into their psychological and literary roots. While discussing The Laughing Woman (under the alternate title The Frightened Woman), she elaborates on the film’s ironic subversion of machismo and transfer of emotional power: “Our virile antagonist is reduced to a blushing gnome, skipping about, trying to impress her with feats of 'masculinity,’ but his happiness is marred by anxiety over his increasing emotional and physical dependence on his prisoner.”
The Laughing Woman isn’t a giallo itself, unless your definition is incredibly broad, but it is steeped in the same DNA and, had it been released a few years later, might have read like a parody of the genre. As is, it still has a number of connections to giallo films of its era, including a soundtrack by Death Walks on High Heels (Italian: La morte cammina con i tacchi alti, 1971) and What Have They Done to Your Daughters? (Italian: La Polizia Chiede Aiuto; aka: The Police Ask for Assistance, 1974) composer Stelvio Cipriani, writing from The Killer Reserved Nine Seats (Italian: L'assassino ha riservato nove poltrone, 1974) co-writer Paolo Levi, and production by Bava collaborator Giuseppe Zaccariello. The most interesting connection, however, is to Giulio Questi’s Death Laid an Egg (Italian: La morte ha fatto l'uovo, 1968), which also satirizes economic class and gender roles, and features a listless, wealthy man who plays make-believe murder with prostitutes. A final twist links it to a number of other gialli, as well as modern rape/revenge thrillers, like David Slade’s Hard Candy (2005).
The Laughing Woman was released on US VHS under the title The Frightened Woman by First Run Features via their Audubon Collection series. From there, it found its way onto DVD in a number of countries, but the image quality and run lengths vary wildly. The US disc, also from First Run, was non-anamorphic and an edited US cut. Mondo Macabro’s new Blu-ray, which was released as a site exclusive limited edition back in October, is the most complete version of the movie available. The 1080p, 1.85:1 HD transfer was restored from a 4K scan of the original camera negative. Cinematographer Sante Achilli likes to explore the large scale sets from wide angles, so we can really drink it in, which can be difficult for fine details, but most of these shots remain clear, exhibiting only minor and occasional smudginess. Though there’s also a hint of posterization during soft focus, grain levels are even and not noisy. Achilli’s photography isn’t ultra-saturated, but the sets and lighting schemes are still quite colorful, so there’s a lot of variety and punchiness to the palette.
The Laughing Woman is presented with Italian and English audio options, both in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono. As per usual, the film was shot without sound with an international cast and all language variations are dubbed. This time around, the key players, namely German actress Dagmar Lassander and French actor Philippe Leroy, are speaking English on-set. I don’t think they’re dubbing themselves, but the English performances and lip-sync fit better than the Italian ones. Sound-wise, the two tracks are practically identical, though the Italian dialogue is mixed to be louder. Cipriani’s music has a playful, bouncy quality and really comes to life when he’s focusing on guitar and organ-driven rock, like the main title theme, sung by Olympia. Here, both dubs exhibit quite a bit of depth for a single channel mix.
Commentary with film historian Kat Ellinger – Another fantastic effort from the author of Devil’s Advocate: Daughters of Darkness (Auteur Publishing/Liverpool University Press, 2018) and co-host of the Daughters of Darkness podcast (with Samm Deighan). Ellinger is especially fond of this particular movie, which adds an extra layer of enthusiasm to her explorations of the film’s themes, the late ‘60s Italian political climate, the careers of the filmmakers and cast members, and similar films about psychosis and gender roles, such as Mary Harron’s American Psycho (2000) and Pietro Germi’s Divorce Italian Style (1961).
Marquis De Sade vs. Praying Mantis (32:51, HD) – Writer/director Piero Schivazappa discusses conceptualizing, writing, and making the film, his collaborators, literary and artistic influences (the giant vagina was an established sculpture in Stockholm), casting, maintaining a sense of humor, and skirting censorship issues.
Production Design (24:57, HD) – Film historian and co-host of the Fragments of Fear podcast Rachael Nisbet delves into the use of avant garde production design in late ‘60s Italian filmmaking, focusing on the making of The Laughing Woman, but also including footage from The 10th Victim, Death Laid an Egg, and Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (Italian: Terrore nello spazio, 1965).
Animated Fotonovel by Jacques Spohr (2:56, HD) – Basically, a slideshow of the fotonovel set to music and sound effects.
US and Italian trailers
Mondo Macabro trailer reel
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.