Sylvia is a young, single woman in Italy. She has a good job working in a laboratory where she's in charge of some "material" they are about to send to Berlin for something or other. This is a big deal, and they probably don't tell us what the "material" is because we aren't smart enough to understand. Sylvia is also dating a handsome geologist named Roberto, whose biggest flaw is he doesn't want her to work so hard and would rather she hang out with him and play tennis. Sylvia's biggest problem, on the other hand, is far more drastic: she's losing her mind!
The Perfume of the Lady in Black is a loopy Italian horror film made in 1974 by Francesco Barilli. American B-movie actress Mimsy Farmer stars as Sylvia, the bottle blonde with a haunted past that is rising up to haunt her in the present. Through visions and flashbacks we learn about how she witnessed the sexual assault of her mother (Renata Zamengo) and the violence that followed. A seer (Nike Arrighi) tells Sylvia that her mother's rapist (Orazio Orlando) will follow her the rest of her life, adding to her growing paranoia. Everywhere she goes, people are watching Sylvia, though since this is something seen from our vantage point and not hers, it becomes unclear how much of this is her hallucination and how much may be an actual plot against her. How heavily do all the people in her life play a role in her downward slide? The men in particular--including Roberto (Maurizio Bonuglia), their African friend Andy (Jho Jhenkins), and her widower neighbor (Mario Scaccia)--seem to be conspiring against her.
I am not really familiar with Italian horror. The Perfume of the Lady in Black is an exploratory adventure for me, as I dip by toe in the bloody giallo waters. Barilli's film hasn't made me a full convert, but it did entertain and creep me out in equal measure. Comparisons to Roman Polanski are inevitable and deserved. Mimsy Farmer bears more than a passing resemblance to Catherine Deneuve, and her ice queen meltdown is absolutely reminiscent of Repulsion. There are also parallels to Rosemary's Baby, particularly in the closing scenes. Yet, to suggest Barilli is only watching Polanski films is to dismiss his "everything and the kitchen sink" approach. The Perfume of the Lady in Black piles on the weird, somewhat to its detriment. Bizarre dream sequences, time and space displacement, stories about witchdoctors, revelatory mirrors, appearing/disappearing black cats, and blind mediums all add to Sylvia's breakdown. A younger version of herself (Lara Wendel) even shows up to confuse her more, and to point the way to where Sylvia's madness will take her. The resemblance of Young Sylvia's dress to the traditional image of Alice from Alice in Wonderland is more than coincidental: Barilli eventually pulls the book out and starts quoting it directly. Nope, all those mirrors weren't being used just to set up some neat framing! Sylvia is through the Looking Glass....
There's a lot going on in The Perfume of the Lady in Black, and as all the weirdness piled up, I started to suspect that the film probably wasn't going to be able to pay off on everything--which it doesn't really. There is no satisfactory explanation for how it all plays out, not even if you accept the metaphor of Sylvia as the sexualized modern woman victimized for her desire to have a career and be her own person, or the lingering effects of abuse and some whopping daddy issues. As the credits come up, you are no closer to understanding what was real and what wasn't or why exactly the girl went off her rocker.
But it also doesn't really matter. The Perfume of the Lady in Black is an effective, old-fashioned pseudo-ghost story updated with some sex and a fair bit of gore. Fancy, evocative sets and oooga-booga music add to the unease, and though the jump-out-of-your-seat scare tactics have lost their sharpness over the years, Barilli's film still manages to make the viewer tense and uncomfortable. Watch The Perfume of the Lady in Black with the lights out and turned up loud, and you should get the maximum results intended.
Raro brings The Perfume of the Lady in Black to North American DVD as a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. It's a nice job, free of any obvious dirt, debris, or scratches, and with no added digital noise. Colors are strong and the overall look of the surface image reflects the film stock of the 1970s. More importantly, shadows are very good, giving the darker scenes their appropriate spookiness.
Two different soundtracks are offered, both in Dolby 2.0 mono. One is in Italian, and one is in English, and since Italian productions are usually dubbed over regardless of the language they are in, you could probably choose either option. I prefer the Italian, it seems more right, plus the English actors can be a little hammy and the sound quality is a little more tin-can than the Italian dub (judging by the sampling I took). The Italian soundtrack is fairly decent, with some nice variations on the levels and some punch when needed.
English subtitles are available for those who go with the Italian choice.
Raro has released the film in a standard DVD case with a nice insert featuring liner notes about the horror tradition that Perfume of the Lady in Black is a part of. It also has a text biography and filmography of director Francesco Barilli, information which is also repeated on the disc itself as two text-based supplements.
The only other extra is billed as a documentary on the making of the film, but the 26-minute video is actually an extended interview with the director, recorded in Italian. It's good, but a little rambling and kind of long for being so.
The Perfume of the Lady in Black is another interesting Italian import from Raro Video, who are quickly establishing a catalogue of rare, eclectic material. This chiller stars Mimsy Farmer as a troubled young woman overwhelmed by anxiety and the feeling that the past and the present are going to collide and subsume her. Using the tropes of ghost stories mingled with more modern psychology and grindhouse-levels of blood and guts, director Francesco Barilli creates an entertaining creep-out. Recommended.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.