4 and a half stars

directed by: Francesco Barilli
starring: Mimsy Farmer, Maurizio Bonuglia, Mario Scaccia, Jho Jhenkins, Nike Arrighi, Daniella Barnes, Alexandra Paizi, Renata Zamengo, Ugo Carboni, Roberta Cadringer

choice dialogue:

"Only Silvia's good. All the others are evil- they want to hurt us..."

- Silvia to Silvia

Slash with panache?:

        THE PERFUME OF THE LADY IN BLACK comes hot on the heels of my first viewing of Aldo Lado's excellent THE SHORT NIGHT OF THE GLASS DOLLS (1972). I thought it would be difficult for any other film to remove itself from Silvia (Mimsy Farmer visits the grave of her Mother)the constrictions of the formulaic nature of the giallo whilst managing to stay within the realms of the genre as much as that film did- however, I think I just found another one…

       Mimsy Farmer plays an industrial scientist, Silvia Hacherman, who seems to live for her work to the point of it affecting her relationship with her boyfriend Roberto (Maurizio Bonuglia). She lives in a picturesque, rambling apartment block which she shares with a friend, Francesca (Donna Jordan) and a gaggle of elderly, and seemingly benevolent, neighbours- including an old widower who pesters her good naturedly for coffee; and a matronly woman who spends most of her time mollycoddling her jet black cat, Mozart.

       Initially everything seems fine but the first hint that things are amiss is when she visits a grave (which we later find out is her Mother's), and hears strange noises echoing through a desolate and deserted cemetery. … Shaking a faint feeling Talk abounds of witch doctors and the likeof unease Silvia later attends a gathering, where she's joined by Roberto, held by an African professor and his wife. The conversation comes around to the subject of Witch doctors and the professor says, "We've changed a lot Roberto. Once we used to eat our enemies- now we study to become engineers", before admitting that, "…the witch doctor's word is still law". Roberto tells the room about a man who he heard had crossed a witch doctor and had died an agonising death which, it was later found, was caused by the mysterious presence of cat hairs in his stomach. The professor backs that up by saying in a solemn, emotionless tone, "…in our country there are still certain cults that conduct human sacrifices. The victims are unaware that they have been chosen for these mysterious purposes but when the time comes they are either killed or driven mad … by means of potions or secret rites." He surveys the room before guffawing with laughter, turning to Silvia and saying, "Did I frighten you? … I was only joking!". … Silvia returns from the party with Roberto and, after arguing with him, falls into a deep sleep only to awaken late the next day to find that she had missed work.

       Silvia finds herself drawn to reminiscing about her past, and her dead parents (her Father, it is hinted, died at sea). Soon she Silvia smells the perfume of the lady in black... finds herself plagued by visions. At first of her Mother (which it turns out died in mysterious circumstances), draped in a black shawl, grinning with a look of contempt at her from a mirror and spraying herself in a mist of perfume; then she witnesses recurring scenes of her Mother having sex with a leering, disheveled man who, during one of these episodes climbs from the bed and creeps towards her (the adult Silvia momentarily becoming herself as a child striking out at the man with a pair of scissors).

       Her visions become more and more persistent, not confining themselves to nightly visitations but intruding upon her days as well. Silvia becomes frightened, for her safety and her sanity- her fragile state of mind pushed even closer to breaking point by a séance which seems designed to scare her; and the fact that her best friend is discovered dead, supposedly of a heart attack, in an upstairs apartment.

       The audience joins Silvia in not knowing what is real and what is not. Her visitations seem to intrude more and more into her reality as she witnesses her Mother throw herself from a balcony, and then, firstly she is attacked by a little girl (the apparition of her as a child) and then seemingly befriended by this ghoulish vision of innocence (all white ruffles and blonde hair) who presents her with a box containing matching children's dresses and beneath them, the limp body of Mozart, the neighbour's black cat.

       You have to wait until the end of the film to see if she is indeed tumbling into irredeemable insanity; is at the mercy of Silvia is hunted and haunted... the supernatural; or the victim of a some twisted conspiracy. THE PERFUME OF THE LADY IN BLACK is one hell of a strange film. It doesn't entirely fit the criteria of a typical giallo, being more of a psychological horror film, but does, later on dip into the realms of the genre with some brief bursts of quite shocking, graphic violence. The audience is never quite sure what exactly is going on, even the gorily perverse ending doesn't wrap up the loose ends as much as it first appears to do. The fact that things are never entirely clear does work to the film's advantage, lending it an otherworldly, ethereal feel. One minute you think that this nightmare scenario is all playing out inside Silvia's demented mind, but then the camera lingers on the face of a friendly neighbour whose smiles melts into a look of hungry hatred as she leaves the room, hinting that the fact that she is indeed being plotted against.

       What the film lacks in coherence (which, like I said, isn't necessarily a bad thing) it makes up with lashings of style and atmosphere. The cinematography is gorgeous (I imagine the film would look phenomenal if seen in a pristine wide-screen print); and the score, by Nicola Piovani, is fantastic, veering from whimsy to bone scraping fear with ease. The combination of this, with Barilli's deft direction; Mimsy's aptly somnambulant performance; and the all encompassing ... the film becomes more and more macabre as it progresses nightmare world really adds to the tension- literally anything could be behind that door when the apartment bell rings at midnight. Certainly I found myself to be genuinely creeped out a number of times whilst watching it.

       THE PERFUME OF THE LADY IN BLACK takes some of its cues from Roman Polanski's REPULSION (1965) and ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968), as well as Mario Bava's KILL BABY KILL (1966) and possibly Aldo Lado's THE SHORT NIGHT OF THE GLASS DOLLS (1972). Having said that I wouldn't be surprised if Barilli's film didn't do some influencing of its own, primarily on Dario Argento's SUSPIRIA (1977) and INFERNO (1980) (the former with its subject matter and the latter with its characters also inhabiting a waking nightmare in a similar setting); and perhaps even Polanski's THE TENANT (1976).

       Ultimately the film may be a little too slow for those seeking high octane gialli thrills, but, if persevered with I think most people will come away, perhaps a little confused, but certainly finding it a beguiling and bewitching viewing experience- I certainly did.

BODYCOUNT 7   bodycount!   female:4 / male:3

       1: Female dies in the bath (off-screen and reason unclear)
       2: Female falls to her death from balcony and impaled on spikes (unseen)
       3: Male hit about head with brick
       4: Male hacked to death with cleaver
       5: Male hacked in back with cleaver
       6: Female falls to her death
       7: Female falls to her death