The Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974)

I love when you finish a movie and the first thing you want to do is watch it again. FRANCESCO BARILLI's 1974 film THE PERFUME OF THE LADY IN BLACK (available on Netflix Streaming) is so stinking gorgeous that I begged for it not to end. If anyone ever asks me to list the most grossly underrated horror film I can think of, I now have an answer. I wasn't too far into it when I decided that no matter how the tale turned out, I would be a happy camper due to its lush, nonstop beauty and fantastic score but as it turned out, the slithery story it spun ended up being truly satisfying to me. If you venture in with expectations of a Giallo mystery with systematic kills, you'll get lost in the wallpaper but if you're looking for a dreamy psychological character study that refuses to nail things down, it's bliss. Try to imagine POLANSKI's THE TENANT told with SUSPIRA-style visuals with a lead character as stagnantly brittle as JULIANNE MOORE in SAFE. Now imagine the perfect shade of blue.

Wispy MIMSY FARMER plays Sylvia whose sheepish existence is crumbling beneath her. A family photo blasts her childhood traumas into her waking life and soon she is being tormented by her younger self, the mother she may have pushed off a building, ma's beastly lascivious beau and pretty much every lover, friend, acquaintance and neighbor in her life. Just forget trying to interpret what is "real" and what is a projection of Sylvia's psychosis, her demons have already won and "reality" is a sinking ship. Sylvia's inability to stop her past from bleeding into her present transforms everyone into the enemy and all are unanimously bent on (literally) consuming her. The horror present is sometimes devastatingly impalpable. There are scenes where Sylvia just pauses, takes in the surroundings she is alienated from and stands eerily baffled. Some horror fans may find the timidity pesky but it all builds up to a climax with razor sharp claws.

The title, tone, lack of availability and its defiance of categorization all probably helped to conceal this film from a proper audience, but I think a generation now more accustomed to art house horror hybrids courtesy of folks like DAVID LYNCH and films like DON'T LOOK NOW, JACOB'S LADDER and BLACK SWAN won't have too difficult a time swallowing this pill. PERFUME also cleverly references ALICE IN WONDERLAND which is a lovely touch. Sylvia's mischievous and deadly (at least to cats!) awoken inner child not only resembles and reads from the book ALICE but she also leads Sylva through the looking glass and down a fathomless rabbit hole in her mind. Finally it is Sylvia who is serving rather than being served at a (real or not) gruesomely mad tea party. Anyway I cannot recommend it more highly. It's one of the best Italian horror films I've ever seen and I would not only push horror fans toward it but also anyone who appreciates film. Its detractors can go ahead and claim it's slow and confounding, personally I devoured every enigmatic second.

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Erin Lashley
12 years ago

What a fantastic movie, and criminally obscure. So glad you covered it here so more people will find it.

12 years ago

Added to my queue…
And speaking of ladies in black, did anyone see the trailer for "The Woman in Black" before "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" this weekend?