(Francesco Barilli, 1974)
(essay by Kevin)
When I was approached by Jamie to participate in this countdown I knew I wanted to make sure Italian horror got its due. And when Jamie told me his intentions for the countdown – a numerical listing of films with the intent to raise awareness rather than rank one better than another – I knew I wanted to shed some light onto some Italian horror movies that weren’t as well known as the staples of the subgenre. These are films like The Short Night of the Glass Dolls (Aldo Lado) or The House with Laughing Windows (Pupi Avati); films that have a cult following within a cult subgenre. One of the real joys about this particular sungenre is the hope that the more you watch the same old gialli over and over that just maybe this time you’ll un-mine some hidden gem. Case in point: Francesco Barilli’s The Perfume of the Lady in Black, a fantastic addition into the most hallowed halls of Italian horror.
The story – an odd mix of giallo/Hitchcock and some of the baroque qualities of a Bava – concerns Silvia (Mimsy Farmer), an industrial scientist, who becomes increasingly disturbed by a series of eerie visions from her past. These visions, crucial pieces to solving the film’s puzzle, include a seductive woman who appears when she is about to make love with her boyfriend and a little girl who piques Silvia’s interest. What’s fascinating about the picture is the way Barilli approaches the mystery of these visions: are they specters acting as representations of something from Silvia’s past, or are they merely figments of Silvia’s imagination? Silvia’s psychosis becomes a point of emphasis, and it sucks the viewer in much in the same way Silvia is taken hold by these visions (it reminded me of the obsessed quest of Scotty from Vertigo). It isn’t long before Silvia’s neighbors, friends and Roberto, her lover, begin to take on sinister significance. Whether or not the significance of these visions is a clue to Silvia’s past, or something more sinister, is what makes the film’s mystery so brilliant. I was blindsided by the ending of this film, perhaps because of its deliberate pace and lush visuals I wasn’t expecting the visceral jolt I received with those final images.
The Perfume of the Lady in Black just feels different than any other Italian giallo. The film opens on a still photograph accompanied by the beautiful and haunting music by Nicola Piovani, and it’s offsetting because this is not how most Italian horror films begin…it’s almost too classy! From the opening image the viewer isn’t sure what to expect, and Barilli maintains this sense of mystery and uncertainty perfectly throughout the film, so, like all great gialli, we’re not certain of the answers to the film’s central mystery until the very last frames. The film employs a lot of the neon-aesthetic made famous by Argento in Suspiria, but Mario Masini’s cinematography predates Argento’s seminal horror film, and aside from it always a pleasure to look at (one of the major selling points of Italian horror), it’s clear that Argento wasn’t the only one who could do arty, garish horror films. What struck me most about the film was that I hadn’t even heard of the film until a few months ago. Sadly the film isn’t available on region one DVD in America, so I had to seek out, ahem, alternative ways to watch the film. But that’s what I love about this particular subgenre, there’s always something new to discover, and The Perfume of the Lady in Black is one of the very best of the recent discoveries I’ve made, an interesting precursor to what Argento would popularize with Suspiria.
* Below is the American trailer for the film…I’ll let the images of the trailer speak for itself, and act as the conclusion to this post. Enjoy.
(this film appeared on just one list, Kevin’s at #19)