The Perfume of the Lady in Black (Il Profumo Della Signora in Nero)

8/10
Pros: 
Wall to wall beauty
Takes risks
Unexpected payoffs
Great score
Cons: 
Slow pace
Voice acting in English dub
director: 
Francesco Barilli
Year: 
1974
MPAA Rating: 
NR
Company: 
Raro Video
I am very concerned about those trees over there.
I am very concerned about that psychic over there.
Go Ask Alice
Perfume and polka dots.

A quick Google will tell you that "The Perfume of the Lady in Black" has had a kind of renaissance on some Horror blogs this year, due to the Raro Video DVD release and availability on Netflix Instant. The praise is well deserved. The movie's sumptuous visuals, subtly masterful direction, and hallucinatory, poetic journey are well worth your time. "The Perfume of the Lady in Black" operates on several levels, with many questions left unanswered while other questions are given the answer you expect - but in a far more extreme fashion than you thought possible. Unlike other films that answer questions with more questions, this one did not leave me feeling cheated or that I had wasted my time. Instead I felt almost that I had watched many different horror films in one.

It begins on a creepy, hand-colored photo of a family, the young girl staring at the man beside her, the mother standing a little way off - a direct homage to Polanski's "Repulsion," beginning the way that film ended ten years before. After the opening credits, a floating, detached camera shows us a few scenes in an Italian square and local people going about their business before narrowing in on our protagonist. This shot reminded me of Hitchcock, and will have added meanings on the second viewing - there are parts of this film that seem made to be seen the second time through. When the camera enters the protagonist's room, we get our first sight of the intense Seventies interior decoration that permeates throughout. That may sound like a bad thing, but the colorful landscape it creates adds to the film's dreamy, dizzying atmosphere, becoming as important as some of the characters.

We follow our heroine, Silvia, to work. She is in a position of authority at a chemical lab, and it's refreshing to see a female protagonist in a horror film be scientific, in charge, even kind of a hardass. The film doesn't linger here, however, and after work she goes to the cemetery to lay flowers on her mother's grave. There's a great moment when everything gets quiet and tension and suspense are brought to a boil by the rustling of trees, some odd noises, and the expressions on Silvia's face.

She attends a party with her boyfriend where a visitor from Africa talks about human sacrifice and witch doctors, delivering an intense and spooky speech before letting out an even more alarming laugh and assuring everyone he's kidding. Silvia's boyfriend talks about how there must be secret cults that do the same things in Europe. Things just get weirder from there. Silvia is never quite in charge or settled for the remainder of the film, as her fears, dreams, memories, and reality mix. Or is she the victim of the supernatural?

The film ends up being more than the sum of it's parts. Those parts are sometimes disconnected and leave the viewer feeling adrift, putting us in a similar spot to Silvia. Her regular rhythms have been interrupted, and suppressed memories from her past begin distracting her from daily life. Everyone around her is suspicious, reacting to what's happening with sinister interest. We get just enough glimpses of what happens when she's not around to see a possible conspiracy - homage to another Polanski classic, "Rosemary's Baby." The threads that feel disconnected start pulling together after some friends drag Silvia to a psychic around the 40 minute mark. When you think you've got the film figured out, you're wrong - then wrong again.

While "The Perfume of the Lady in Black" certainly contains homages to other films, and shots reminded me directly of Hitchcock, Kubrick, and Bala, I really can't think of anything else quite like it. The film can be slow - it is definitely not for those expecting the high rate of kills-per-minute typical of the Italian Giallo horror films of the time. It has a few moments of gore and violence at the end, and when they happen they are pretty extreme. There's a lot of beauty, horror, and confusion. Several genres are mixed to great effect and this will please fans of film art as well as horror fans.

Some notes:

1. I hope this film makes the rounds of art houses sometime. It really should be seen on the largest screen possible in the best resolution possible. As beautiful as it is on Netflix, I have to imagine it's magnificent on film.

2. SPOILER/TRIGGER WARNING: There is a rape. It's pretty integral to the plot, and not sexualized or glamorized. Sexual assault victims wanting to avoid triggers will want to skip from 1:22:00 to 1:24:40

3. SPOILER - my thoughts on the ending. Did we just see a film about vampires? Ghouls? A cult? A person so crazy her paranoid delusions carried on after death? Who cares? I want to see it again.

I'll be honest, there were times when I wondered if this film would be worth it during my first viewing - but I was more than satisfied when it was over. Horror Fan, if you have the patience for the slower 70's pace, you will be rewarded in unexpected fashion.

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