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Mad Madam: 'The Perfume of the Lady in Black'

The Perfume of the Lady in Black will be revelation to anyone who thought they knew everything there is to know about Italian terror.

The Perfume of the Lady in Black

Rated: R
Director: Francesco Barilli
Cast: Mimsy Farmer, Maurizio Bonuglia, Mario Scaccia, Jho Jhenkins, Nike Arrighi
Extras: 5
Studio: RaroVideo
Year: 1974
US date: 2011-03-22 (General release)
UK date: 2011-03-22 (General release)

When you think of Italian horror, several seminal names come to mind. There is Mario Bava who brought the genre up to date in his native land, then Dario Argento who took said terror and ran with it to all manner of fanciful, frightening places. There's Mario's son Lamberto, who never saw a sequence of gore he couldn't amplify and/or exploit, and Lucio Fulci, who fumbled around between cinematic categories before settling on his own obsession with splatter. In between all the Ruggero Deodatos and Michele Soavis, Umberto Lenzis and Sergio Martinos, few namecheck Francesco Barilli. Granted, the noted writer/director hasn't had hits as substantial as Black Sunday, Suspiria, Profondo Rosso, City of the Living Dead, or Cannibal Holocaust, but with his 1974 shocker The Perfume of the Lady in Black, he definitely announced himself as a possible pretender to the throne, if not royalty himself.

The film follows a young chemist named Silvia Hacherman (a very effective Mimsy Farmer). She is living in Italy and haunted by memories of her missing father and dead mother. Currently, she is dating animal anthropologist Roberto (Maurizio Bonuglia) and yet finds that relationship oddly unfulfilling. One night, she meets some of her new lover's friends from Africa. They discuss voodoo and sacrificial rights, with Roberto arguing that such human atrocities occur all over Europe - it's just that few in the media report such outrages. Silvia scoffs at the suggestion, but over the course of the next few days, she starts to have disturbing visions. She sees a vase her mother once owned. More distressing are hallucinations involving her childhood, a sex act, and a man who is not her parent. As she slowly spirals out of control, her neighbors in the apartment building she lives in offer support. But one thing is certain - the visions are getting worse, and what they suggest is something both scary, and very, very sinister.

There are secrets inherent in Barilli's The Perfume of the Lady in Black, plot points that just can't be discussed less they ruin the overall effect of the film. As an amalgamation of macabre beats, the narrative is knotty yet sound. As a combination of dreams and reality, sanity and outright madness, it borrows from many without overriding its own originality. By melding differing ideas, by taking risks where the routine would suffice, Barilli breaks away from the rest of the pack. He provides layers of exploration, answering each level of question with equally enigmatic and ambiguous answers. By the end, we are waiting for a release from all this tension. When it arrives, in the form of a series of spectacular death set-pieces, The Perfume of the Lady in Black finally fulfills all its promise. It announces its perverted purpose, and then adds one more gut-wrenching slap to punctuate the dread.

This is a very well made film, a movie with lots of ingenious art design and found locations. When we first meet Silvia, she lives in one of those Italian apartments that the horror genre simply adores. It's all oddly placed porticos and smoked glass interior doors. Then, during the course of the narrative, we are introduced to a menacing underground lair, a surreal estate surrounded by what appears to be its own jungle, and finally, an abandoned building where artifacts from the past take on a decidedly haunted quality. Barilli lingers over these sequences, showcasing a fascinating way with the camera. As Silvia starts to lose her grip, the lens becomes a voyeur, accenting the often bizarre images she sees. Of course, everything has a purpose, and part of The Perfume of the Lady in Black involves a sometimes convoluted whodunit and why. Luckily, the movie never forgets this facet, and continually draws the viewer back to clues via the clever direction.

As for the acting, Ms. Farmer argues for her place as part of the more demure Scream Queen dynamic of the '70s. She definitely can look confused and defenseless. It's when she's required to accentuate that status with a tad more terror (or evil, as the case may be) that she really shines. Additionally, she is surrounded by a group of carefully cast character actors who make the journey all the more horrific. From the little girl who terrorizes her thoughts to the local taxidermist with whom she shares a suspicious past, the players in Silvia's sphere are more than just a cast. They are catalysts to bigger truths and greater clarification. Eventually, almost everything falls into place, except one important fact. Luckily, Barilli doesn't skimp on showing us the what and why of this particular persecution.

All of which begs the question - why isn't The Perfume of the Lady in Black and Francesco Barilli better known? According to the DVD bonus features, he/it should be. The director sits down to discuss the film, and explains its origins, it's messy merging of types, and the various unnecessary "elements" he had to contend with in order to get the movie made. He then calls the film a big hit in Europe and well received in America. And yet few if any in the fright world have ever heard of this otherwise terrific title. Of course, during the first boon in home video releases, the recognizable Italian names got their due. Maybe now, in a more discerning digital environment where companies are looking for quality as well as commerciality, the filmmaker will finally find his niche - and he should.

That's because The Perfume of the Lady in Black will be revelation to anyone who thought they knew everything there is about Italian terror. It will represent a stylish throwback with just enough of the nasty stuff to make the entire trance-like two hour experience worthwhile. Indeed, it defies easy description, treading in both horror and giallo arenas with equal aplomb. As a fascinating creepshow curio, there's few better. As an introduction to Barilli and his unusual foray into fear, it's a gloomy, gory godsend. While the rest of his oevre might not be as important or impressive, many have lit an entire legacy after a single substantial film. The Perfume of the Lady is Black is such a statement, and Francesco Barilli is such an artist.

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