Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974)

I have read of the elusive cult that targets and stalks vulnerable victims while driving them to madness and suicide. They have a preferred method of friending those who’ve come into their domain, gaining the trust of the unfortunate, lonely soul who would likely not see the danger until it is too late. These sect members appear to live normal lives and are closely associated with each other in their own community, so that there’s no trouble at all once they’ve acquired a corpse for "God knows what". Once all is done, there is no memory of the unfortunate, no mourning, and no suspicion, as if the victim had never been born at all. 
Now I fear my own sanity is beginning to grow unsteady… The illusions of painful memories that appear before my eyes as though no time has passed since those tragic events…. The scary faces that follow and stare at me on my nightly walks home from work. I worry that I will soon be wiped clean from existence, in memory and in name. What will become of my body after they’ve taken me?
It all started after tasting the bitter wine that was offered to me from a so called friend, but my grip on reality really started to falter after he had me view Francesco Barilli’s THE PERFUME OF THE LADY IN BLACK, a masterpiece from the golden era of Italian horror in serious need of praise and discovery. Allow me to divulge a bit more: 
The film's main character, Silvia Hacherman (Mimsy Farmer), lives alone in an archaic apartment complex and is the boss of a research and development facility. What awaits her is a spell of madness that results in resurfaced tormenting childhood memories, haunting visions of her dead mother in a black dress, and a newfound murderous instinct. A nice touch and an eerie hint of the dark mystery between Silvia and her deceased mother occurs early on when a populated cemetery she’s visiting becomes quiet and empty after viewing and laying flowers on her mother’s headstone. 

The foreboding to Silvia’s delirium happens during a chat over whisky with some friends, among them her boyfriend Roberto (Maurizio Bonuglia) and a Professor named Andy (Jo Jenkins), who indulges on the mysterious occurrences of black magic that he claims haunts every corner of Africa. After talking about cults who murder and prey on unsuspecting victims by driving them mad with magic potions and evil spells, he breaks into a boisterous laughter claiming that he was just pulling their tails. Now I don’t know about you, but if I was one of these listeners I’d be mighty suspicious of the J&B Scotch Whisky I was served after hearing the good Professor’s creepy and convincing speech about black magic. It’s definitely not a good sign either that Silvia sleeps in until 3:30 in the afternoon the next day, oversleeping her shift at her high position job she’s dedicated to. 

The feeling of not being able to trust anyone is prevalent, since the people in Silvia’s life are sort of strange and suspicious in subtle ways. A couple examples include, a tennis partner (Jenkins) seeming a little too attracted to a cut on her hand caused from a mysterious nail in her tennis racket and her neighbor (Mario Scaccia) appearing to have a new supply of fresh meat for his cats when a certain character dies. 
In addition, there are also a number of unexplained occurrences that serve to keep an eerie tension throughout the film. The most prevalent of these are the bizarre and distasteful package deliveries to her flat, which most certainly suggest that someone is real keen on screwing with her head. 

When she is haunted by images of the lady in black, the story reveals that Silvia had a troubled and all around screwed up relationship with her mother. These hauntings are likely due to repressed memories surfacing as a result of Silvia going mad from some maleficent outside influence hinted at by strange faces that repeatedly turn up stalking and spying on her for unthinkable reasons. 
I always thought Mimsy Farmer was sort of mediocre in other roles I’ve seen her in, but her role in this film as Silvia, a victim being haunted by memories of an abusive childhood, is excellent and easily my favorite [Update - January 13th 2015: Mimsy is also awesome in Road to Salina (1970)]. Her character is mysterious and very interesting, and she also manages to get the viewer’s concern since it’s obvious she’s in danger from something unexplained that’s a part of her everyday life. 

This feeling that something is not quite right with just about everyone in Silvia’s life is validated when those close to her meet in the middle of the night with the strangers that have been following and eyeing her suspiciously. The outcome of this conspiracy did bring to my mind ROSEMARY’S BABY but much more vague in purpose and far more gruesome and disturbing, and to put it more bluntly, “my kind of ending”. 
The film really picks up steam when Silvia is haunted by herself in the form of a bossy little girl (Lara Wendel) that rings at her flat one night. The young girl’s refusal to leave is symbolic of Silvia’s desire and difficulty to forget her unhappy childhood, something which is likely to come to the forefront when losing one’s sanity. 

As her troubled past increases its hold and influence on her, Silvia is drawn back to her childhood home, where the man responsible for her past grief is awaiting her, forcing her to relive what she has been trying to forget. Silvia being pursued by an abusive man, who may or may not be real, kicking down a blocked door as she stands terrified against the wall is a brilliant analogy to domestic violence and strongly indicative of the malicious past that is pursuing her in the present. Silvia’s Childhood home is the beautiful albeit very old and ruined gigantic mansion that suggests a past best forgotten and left to rot, lest a spell of madness overtakes you. 

TPOTLIB for me was like a nice meeting between ROSEMARY’S BABY and SHORT NIGHT OF GLASS DOLLS and features one of the most surreal and artistic forms of suicide I’ve ever seen that’s truly a dark play on the words “to kill yourself”. 
Like a collage of images crafted together to form an overall image, TPOTLIB is a collection of brilliant moments that, while not necessarily coherent when analyzed separately, come together to form an intriguing story. And in case you couldn’t tell from this write up, I really like this film. I feel it deserves its place alongside other surreal Italian horror greats like SUSPIRIA and LISA AND THE DEVIL.    


  1. As always, your insight to the reviewed film is spot-on. I, too, found the symbolism in this film both disturbing, and yet a very profound culmination of what human nature hides in all of us.

    Sylvia's slip into madness was gradual and obscure in the beginning, but by the end I think we all knew it was the only conclusion there could be.

    I appreciated the artistic story-play in this film. The mixture of innocence and madness within our heroine is what grabbed me from the beginning.

    At once we see a dedicated, focused woman, intent on her convictions and her career...then a dark past is revealed to us; one of torment, perversion, and darkness... Sylvia's decline is all too inevitable, but the spark of that decline, the catalyst, is totally un-forseen.

    New to this genre, I am grateful this was among my first examples of Barilli's work; I found it to be a brilliant and twisted insight into the darker side of the human psyche.

  2. Thank you for your kind words Amanda! I enjoyed reading your comment which stands alone as a very good critique of this film. Thank you for reading and hope you find much more enjoyment from this genre of film in the future.

  3. A fascinating critique of a complex film that is seemingly an inexhaustible well of interpretations -- definitely makes me want to seek out and read more of your writings!

    Anyone with an interest in this genre, or in Mimsy Farmer's career, should seek out a copy of the current VIDEO WATCHDOG magazine, which features a new, lengthy, very in-depth interview with Ms. Farmer -- by far the most comprehensive interview she's ever done. This is a great time to be a fan of Italian horror!

  4. Thanks mberry! I am truly flattered that you appreciated this write up. Everything else I’ve written can be found here on this site at the index of reviews tab under the header and at Italian Film Review Agree with you that this movie has the potential for numerous interpretations likely different than mine, and I will be sure to check out the interview with Ms. Farmer you mentioned.