The Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974)

OCTOBER 11, 2011


On one of the bonus features for The Perfume Of The Lady In Black (Italian: Il profumo della signora in nero), director Francesco Barilli claims that horror movies never make any sense. Well, no, sir, a lot of them actually do, at least in horror movie logic. YOURS doesn’t make any sense, I won’t argue that, but I’ll defend the interior logic of Psycho or even a slasher film easily. Also, logical or not, a horror film usually lets you know you’re watching one before the first hour is up, unlike this – but since Barilli seems rather dismissive of the genre in his interview, it’s not much of a surprise to me that this was more in line with “art-house” horror.

And thus it also wasn’t a surprise that I didn’t like it very much. Even armed with the knowledge that it was inspired by Repulsion and that it was NOT a giallo (as I had initially believed), I still found the film too slow for my tastes, as over an hour of buildup produces a brief killing spree that apparently didn’t even really happen, followed by a ridiculous, out of nowhere cannibal sequence that inspired me to rewatch the film thinking I had missed something.

To be fair, this second viewing made me look at the film a bit differently – it’s not so much about her cracking up as it is (spoiler) that the entire population of the film is out to MAKE her crazy so that she eventually kills herself, which will allow them to eat her (yep, that’s the plot). So all the scenes of her trying to buy raspberries or butterflies or playing tennis or whatever, albeit still rather dull, take on new meaning – the people she encounters are all part of this grand plot. However, not only is this seemingly complicated way of eating someone never explained – it’s never even set up! I could see if there were random hints about cannibals in the city or something throughout the movie, but apart from occasionally realizing that two seemingly unrelated characters were familiar with one another, it just comes completely out of nowhere, which isn’t nearly enough for the movie’s lethargic pace.

And that’s a shame, because there is a good movie to make out of this material. It’s nice to see a “let’s drive her crazy” movie that doesn’t have anything to do with inheritance or real estate scams, and there are a few creepy moments sprinkled throughout that could have been really memorable if everything all came together in a more satisfying way. For example, the closest thing to a hint about the cannibalism comes early on, when our heroine (Mimsy Farmer) gets a cut on her hand from a tennis racket and this dude offers to help by sucking the blood. But it just seems like some voodoo-inspired (or just plain weird) moment, and I had actually forgotten about it until I watched the movie a second time. “Oh, I guess this was hinting at the cannibalism”. It’s one thing for a movie to take on a new meaning on a second view; it’s another to practically require you give it another look in order to tie some of its plot strands together when it STILL leaves giant holes in its narrative.

At least it looks/sounds nice. Like most Italian productions, half of the actors are speaking English anyway, so I put the dub track on (both are available) and was pleased to discover that it sounded natural for the most part (only the boyfriend sounded a bit “sound booth-y”). And the score was lovely – I don’t listen to too many horror scores on their own, but I think this would make a wonderful addition to my iPod. Farmer’s performance is good, particularly when she deals with the little girl who may or may not be a ghost/hallucination/whatever of her younger self.

Oh, speaking of these scenes – the little Mimsy is made to look like Alice in Wonderland, a literary source that is referenced throughout. Please, can we give this particular story a rest, horror movie makers? I know this movie’s almost 40 years old, but I’m still seeing “Alice”-inspired motifs in modern films more often than necessary. “Wizard Of Oz” too. Before writing your script, ask yourself: “Does the book/movie I am drawing from have ten pages’ worth of “movie connections” on its IMDb page because of all the guys before me who have used it as a backbone for my script?” If so, change it to something else, or just come up with wholly original ideas.

The Barilli interview runs about 26 minutes, but that’s fine since it’s pretty much the only extra of note on the disc – Barilli’s bio and rather slim filmography round out the supplements. There’s no trailer, which is a shame because I would have liked to have seen how the film was marketed (Youtube was no help either - the trailer I found seems to be newly made to promote the DVD). It also might have been nice to hear from the still very much alive Farmer (she works as a sculptor now – apparently she’s working on Clash of the Titans 2, in fact), since she’s in pretty much every frame of the movie, and thus maybe could have explained what the hell was going on. Oh well.

So if you like your horror saved for the film’s final moments and beyond ambiguous, you should dig this one. Movies like Black Swan and The Tenant were also in this vein, but they had something to hold my attention throughout and had satisfying conclusions – this one misses those marks.

What say you?

1 comment:

  1. I share your disappointment with this film, but I do have to point out that there are more hints given to the eventual reveal than you mention here. One of the earliest scenes involves the same character as the later blood-sucking incident, expounding on the (purported) cannibal past of his African people, the continued power of witch-doctors there, and the existence of similar human-sacrifice cults in Europe.


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