Raro Video // 1974 // 104 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // April 8th, 2011
Only Sylvia is good.
Through my experience watching giallo films, the Italian thriller subgenre, I have come to expect a few things. Black-gloved hands wielding knives, ridiculously long titles (see, at its most extreme, Your Vice Is a Locked Door and Only I Have the Key), and trashy sexual violence. When a giallo I've never even heard of breaks expectation and remains a recognizable member of the genre, it's something that makes me take notice. Director Francesco Barilli has done just such a thing in The Perfume of the Lady in Black, which adds a big dose of the supernatural to its lurid proceedings and is a surprisingly good example of the genre.
Sylvia (Mimsy Farmer, Four Flies on Grey Velvet) is a chemist with no history of insanity, but she's starting to act very strangely. It starts with small things like an inability to go to work and sleeping well into the afternoon. Soon, though, it intensifies into hallucinations. After a frightening encounter with a psychic, she recalls a horrible crime committed in her childhood, whose victims appear to have returned to haunt her.
The Perfume of the Lady in Black is a very slow starter. Like a lot of gialli, it does a pretty poor job of building realistic characters or scenarios, but tries to establish something anyway. Sit with it for a while, however, and as the action starts to heat up, you'll forget that Sylvia is the dumbest chemist alive. Pretty soon, she becomes the prototypical thriller victim, chased by unseen forces and with death all around her. In this case, though instead of presenting a straightforward mystery with a conclusive finish, things take a turn toward the strange.
While the film's overall structure fits into a giallo mold, the story itself takes less from The Bird with the Crystal Plumage than it does from Rosemary's Baby. Hints of black magic, brainwashing, and Satanism give it a much more grotesque feel than I'm used to in the genre, and it makes for a nice mash-up. At first, it seems pretty clear that Sylvia's going nuts, but little things start to suggest a conspiratorial aspect, as well. While we ponder whether she's cracked or just being made to think she has, Barelli cleverly sneaks in touches of the supernatural. By the time an extremely creepy (and extremely bossy) little girl shows up in her apartment, it's just as likely that all this really is because of ghosts. Once Barelli finally starts building suspense, he maintains it pretty well the rest of the way. Most of that's because it keeps getting weirder and weirder, but it doesn't have to make sense and it works. The false finish is completely chaotic and the real ending is completely wacky, so I went away happy.
E1 Entertainment, under the Raro Video banner, does a good job with The Perfume of the Lady in Black. On its first appearance in the States, the anamorphic image looks very good, with a good grain structure and very little damage. The colors are nice and strong and black levels are excellent. The only complaint I have is that the improved image makes the effects look more fake, but that cannot be helped. The sound is good, but the disc promotes itself as "featuring" the original Italian soundtrack, which is incredibly irritating to me. It's not the first time this has been said, by me or on this site in general, but it bears repeating because people don't seem to get it. Italian genre films in this age, and sometimes still today, were shot silently and dubbed later into many different languages. In Italian, it's dubbed. In French, it's dubbed. In English, it's dubbed. These movies are dubbed. Watching this film with English subtitles is absurd. Does anybody believe that Mimsy Farmer speaks fluent Italian? In English, it's her voice, but on the Italian track, it's not. It's time to get over the snobbishness about dubbing and accept these films the way they are. If it makes you feel better fooling yourself into believing you're seeing something more authentic by watching it in the language the director speaks, that's fine, but you're wrong. It's a pet peeve, but it never seems to go away and it bothers me. Just watch it in English and shut up. Enough ranting. The only extra feature on the disc is very good. A 30-minute interview with Francesco Barelli is informative and interesting. Barelli has an excellent memory for the production, which was filmed nearly 40 years ago. He didn't make very many films, so each one is likely more memorable than other, more prolific directors, but it's a good talk.
As a long time fan of these films, I've seen the best and worst of the genre. Eventually, I stop expecting much from them and just sit back and enjoy the stylish ridiculousness, but The Perfume of the Lady in Black is actually pretty good. Any amount of slowness in the story is completely made up for in the absurd, completely hilarious ending. Fans of the giallo don't want to miss this one.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Raro Video
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Italian)
Running Time: 104 Minutes
Release Year: 1974
MPAA Rating: Not Rated