Mimsy Farmer’s fragile mind splinters yet again during a hot Roman summer in Francesco Barilli’s THE PERFUME OF THE LADY IN BLACK, on Blu-ray from Raro Video USA.
Sylvia Hacherman (Mimsy Farmer, FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET) is a young, workaholic chemist living alone amongst a handful of eccentric neighbors in an old apartment building in Rome (viewers may recognize the impressive exterior façade as the library of philosophy in Dario Argento’s INFERNO and the Thornes' Rome residence in THE OMEN). When she attends a party with her geologist boyfriend Roberto (Maurizio Bonuglia, TOP SENSATION/THE SEDUCERS) for university associate Andy (Jho Jenkins, SHAFT IN AFRICA), Sylvia is unsettled when the conversation turns towards black magic and human sacrifice. Not particularly stable to start with, Sylvia starts to tip over the edge when she pricks her finger on an inexplicably-placed nail during a tennis game. Left alone when Roberto goes on a trip to South Africa, Sylvia starts to suffer from very realistic hallucinations involving her dead mother (Renata Zamengo, STREET LAW) and her lover. Her only friend seems to be paternal neighbor Signor Rossetti (Mario Scaccia, WE STILL KILL THE OLD WAY), a retired professor with a fascination for photographing hippopotami. Her neighbor Francesca (Donna Jordan) drags her up to her apartment for a visit with Orchidea (Nike Arrighi, Truffaut’s DAY FOR NIGHT), a blind psychic who recounts the drowning death of Sylvia’s sailor father and the mysterious death of her mother. Later, a mysterious little girl (Lara Wendel, TENEBRE) invades her apartment and presents her with a music box from her own childhood. The next morning, she discovers that Francesca has mysteriously died. When Sylvia discovers that her mother’s lover Nicola (Orazio Orlando, POLICEWOMAN) has been stalking her, she retreats farther into isolation. The little girl, obviously a younger version of herself, convinces her that everyone is out to get her; which may be true, since throughout the film we note the suspicious interactions between Sylvia’s friends, colleagues, and various strangers she has encountered. Sylvia comes to believe the answer may lie somewhere in her traumatic past, but the truth may be far more sinister…
Having nothing to do with the plot of the titled Gaston Leroux novel from which it derives its title, THE PERFUME OF A LADY IN BLACK is a late riff on Roman Polanski’s adaptation of ROSEMARY’S BABY (although Polanski himself would borrow from his work for his 1976 film of Roland Topor’s THE TENANT) with things taking a REPULSION-like turn late in the film, before returning to the former with a more graphic climax. Having already played father-obsessed neurotics in Argento’s FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET and Armando Crispino’s AUTOPSY, Farmer was the perfect choice as the film’s paranoid and superstitious heroine. Although she started out as an AIP contract player in the 1960s, Farmer found much of her success abroad starting with Barbet Schroeder’s MORE and George Lautner's ROAD TO SALINA. She continued working in Italian and French television, as well as a handful of roles in some lesser-known French and Italian films (including Marco Ferreri’s BYE BYE MONKEY and DEEP RED actor Gabriele Lavia’s SENSI) and later returned to the Italian horror genre with Lucio Fulci’s THE BLACK CAT and Ruggero Deodato's derivative but slick BODYCOUNT. Her last acting credit was in Roger Vadim’s TV movie SAFARI in 1991. Farmer, who now works as a movie art department sculptor with her husband Francis Poirier, was recently interviewed in an issue of Video Watchdog. She recalled liking the script but not the final product (Barilli corroborates her reaction back in the DVD interview).
Francesco Barilli had begun his career on documentaries before assistant director stints on Pasolini’s THE HAWKS AND THE SPARROWS (uncredited) and Camillo Bazzoni’s A LONG RIDE FROM HELL. His only two feature works were this film and the equally disturbing PENSIONE PAURA, which is available on Italian-only DVD. The rest of his career was divided in between directing documentaries and TV miniseries and a handful of acting roles. Barilli and co-scenarist Massimo D’Avak (who scripted Lenzi’s SO SWEET, SO PERVERSE and MAN FROM DEEP RIVER) had previously collaborated on the script for Aldo Lado’s WHO SAW HER DIE? Barilli later collaborated with Lucio Fulci on the scenario of Giuseppe Petroni Griffi’s erotic thriller LA GABBIA (1985) with Tony Musante, Florinda Bolkan, and Laura Antonelli. It is unfortunate that he did not continue in the genre, since PERFUME and PENSIONE PAURA are more successful at balancing the graphic and the subtle than other late mid-to-late 1970s Italian horror films. The score by Nicola Piovani (FLAVIA THE HERETIC) – who won an Oscar for LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL – recalls Krzysztof Komeda’s score for the Polanski film by weaving a chilling lullaby throughout the score in various orchestrations. Mario Masini shot a number of films for Carmelo Bene, and his cinematography here favors more naturalistic lighting (other than some warm gels) in contrast with the bolder colors of the eclectic production and costume design. Producer Giovanni Bertolucci’s resume moved between back and forth between art and exploitation, from cousin Bernardo Bertolucci’s early pictures, to Visconti’s CONVERSATION PIECE and L’INNOCENTE, as well as a handful of Tinto Brass’s works from THE KEY up to FALLO!
Unreleased in the states, THE PERFUME OF THE LADY IN BLACK was first available to English-speaking viewers via dupes of a Greek-subtitled cassette. Italy's arm of Raro Video released the film on DVD in 2004 in a 16:9 transfer with English and Italian audio tracks as well as English subtitles. When Raro Video established its American arm in 2011, THE PERFUME OF THE LADY IN BLACK was one of their first DVD releases. The Region 0 NTSC release made use of the same master, although with a higher bitrate and slightly cleaner and louder audio tracks. Both featured the Barilli interview PORTRAIT IN BLACK (26:07) with English subtitles in which he cited his inspirations for the film as stemming from some documentary work he did on voodoo rites in Africa, a script he was working on about a mental disorder, and one about a cannibal cult in Geneva. The printed insert featured the short essay “THE PERFUME OF THE LADY IN BLACK within the context of 1960’s horror” which was also featured on Raro Italy’s disc insert (in Italian with English translation).
Raro's new 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 Blu-ray features another one of their lesser HD masters, rife with scanner noise with some naturally grainier shots looking brittle to the point where they might either pixelate or flake away like dried, cracked paint. The image is slightly brighter to the detriment of the film's mood and DNR appears to have flattened the image somewhat. It's as watchable as any of their other so-so Blu-rays, but ultimately a disappointment for such an underrated title. Italian and English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono options fare better, and the optional English subtitles are without any glaring issues.
The shorter Barilli interview included here (15:30) is actually a brand new one in which reiterates the same points about the origin of the story and how many behind the scenes Italian production personalities read it before he and producer Giovanni Bertolucci were able to get it into production. Also new to the Blu-ray release is Barilli's short film "The Wandering Knight (Il Cavaliere Errante)", titled "Errant Knight" (23:33) on the menu, in which the Grim Reaper (designed by the costume department of the Regio Theater in Parma, the setting of Argento's OPERA) wanders Rome nightly delivering the dead. One night, he forgets his scythe, meaning no one can die. Included here for the first time is the film's theatrical trailer (3:22) for the film. Although it defaults to Italian with English subtitles, the English audio for the trailer can be selected by remote. The single page essay appears to be the same one as featured in the earlier packages. (Eric Cotenas)
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