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Perfume of the Lady in Black (DVD)

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1 Review

Genre: Horror / Studio: Raro Video USA Ltd. / Released: 22.03.2011

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      19.12.2011 09:47
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      An odd but effective Italian horror film

      This is available on imported DVD through amazon for about £8.

      This is an Italian horror/mystery film from 1974, which is a cut above the usual. From the title, I was expecting a giallo (a sort of horror version of a murder mystery - the Italians made dozens of them). But although it has elements of that in it, it's a far more mysterious and haunting film than most of the gialli. It's a slow burning piece in which there are very few actual deaths, but is all the better for it. (It has no relation to the Gaston Leroux novel of the same name.)

      A young woman, Silvia Hacherman, works as an industrial chemist. She has a geologist boyfriend, Roberto, who is impatient with what he sees as her excessive devotion to her work. She has a nosey but good-natured elderly neighbour, Signor Rossetti, a keen amateur photographer obsessed with hippopotami. And she is cosmopolitan enough to be friends with an African, Andy (the film makes a big deal of this, so it was presumably quite rare in Italy at the time). But she also has a dark secret somewhere in her past, and as the film progresses, she retreats further into an unreal world of paranoia and hallucination. It becomes difficult to tell what is really happening to her and what she is imagining, but maybe there is some real danger, lurking somewhere beyond the illusions...

      This film is perhaps best described as 'enigmatic'. Although it is clear that Silvia is not completely trustworthy, suffering hallucinations from early on, we see enough other weird stuff going on around her to know that something is up. She is seemingly being stalked by at least two really creepy looking guys, and there are hints of some wider, malign conspiracy. That said, the shocking ending is a definite 'whuh?' moment - effective though it no doubt is, it is hard to understand where it comes from.

      But before the end the film slowly builds its atmosphere of unease. There is something wrong with Silvia's childhood, something she can't move away from (she still has a Mickey Mouse alarm clock and carries a small doll with her everywhere, as if trapped in childhood). She hallucinates a very sinister woman in black, applying perfume, when she's at Roberto's apartment (a scene the film takes its name from). Later a little girl in a white dress appears from nowhere and starts to take over Silvia's life. Are all these signs of some memory she's trying to repress breaking through; or is something weirder going on?

      The lack of any clear answers is mildly irritating, but on a second viewing this is a far more rewarding experience. The nearest comparison is with some of David Lynch's more inscrutable work. Some of the imagery is Lynchian years before Eraserhead was released, although it never goes anywhere quite as dark. It's best just to let the film build to its weird climax in its own weird way without getting too hung up on knowing what's happening. I've seen too many gialli - I expect everything to be explained away in a flurry of rather silly plot revelations in the final few minutes. To not have that happen is interesting, but will be a problem for some viewers.

      It's very well made, generally, and seems more realistic than most Italian horror of its type. Although the characters are well-to-do and live in one of those odd '70s Italian horror' apartment complexes, the décor is more sensible than usual (although someone does have a transparent telephone. Groovy!) The haunting orchestral score is delightfully different to the usual Italian funky grooves and lah-lah-lah vocal pieces. There are some beautifully composed shots, especially in the extremely memorable final scene.

      The only cast member I recognised was Mimsy Farmer, as Silvia. She was an American who made movies in Italy, usually horror movies. She's attractive, although looks a bit like Benedict Cumberbatch. She has to float through a lot of the film as if in a dream, which shouldn't be too much of a challenge for any actor, but she manages the hysterical scenes well too. The rest of the cast are OK in their fairly stock roles, with Mario Scacchia standing out as the nosey old neighbour.

      It's very light on blood, although there is one very shocking gore scene. There's a fair bit of sex, and some frontal nudity. While no doubt included to make the film more marketable, it all feels fairly well justified by the plot and the mood.

      This has been described as 'dreamlike', which is too often just another way of saying 'slow' and 'dull'. But I thought it worked very well - I can't think of another film that is quite like it. The director doesn't seem to have made much else (although was involved in writing a couple of other horror movies I've seen). Although it does have a few good suspense moments, it's more about the gradual, enveloping mood of the film that engulfs Silvia, trapping her in a world where something is very wrong. If that sounds like your kind of thing, then this is probably the film for you.

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