Color, 1974, 104m.
Directed by Francesco Barilli
Starring Mimsy Farmer, Maurizio Bonuglia, Mario Scaccia, Jho Jhenkins, Nike Arrighi, Lara Wendel
Raro (DVD) (US R0 NTSC, Italy R0 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)

Though a lot of Italian horror films found success worldwide during the country's big export boom, some really wonderful titles somehow fell through the cracks and never reached American shores. Perhaps the best of these is The Perfume of the Lady in Black, a magnificent work of slow-burning, gothic psychological terror that also forms the middle part of the great "Mimsy Farmer goes nuts" trilogy (with the far more widely seen Four Flies on Grey Velvet and Autopsy). A fragile and often fascinating actress, Farmer started in US exploitation films but really flourished in Europe where her wide-eyed but sexual presence was used successfully by some of the best horror directors. However, this is perhaps her finest achievement and a bona fide classic worthy of rediscovery.

Living in a beautiful Italian village, industrial chemist Silvia Hacherman (Farmer) lives in an ornate apartment building populated by an array of eccentrics. She barely finds time to pay attention to her boyfriend, Robert (In the Eye of the Hurricane's Bonuglia), and is haunted by her tragic childhood which has left her with an odd fixation on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. After spending an unsettling dinner with her boyfriend and an African professor who tells her about the macabre practices of witch doctors, she becomes tormented by ghostly sounds, visions of a spectral woman in black at her dressing mirror, and a spooky little girl in white (Tenebrae's Wendel) who might be the younger version of Silvia herself. When one of her friends turns up dead upstairs, Silvia seems to be losing her grip on reality... or is she?

Though often classified as a giallo, this slippery little tale never lays out all its cards until the last five minutes -- and boy, does it pay off. The last scene is easily one of the most shocking finales ever devised for a horror movie, and while the events leading up to it have a methodical approach that often recalls Roman Polanski's Repulsion, the payoff here is completely different. Oddly, a couple of scenes (especially a late one on the apartment ledge) bear a striking resemblance to Polanski's masterful The Tenant which came out two years later, so perhaps it's a bit of cinematic quid pro quo. In any case, for much of the running time the viewer is never quite sure whether this is a ghost story, a murder mystery, a supernatural conspiracy, or a particularly harrowing descent into madness; even when you do find out, there's enough ambiguity and little spooky detours to make you wonder even after the end credits roll. Special mention also has to go to the excellent score by future Oscar winner Nicola Piovani (Life Is Beautiful, Flavia the Heretic), who combines two haunting main melodies with moments of symphonic dread. Incredibly, this was the debut film for directed Francesco Barilli, a still-busy actor who also wrote the screenplay for Who Saw Her Die?; his only other theatrical feature, 1977's Pensione Paura, is another terrific, genre-bending horror film that didn't get much play outside Italy and is well worth seeking out.

Most intrepid video hounds during the VHS era first stumbled across this film via bootlegs made from the scarce Greek VHS release, while an official DVD release eventually surfaced in Italy from Raro Video with both the English and Italian audio with optional English subtitles. It's nice having a choice, though the English track is really the way to go as that's the language all the principals were speaking and the film really needs Farmer's original voice to work completely. The subsequent 2011 American edition, also from Raro, carries over the audio options and features a superior anamorphic transfer; this appears to be a new transfer as the detail is stronger, there's no PAL speedup or visible correction issues, and the occasional distortion shimmering on the PAL version (which made it look like a 4:3 transfer blown up to 16:9) is nowhere to be found. A very strong presentation, and the colors are still beautiful and nicely saturated throughout. The main extra is a video interview with Barilli (in Italian with English subtitles), "Portrait in Black," in which he talks about how the film came about, his view on horror films at the time, and his other cinematic careers; also included are a director bio and filmography and liner notes about the film's relationship to '60s horror cinema. An absolutely essential release for anyone with an interest in unheralded classics of Italian filmmaking or just looking for some solid, potent chills.