Color, 1974, 103 mins. 35 secs.
Directed by Francesco Barilli
Starring Mimsy Farmer, Maurizio Bonuglia, Mario Scaccia, Jho Jhenkins, Nike Arrighi, Lara Wendel
88 Films (Blu-ray) (UK RB HD), X-Rated Kult (Blu-ray & DVD) (Germany R0 HD/PAL), Raro (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC, Italy R0 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)

The Perfume of the Lady in Black Though The Perfume of the Lady in Blacka 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 (as well as The Devil Rides Out's Arrighi) who tells The Perfume of the Lady in Blackher about the macabre practices of witch doctors, she becomes tormented by ghostly sounds, visions of a spectral woman in black at her dressing The Perfume of the Lady in Blackmirror, 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 The Perfume of the Lady in Blackmention also has to go to the excellent score by future Oscar winner Nicola Piovani (Life Is The Perfume of the Lady in BlackBeautiful, 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 in 2008 with both the English and Italian audio with optional English subtitles. It was nice having a choice, though the English track is really the best 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 DVD edition, also from Raro, carries over the audio options and features a superior anamorphic presentation; this appears to be a newer transfer as the The Perfume of the Lady in Blackdetail is stronger (for SD), there's no PAL speedup or visible correction issues, and the occasional distortion shimmering on the PAL version The Perfume of the Lady in Black(which made it look like a 4:3 transfer blown up to 16:9) is nowhere to be found. The main extra is a video interview with Barilli (in Italian with English subtitles), "Portrait in Black" (26m7s), 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.

2016 turned out to be a big year for this film with upgrades in HD in two countries, albeit with very different results. First up was the Raro U.S. Blu-ray, taken from yet another scan that's significantly brighter and more detailed, with DTS-HD MA English or Italian tracks with the usual optional English subs translated from the Italian. This HD master as served as the basis for every other Blu-ray out there; color are gorgeous and detail is strong, though it has a peculiar grainy texture that doesn't look quite natural. Unfortunately the Raro seriously botches the compression job with a chunky, blotchy appearance that essentially turns the detailed, grainy look of the source into a low bit-rate mess. An odd Barilli short film, "The Knight Errant" (23m34s), is included along with a different director interview (15m30s) that pretty much covers the same material.

The Perfume of the Lady in BlackSlightly later in 2016, German label X-Rated Kult released its own pricey Region B release of the film, which comes from the same scan but The Perfume of the Lady in Blackfeatures a more skillful albeit imperfect compression job and deeper blacks. (Like the Raro, it's a single-layered Blu-ray that comes in just under the maximum amount allowed.) LPCM audio options include the Italian, German, or English tracks with optional German subtitles. Extras include a German audio commentary by Marcus Stiglegger (no subs), trailers (German, English, or Italian), the Barilli interview from the Raro release, two audio tracks from the Piovani soundtrack, the English opening and closing titles, and a German interview with Gerd Naumann and Bodo Traber.

Though the slimmest in terms of extras, the best-looking release of the film by a welcome margin is the 2017 UK Blu-ray from 88 Films which gives the film over ten more gigs to breathe on a dual-layered disc and benefits significantly in the process. Black levels are closer to the German release, and the depth and detail in motion look the most impressive of the trio. LPCM English and Italian tracks are present in the usual pristine quality with English subs for the Italian version. Extras include the English trailer, the Italian opening and closing credits (the main feature here has the English ones as opposed to the other two Blu-rays), reversible sleeve options with the two most familiar poster designs for the film, and an insert with liner notes by Calum Waddell, "The Sweet Smell of Giallo," addressing some of the genre-hopping gray areas in which this film plays so memorably.


The Perfume of the Lady in Black The Perfume of the Lady in Black The Perfume of the Lady in Black The Perfume of the Lady in Black


The Perfume of the Lady in Black The Perfume of the Lady in Black The Perfume of the Lady in Black The Perfume of the Lady in Black


The Perfume of the Lady in Black The Perfume of the Lady in Black The Perfume of the Lady in Black The Perfume of the Lady in Black

Updated review on July 31, 2017