A freakish giallo/horror hybrid (think The Case of the Bloody Iris/Death Walks in High Heels meets Rosemary’s Baby/Repulsion/The Tenant, or any other Roman holiday), Francesco Barilli’s 1974 tour de force THE PERFUME OF THE LADY IN BLACK (aka, Il Profumo della Signora in Nero) makes its triumphant American Blu-Ray debut, thanks to the gang at Kino-Lorber/Raro Video.
First off, I need to discuss the pic’s star, without whose tailor-made participation this movie would be bupkis. The lead is American expat Mimsy Farmer, an actress with whom I’ve been admittedly infatuated since the 1960s. Mims, of the strange, icy beauty and easily contorted face, briefly became (and deservedly so) the darling of the AIP exploitation camp (and I DO mean camp). After work in some big-budget Hollywood fare (Spencer’s Mountain) and a lot of TV (most memorably the Outer Limits episode Second Chance), Farmer gave John Cassavetes a run for his money as an airhead teen beauty-contest babe yearning to be a biker groupie in 1967’s The Devil’s Angels. Her iconic U.S. role was unquestionably as the would-be hippie daughter of police chief Aldo Ray in the Sam Katzman psychotronic smash Riot on Sunset Strip (also 1967). It was in this movie that Mimsy, given an LSD mickey, goes tripping like nobody’s business, culminating in an elongated pop-eyed, twitchy dance segment that likely still wows ’em in Haight-Ashbury.
Farmer saw that there was little more to be gained on American soil, so she shed her waist-length hair, kissed Uncle Sam goodbye and high-tailed it for Europe, where she remains to this day. Her 1969 turn in Barbet Schroeder’s classic More cemented her rep as a modern femme fatale – a performance misunderstood at the time (and truly, in my biased opinion, Oscar-worthy). Playing a slew of nymphos, lunatics and various other oddballs followed in a barrage of Italian and French thrillers and chillers, most prominently The Road to Salina (as Rita Hayworth’s demented progeny), Les Suspects, Deux Hommes dans le Ville (opposite Alain Delon and Jean Gabin) and Dario Argento’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet. It is, however, her appearance in this movie, co-written (with Massimo D’Avack) and directed by Barilli that is, butcher cleaver hands down, the actress’s masterpiece (and Barilli has as much as said so; it was Mimsy or no one). I had a short but telling professional relationship with the actress, ca. 1981, via a little pastiche entitled Disco ‘Round the Clock, an homage to her and Katzman – an all-star rock ‘n’ roll/sci-fi/comedy that would (at least temporarily) bring her back to American shores. That the vehicle crashed and burned due to skeevy, corrupt background politics (the scurviest of producers I’ve ever come across, and let THAT sink in, folks) is one of my saddest in a long line of unhappy never-to-be adventures. But it did offer me a half-hour transatlantic phone conversation with Ms. Farmer that is one of the fondest memories of my generally unimpressive life. Suffice to say, Mimsy Farmer turned out NOT to be the jittery nutjob she so magnificently portrayed in the flickers (which still would have been okay by me), but a genuinely lovely person (which was even better). Oh, well – what could have been. Sigh.
PERFUME OF THE LADY IN BLACK is a woman’s paranoid nightmare. To say that scientist Silvia Hacherman (Farmer) is disturbed (her mother was killed by a psychotic lover) is an understatement. Facing adulthood alone hasn’t been easy, and the super-intelligent researcher has really moved and shaken her life in a positive direction. Living in a small but trendy town, Silvia has become head of the chemical plant, doing important work that could soon bring about some landmark breakthroughs. The former loner, living in a strange, gothic apartment complex (populated by strange, gothic neighbors) now has a BFF (Donna Jordan) and a lover (Maurizio Bonuglia). Things are, at last, happening for her. All of this drastically changes when, in rapid succession, her frequently absent boyfriend exposes her to a group of African emigres and spiritually-obsessed denizens. A visit to a creepy blind seer (The Devil Rides Out‘s beguiling Nike Arrighi) unveils a foreboding message to the young woman, whose world is already starting to unravel. Hacherman’s one memory of her mother (Renata Zamengo) encompasses the stunning parent, garbed in black, and wearing a particularly addictive scent of perfume. Increasingly, Silvia is haunted by images of the mother in her mirror – and of her mother’s killer.
Hacherman’s universe continues to spiral downward when her bestie mysteriously dies and a frightening child (Lara Wendel), dressed like Lewis Carroll’s Alice (perhaps a Barilli in-joke/tribute to Farmer’s “Mimsy” forename, a nod to Carroll’s Jabberwocky), appears out of nowhere.
Silvia’s aversion to children grows into fear as the child begins to take over her life, even threatening to move in with her. Soon “Alice” has gone complete Rhoda Penmark on Silvia, and the rattled scientist is at odds regarding a retaliation strategy, as she is now convinced that the sprout is herself, returned as demonic entity.
Troubled about her escalating unhinged state, Silvia’s every attempt to seek logical answers are met with horrific conclusions. Is it possible that the entire town has ganged up against her? That they’re all part of some vast conspiracy? And why would they bother? After all, what has she got to offer?
Seeing her mother’s killer in a curiosity shop sends her over the edge; now convinced that the murderer is stalking her, Silvia is lured into a deserted building (holding a terrifying secret). The stalker appears, and what follows is the most harrowing rape scene I’ve ever witnessed in any movie. Farmer is amazing in this gruesome montage, kicking and screaming, fighting back with all her strength – her face registering every negative emotion a woman might experience (a rape counselor-friend once told me that for this sequence alone “that actress should have won major awards…”). It’s certainly the worst traumatic episode that Silvia or any woman could ever possibly fathom.
Except that it isn’t.
The above riveting ordeal (and its retribution) is but a preamble to the final grisly capper. Now, earlier I indicated the Rosemary’s Baby connection, so many of you are likely saying to yourselves, “Oh, yeah, I know what’s coming.” Oh, no, you don’t. The climactic shocker will leave you gob-smacked, double-take’d, jaw-dropped and WTF breathless.
The Blu-Ray of THE PERFUME OF THE LADY IN BLACK is excellent, stemming from a new High-Definition digital transfer. The colors in d.p. Mario Masini’s cinematic palette pop with rich, velvety precision. The audio, accessible in either the original Italian with newly legible English subtitles, or in the English dub, is decent-plus. I have to say that I prefer the English dub for a couple of reasons. One, the actors are all speaking English (if phonetically), and the English language allows one to appreciate Farmer’s unique verbalizing, which is always a main factor required for the full appreciation of her work. The minor tradeoff is slight sibilance, but really is of little consequence. A luxurious score (a giallo staple) by Nicola Piovani perfectly appends the visuals, so stylishly and suspensefully directed by Barilli.
Extras are plentiful, including a recent interview with Barilli, in addition to the director’s Il Cavaliere Errantel (The Wandering Knight), a 23-minute short. A fully illustrated booklet rounds out the package that also includes the original trailer.
THE PERFUME OF THE LADY IN BLACK is a gem of 1970s Italian cinema. Long story short, I reiterate my previous statement that it is Mimsy Farmer’s finest moment. If you’re a Farmer fan, then this should be more than enough to have you riffling for your credit card; if you’re not (possibly because you are unfamiliar with the actress and her work), you WILL be. Big time.
THE PERFUME OF THE LADY IN BLACK. Color. Widescreen [1.84:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber/Raro Video. CAT # BRRVD 095. SRP: $29.95.