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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Mimsy Ballistico! PERFUME OF A LADY IN BLACK (1974) + The Giallo Checklist

With one of those typically ornate giallo titles that involves 'ladies,' animal names, sharp objects, or strange jewels comes Francisco Barilli's fragrant, even pungent PERFUME OF A LADY IN BLACK (a better and more apt title in my mind would be CRACKED MIRROR OF THE BLUE HIPPO). American ex-pat Mimsy Farmer stars as a cross between MARNIE (hallucinating her dead mom having sex with a no-good taxidermist, smiting men who'd try and sex her) and Roman Polanski in THE TENANT (living in a weird old apartment building with enough psychics, elderly sculptors, and animal totems to give anyone the willies). For audiences familiar with other conspiracy-driven ROSEMARY'S BABY-inspired psychosexual horror head trips like 1977's American (but Italian-influenced) THE SENTINEL (my review here), it's a case of dread by association as much as anything else.

One thing I notice in all these 1970s creepshows is an admirable (or lazy?) use of very long sequences of a pretty woman slowly walking, or standing still in spooky, dark, monochromatic hallways, listening to faint scraping noises in the dead of night. A cheap way to pad running time, these long stretches constitute the heart and soul of horror, the basics: vulnerability + darkness = primordial fear and in the giallo's Argento-inspired eye towards self-reflexivity, much the better to work the weird dissonant art/fear/desire feedback loop--we watch her watch and hear her hearing, but what is she hearing, and who is she, really? Hello?

With her short blonde hair giving her a spooky boyish androgyny and her Nordic resemblance to my own mother, Farmer was a natural for in the dread-of-indistinct-gender world of 70s Italian horror (and sublime in Dario Argento's FOUR FLIES IN GREY VELVET -my review here). Not exactly sexy or strange exactly...  but her button-nose pixie-cuteness never melts all the way into either Doris Day boi's club cleanliness nor Jodie Foster baby butch grubbiness, so she's elusive even in androgyny and I mean that as a compliment. In her perpetual pre-gender assignment limbo, we want to protect her, seduce her, fear her, and fear for her but in the end can only watch her... dissolve.. as she waits in that hallway, listening to more of that infernal... scraping...

In addition to the hallway standing, there is a lot of extraneous detail here that seems to be checking off some long lost giallo checklist rather than cohering into a narrative, so I thought I'd include a list of these tropes, along with the symbolic meaning of each... if any. Note that I mean this list in only the best ways and it's not meant as disrespect to LADY IN BLACK or anything else. Gialli need these items, like old dark house movies need guys in ape suits, scheming heirs, secret panels, thunder cracks, and wheelchair-bound Egyptologists:

1. Old family photos (descent into the past)
2. Taxidermy (necrophilia)

3. Winding Staircase (descent into the unconscious)
4. Music box (childhood trauma masked by amnesia)

5. Eccentric neighbor (red herring?)

6. Chain lock (weak repressive mechanism)
7. Elderly doorman and Cat lady relating tragic news in foyer (exposition)

8. Abandoned building where a hidden crime occurred. (readymade set)

9. Blind psychic (noir fatalism)
10. Mimsy Farmer, or facsimile (androgynous question mark)

Some giallo features usually on the checklist are unfortunately lacking in PERFUME OF A LADY IN BLACK, however, such as grisly murders. The one main murder here occurs offscreen! We hear about it second hand (see item 7) and that doesn't make a lick of sense! Also missing: a mustachioed, weary cop with a shaggy mustache and piercing blue eyes / in a white raincoat. There are some giallo extra credit items: tennis club, Marlboro lights, graveyard, trippy architecture, VERTIGO flower shop, shadowy sects, graphic primal scene flashbacks, and a shock/twist ending.

And the DVD from Raro Video is gorgeous! Clearly a lot of time and effort was spent getting the colors deep and hallucinatory bold ala Argento's DEEP RED and SUSPIRIA. It's not quite as great as those films, but when you've made the year's run through Argento and early Polanski but still can't quit that swinging modern insane blonde kick, heighten your senses with any inhalant handy and learn to enjoy one of the more opaque giallo-jewels, PERFUME OF A LADY IN BLACK, a nutty future classic, bound to grow in your esteem on repeat Halloween viewings.


  1. Oh my lord, YES! Good point.

  2. This release is on my must-get list. It looks so gorgeous. For any fan of Mimsy Farmer, there is a great and in-depth interview with her in the latest Video Watchdog. She's an artist now and is doing visual work for films. Very neat lady.

  3. Cool, thanks Mondo Heather! I'll have to check that out. You're right, the film looks most gorgeous, very Suspiria-meets-a pulp magazine cover from the 1930s