There's nothing as fascinating as an utterly inexplicable mash-up, of the sort we get with The Perfume of the Lady in Black from 1974: basically, what we have here is Roman Polanski's Repulsion filtered through the heavy stylistic lens of the gialli, Italy's genre of gorgeous, atmospheric, usually inscrutable murder mysteries from the '60s and '70s. The film ends up being neither exactly one thing nor exactly another, and that's entirely for the good: it feels essentially alien and unpredictable in ways that even most giallo can't manage, despite how frequently the better ones feel like they've been beamed to the screen directly from the filmmakers' collective id.

Simply getting one's head around the film is difficult enough, so let me start off with a fairly easy observation: The Perfume of the Lady in Black (oh, those Italian genre film titles! I just want to rub them all over my naked body) is a psychological horror film that is more fixedly about psychology than most of the movies that typically earn that generic label. And, for that matter, more fixedly about horror: despite not depicting the first onscreen death for all of 80 minutes out of 99, and suggesting very little that's actually threatening for the first hour, the movie inhabits the mind of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown with a focus on the terrifying, out-of-control feeling that comes from not being entirely sure what's real and not, what's past and what's present, and who if anyone can be trusted, and this focus gives the movie a guttural, visceral level of raw terror that all the bloody makeup effects and all the masked psychos with knives can't match. In short, The Perfume of the Lady in Black portrays a mental breakdown from the inside, on the assumption that nothing more genuinely horrifying than that could possibly exist. And for the most part, I think the film makes an excellent defense of that assumption.

The protagonist is a biochemist named Sylvia Hacherman (Mimsy Farmer, an American actress whose biggest roles and films were all in Italy), whose past holds an ugly secret involving her mother, dead since 1952. Apparently, this secret has been weighing down on her extra-heavily of late; it's putting a cramp in her affair with Roberto (Maurizio Bonuglia), who seems like enough of a tetchy, garden-variety oversexed European male that even a little cramp is a pretty big problem, and getting in the way of her work. Very nearly the entire film follows Sylvia around as she grows increasingly obsessed with her past trauma and starts to see it bleeding into her daily life; this first takes the form of an increasing paranoia that all the people around her are involved with some plot to do her an unstated harm (traces of another Polanski film, Rosemary's Baby), but as the film goes on it turns into a complete break from reality, as she begins to receive visits from her younger self (Lara Wendel, under the name Daniela Barnes), dressed in an echo of the title character Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and acting with a dictatorial cruelness towards the woman she'll grow up to be. And while she's not being controlled by her younger self, Sylvia is experiencing uncomfortable visitations, always through a mirror or keyhole other otherwise separated from her physical reality, from her dead mother (Renata Zamengo), wearing a black dress and lathering herself with perfume from a cut glass bottle. Well, the title had to come from somewhere, I guess.

We have here the unusual spectacle of a murder mystery without a murder - or rather, in which murder is a symptom of the plot rather than a cause of it - and a horror film with absolutely nothing explicable at stake. There's no real "plot", just time we spend with Sylvia as she is agitated by the return of memories and knowledge that deeply bother her - it's difficult to say if anything takes place outside of Sylvia's limited and increasingly unreliable perspective, even the scenes that she's not witnessing, adding nothing either than an escalation of the film's sense of nightmare. First-time director Francesco Barilli, co-writing with Massimo D'Aval - their main work prior to this was the script for Ur-cannibal film Man from Deep River - brings to bear all the usual tricks of Italian horror, but above and beyond all the flashes of baroque color and lighting, what's most impressive about the way he and cinematographer Mario Masini assembled the film visually is how intently limited it is: this is a film about Sylvia, through Sylvia, of Sylvia, and bound by Sylvia, and even when we see things she can't or doesn't, it has a distinct feeling of being bound - most gialli have at least flashes of being staged in a theatrical sense, where the sides of the frame cut off the edges of the world, but The Perfume of the Lady in Black is especially pronounced in feeling like a shadow-box. Or better yet, a display case: one weird throwaway moment finds Sylvia and her friend Francesca (Donna Jordan) buying Roberto a beautiful butterfly pinned under glass for his collection, and from that moment on it's hard not to notice how many scenes put Sylvia near or against the back plane of action while holding back at a distance. Watching her pinned down for display herself, basically, and it's as uncomfortable and distressing as any of the film's overt breaks from reality to see it.

For all that the giallo, as a form, is obsessed with psycho analysis, it's not usually as heavily invested in The Perfume of the Lady in Black, whose thematic and narrative analogues are not, at any rate, found much in horror (there's more of Bergman than there is of Argento in the scenario here). And yet those themes are explored entirely through the aesthetics of the gialli, with an emphatic reliance on oversaturated color, expressionistic compositions, punctuation-like close-ups, ethereal music. Oh, such ethereal music! I cannot say enough about Nicola Piovani's score to do it justice: it's maybe the most important element of the whole film, frequently sweet and beautiful, sometimes overtly sweet while sounding deranged, always touched with just the slightest hint of music box delicacy. It's a weird energy for a horror film, but the combination of the sound and the desperation in the visuals works well to imply Sylvia's rattled state. As, for that matter, does Farmer's excellent performance, all small-scale terror and confusion, and entirely reactive; yet she never feels like the film is driving her. There are sharp edges and manias in her characterisation, and with the entire movie resting on her presence and ability to project an evolution of mental disintegration, Farmer brilliantly gives The Perfume of the Lady in Black a spine it requires and cannot get from any other place, no matter how effectively Barilli elaborates that disintegration through visual means.

Which he absolutely does, of course. In a context where realism and low-key filmmaking were already considerably undervalued, The Perfume of the Lady in Black still stands out as unusually stylish - not, maybe, unusually stylized, as the extreme whorls of hue and shape that typify the most garish and gaudi gialli are largely absent. Colors, generally speaking, are those which would be found in the real world in those places, and that alone puts us at least a step down from the most urgently vivid of gialli, even as that genre stood in 1974. What Barilli does provide, more than I can name in any movie before Suspiria, is the sense of sharing perception with a mind in turmoil: there's no distinctly illogical visuals until the jarring finale, with its weird costuming and lighting, and an out-of-place stately tracking shot, but there is a consistent sense of things being off. Camera angles are too acute, making everything seem sinister; much of the blocking feels overtly staged and aritifical. It's a beautifully lit and appointed world in the film, but the deeper we go, the more we feel that we can't trust it or even know for sure what's going on. And having that lack of certainty, following along with Sylvia as her grip on reality ebbs and flows, makes The Perfume of the Lady in Black one of the most tense, and delectably unfathomable Italian horror films ever made. It's as pure as any cinematic depiction of descent into insanity that I've seen, and it surely ranks with the most successful.

Body Count: Well, that's not a straightforward question at all. Let's say 5, that's close enough.