Once We Used to Eat Our Enemies: An Appreciation of “The Bloodstained Shadow” and “The Perfume of the Lady In Black”

Holy shit, you guys, I just realized that the last time I posted one of my long-form horror movie breakdowns was back in goddamn NOVEMBER (it was an appreciation of the British made-for-TV classic Ghostwatch, if you’re interested), so I felt the need to remedy that situation with a quickness. The reason I haven’t posted as many is because I’ve been working on the weekly 13 O’Clock podcast as well as finishing up my new book, The Unseen Hand, which I’m happy to announce is now available in print and ebook formats, with the audio version coming very soon!

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Anyway, I’ve got a double dose of giallo goodness for you today, since I’ve been researching an upcoming podcast episode on giallo films and have been spending some time revisiting some old favorites as well as watching some lesser-known examples of the genre. First in the lineup is The Bloodstained Shadow from 1978, known in Italy as Solamente nero and also released under the title Only Blackness. Directed by Antonio Bido and featuring Stefania Casini (of Suspiria fame) in a prominent role, this one didn’t knock me out with awesomeness, but it was still an enjoyable, if fairly derivative, slice of bloody giallo fun.

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In many ways, The Bloodstained Shadow, with its focus on the church, its use of a strange painting as one of the key plot points, and the appearance of Lino Capolicchio playing a protagonist named Stefano recalls Pupi Avati’s fantastic House with the Laughing Windows (which I wrote about here). Its Venetian locations and the featuring of a creepy psychic also give it a passing whiff of Nicolas Roeg’s classic Don’t Look Now (which I wrote about here).

In brief, Stefano travels to the Venetian island of Murano to visit his brother, a Catholic priest named Don Paolo. Almost as soon as he arrives, he discovers that something odd is afoot; the aforementioned psychic seems to creep his brother out for some reason, a wealthy pedophile is molesting children left and right, and Stefano starts having flashbacks of a screaming little boy that seems to be somehow tied in with the murder of a schoolgirl that took place on the island years before.

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There is also the matter of a murder in the town square that Don Paolo witnesses; the victim turns out to be the psychic, whose séances were notorious for attracting all of the town’s most reviled residents and who Don Paolo had actively campaigned against. Don Paolo begins receiving threatening, typewritten messages, presumably from the killer, and Stefano teams up with his brother and his new lady-friend to try to get to the bottom of the mystery.

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As I said, this one wasn’t super memorable, but it was a satisfying, workmanlike giallo that hit all the correct beats. There were lots of plot twists, some gory murders, and several red herrings to lead viewers in the wrong direction (though I have to admit I figured out who the killer was before the end). Recommended for fans of the genre who haven‘t seen it, but for neophytes I’d suggest House with the Laughing Windows before this one.

Next up is the 1974 Francesco Barilli film, The Perfume of the Lady in Black, starring Mimsy Farmer. I hesitate to even call this movie a giallo; a couple of the elements are there, and it’s usually listed as one, but to be honest it’s more a straight-up psychological horror film, obviously very heavily influenced by Roman Polanski, particularly Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby. The movie as a whole is intensely dreamlike, and even after watching it, you’re really not sure how much of what you saw unfolding on screen actually took place and how much was the fantasy of the main character.

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In fact, if you come into Perfume expecting the requisite steady murder count of the standard giallo, then you’re going to be disappointed; there are almost no deaths and no gore until the end, and even the bizarre final scenes leave more questions than answers. This film is much more like the creepy slow burn of a good ghost story, or like the unsettling, atmospheric weirdness of Polanski’s The Tenant: nothing is as it seems, everyone seems shifty and sinister and out to get the protagonist for some reason, and the movie goes on quite a long time without really revealing what the hell is going on and why all these strange things are happening.

Mimsy Farmer plays Silvia, a chemist whose dedication to her work causes tension with her jackwad boyfriend Roberto (Maurizio Bonuglia), who doesn’t understand why Silvia can’t just blow off her job to go play tennis with him and who wiggles his ass in the most disturbing way when he has sex with her. After an argument, Silvia seeks to make amends by bringing Roberto a present of a mounted butterfly (which he collects), but when she gets to his house, it looks like he isn’t there, and she sees what seems to be the ghost of a woman in a black and white dress in a mirror in Roberto’s bedroom.

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From here on out, the viewer is taken on a strange ride, as weird shit starts happening all around Silvia: people on the street eye her suspiciously, she sleeps through an entire day without knowing why, a tennis racket she grabs has a nail in the handle that slices her palm and her tennis partner drinks the blood from it with a bit too much enjoyment, a treasured photo she takes to have reframed mysteriously gets stolen, a bratty little girl in a white dress turns up in her apartment and refuses to leave.

As the movie goes on, the strange events escalate, and we’re led to believe that Silvia has become the target of a vast, black magic conspiracy that seemingly includes everyone she knows, including her boyfriend, her best friend Francesca, and everyone in her building, and appears to be engineered by a mysterious African professor who is friends with Roberto. Are all these people trying to drive Silvia mad? If so, why? Or is she simply losing her mind of her own accord? Flashbacks of her possible past may provide the solution, but it’s still far from straightforward how much of the plot takes place in Silvia’s imagination; in this aspect, the many references in the film to Alice In Wonderland make total sense.

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I actually really dug this one, though as I said, don’t go into it expecting a textbook giallo, because it really doesn’t have many giallo elements at all, other than the mystery angle. It’s also pretty slow-moving, which I quite liked, but I can see how the pace might be too leisurely for some. I think it did a great job of building tension slowly, of unraveling Silvia’s sanity at a measured, surreal pace, and it had some really great, eerie moments and unsettling shots that were pleasingly disorienting. Recommended less for giallo fans and more for Polanski aficionados and those who like their horror with a sense of subtle unease.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.

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