29 July 2012


THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK (L'orribile Segreto del Dr. Hichcock)

1962/Director: Riccardo Freda/Writer: Ernesto Gastaldi

Cast: Barbara Steele, Robert Flemyng, Silvano Tranquilli, Maria Teresa Vianello, Harriet Medin

Recently watched a few Italian Gothic style horror films from the 60’s.  While I have struggled to get into most of the so called giallo films and the police dramas (known by the genre titles poliziotteschi or poliziottesco) I have never struggled too hard with appreciating the Italian horror films of the late 50’s and mid 60’s. And though I have only reviewed one actual Mario Bava film here so far (Hercules in the Haunted World) there is no question Bava’s films are among my favorite films of all time. Italian horror arrived late on the scene really as the genre was, as I understand, banned in Italy until the early 50’s. The first real Italian horror film is considered to be I Vampiri, directed by Riccardo Freda (as Robert Hampton) and noticeably co-directed by Mario Bava. I have I Vampiri but have not seen it yet. Freda was not exclusively a horror director by any stretch and it is pretty fascinating that he would make a film as intense and, for the time, controversial, as The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (aka L'orribile segreto del Dr. Hichcock and The Frightening Secret of Dr. Hichcock), again under the pseudonym Robert Hampton, at a time when Italy was just beginning to allow horror films to even be made. Of course Italian horror went on to become some of the most graphic and exploitive ever made, and sadly in time also some of the most derivative and boring. But in 1962 the film finds itself sandwiched in between the two b/w Gothic masterpieces 1960’s Black Sunday by Bava and 1965’s Nightmare Castle by Mario Caniano. Both of those films are visually stunning, much more so than Freda’s Dr. Hichcock, but the three films all have one thing in common, the presence of wild eyed and captivating Barbara Steele.

I can’t imagine anybody who follows films, even marginally, not knowing who Barbara Steel is, by face if not by name. Some of the stills of the British actress’ face from her work in Gothic Italian horror films have become iconic actually. A reluctant scream queen with a highly nervous disposition and, as legend has it, paranoid rantings, she preferred painting to acting and later in life retired from the screen and took the palette and had a fairly successful career as a fine artist. By the time Nightmare Castle came out in 1965 –that film and Freda’s The Ghost are in the draft folder- Steele had begun to play the same character over and over but so what. She did it well. Her characters often found themselves suddenly in a huge Gothic mansion and fighting off ghosts and madness in some form. She was by means the frail visit either, as she was often the evil perpetrator of evil as well. In some films like Black Sunday and Nightmare Castle she played dual roles of the victim or good girl and the evil antagonist as well. But in Freda’s The Horrible Dr. Hichcock –the “T” being left out deliberately to avoid possible problems with director Alfred Hitchcock-she plays the victim from beginning to end and turns in a fine performance. The film itself is nicely made really and, unlike the other films mentioned here earlier, is shot is rich color. Actually The Ghost, a “sequel” to Dr. Hichcock  also starring Steele in a less than sweet role, was shot in color but it looked bad really –maybe it was the print of the file I have is all- and we will be exploring that film eventually anyway, so let’s move on to the film at hand. And before going into the movie in my superficial style I will say that, unlike many films I review here, there is a wealth of information and speculation on The Horrible Dr. Hichcock on the net. I tend to veer towards articles and posts that supply anecdotes and trivia over ones that delve into psychological analysis’ of films, but when you’re dealing with topics like necrophilia it is pretty hard not to want to tap into what might be laying beneath the surface a bit and have a little fun with it. Don’t expect that here, but there is plenty of that on the net if you like that sort of thing. I prefer reading that sort of thing more than doing it.

Dr. Bernard Hichcock (veteran British actor Robert Flemyng) is a successful surgeon who has recently developed a new anesthesia. When not working at the local clinic and inventing wonder drugs he is prying open the coffins of recently deceased young lovelies and fondling them in the foggy moonlight of the local cemetery. Yes Dr. Hichcock has a thing for dead girls. Is he really a necrophile is a question I read online, on Tim Lucas’ Video Watchdog site to be exact. Does he really have sex with dead girls or is his only sexually stimulated by them, and then rushes home and after peering secretively into his own window – the way a person weighted down from hiding his dirty secrets may actually do - and hurries down to his “necrosanctum” (to use Lucas’ catchy phrase) where he injects his lovely wife Margherita (Maria Teresa Vianello) with some sort of powerful tranquilizer I guess and she goes comatose and Dr. Hichcock then does what he does when one body is watching. I am not sure I agree with the authoritative –especially in regards Italian horror films- Tim Lucas and I think the guy is a real necrophiliac and has done the dirty with dead gals. Of course it would be a tad too much to show this in films of the period, and this movie is already pushing the boundaries I feel. Dr. Hichcock displays real lecherous and disquieting lust in one scene as he caresses’ a carcass in the morgue of the clinic. There is no doubt what is in his mind and he is halted only when he is interrupted by Dr. Kurt Lowe (Silvano Tranquilli). Of course we never really see him having sex with a corpse and so there is ample room for debate I guess, but I am of the opinion that Hichcock is a real necrophile and his sessions with his drugged up wife are but poor substitutes for the real thing, which at some point I will wager the good doctor has experienced.

After the doctor recovers from his corpus interruptus he rushes home in an agitated state and hurries downstairs with poor, compliant Margherita for their last freaky tryst together. The doctor is not of a clear mind and grabs a bottle of poison that he keeps stored in the medicine cabinet next to the tranquilizer -in an identical bottle of course- and his wife succumbs. Or appears to succumb. IN fact she wakes up in her coffin later in a scene reminiscent of some of the Gothic horror AIP  films of the early and mid-sixties.   In fact much of the film has the feel of some of the better Roger Corman AIP Gothic horror and in particular the Poe adaptations.  The story skips forward in time ten or so years and we meet Hichcock's new wife Cynthia, played by Barbara Steele.

Not much detail is given about how Dr. Hichcock and Cynthia meet and eventually wed. She is soon at the brooding Hichcock manor where she finds herself the object of more than just Hichcock’s necrophiliac urges but his twisted delusions as well, as he seeks to reanimate the rotted corpse of Margherita with Cynthia’s blood. Here is where Barbara Steele does her best work I suppose. Trapped in a dark manor with people or spirits out to do her harm of one sort of another and not sure of the nature of the plots and conspiracies to the point she questions her own sanity. Young Dr. Kurt Lowe is suspicious of Hichcock and plays the gallant male hero, while Hichcock’s conniving house keeper Martha (who also plays the house keeper in the so called sequel to this film, The Ghost) lurks about stroking her cat. Really nice shots in the last part of the film and the scene of Steele trapped in a coffin and screaming through the glass window in it is classic. Flemyng is excellent too in the last scenes as he basically unravels and becomes dangerously evil, rather than just sexually twisted as he was in the first half of the film. In fact in the first part of the film you see him as a bit sick and perverted but not really anything dangerous. There is ample speculation on how the film was written and directed in this area. While hardly pandering necrophilia it is not really, at the same time, making a strong statement against Bernard Hichcock either. Well I’ll leave all that to the horror bloggers who took a few abnormal psychology classes in college. The movie can certainly be explored on that level however. I am not dismissing any of that.

Good direction, good writing, nicer photography and score and over all excellent acting for a genre film. But in the end most people will probably shy away from the film. Not because of its controversial topic –which to be honest is presented in a few scenes in most unsettling manners, though hardly graphically- but because the film is old school slow and tedious at times. I myself do not mind that. I enjoy old movie dialogs and scenes that lasted more than five seconds. I enjoy the way Italian filmmakers but their films anywhere –I believe the action here is supposed to take place in Scotland but not sure 100 - while all the time the scenes and characters look like they are nowhere else in the world but Italy. The crypt scenes are a good example of this. I felt the photography was interesting and there was some experimental stuff going on that did not detract from the film or make it look “mod”. I recently watched a 144 minute version of Nightmare Castle and found that a little too much to watch in one setting. While beautiful it was just too much. The version of Dr. Hichcock I have here is not too long to finish in a single viewing and has some nice English dubbing. It is the one found on Cinemageddon, the notorious BT site. I understand that that is one of the better versions of the film to be found at the moment, so if your into BTs you might want to give that one a go. I will be honest, I saw the film months ago and when I finally sat down to write this I did not want to rewatch the whole film and refreshed my memory by doing the video captures here (something I often do). While not painfully slow I just did not want to rewatch all of it again. Definitely worth a viewing however, and I may check it out again after more time has gone by. 

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