As the midnight chimes of Big Ben resound around Victorian London, a top-hatted figure steals into a fogbound graveyard and knocks out the gravedigger who is about his business there. His desperate grey-gloved hands prise open the casket’s lid to find within the pale corpse of a young girl, on which they eagerly set about caressing face and body, visibly shaking with excitement. The scene quickly changes to a nearby hospital, where the gravedigger is operated on and his life saved by a doctor who appears to be the very person that dealt him the near-lethal blow in the first place.
Said doctor quickly makes his excuses and returns to his imposing home, where his attractive wife is entertaining a gathering of guests with a haunting piano melody. After getting the lascivious ‘nod’ from their strange housekeeper, the wife takes leave of her guests and joins her husband in a bedchamber draped in funereal black, where he ceremoniously lights candles before injecting her with an experimental anaesthetic. The drug renders her temporarily in a state resembling death, allowing the doctor to give vent to this, the very darkest of desires.
So begins the next great classic in the Italian Gothic horror canon; its visual style, deceptively high production values and, most of all, its transgressive nature, are already in evidence from these opening moments. Although steeped in Hammer iconography, the subject matter from the outset seems to be one that was surely beyond the pale for even those great shock impresarios at the time. Although the question of necrophilia could be said to hang in the air of every vampire film ever made, never had it been so explicitly referenced, let alone such a central focus of the narrative, as it is here.
1962: Black Sunday (1960) had been a huge hit for director Mario Bava at home and abroad, launching not only his tenure as a maestro of the fantastic but also Barbara Steele’s reign as mistress of the dark and indelible icon of horror cinema. With an increasing number of homegrown horror films being produced, what would later become known as the Golden Age of Italian Horror was getting well and truly underway. Since his horror hit with Steele, Bava had been bringing his fantastique eye to bear on muscular epics like Hercules in the Haunted World (1961) and Erik the Conqueror (aka Fury of the Vikings, 1961). Bava’s directorial mentor on I vampiri (1956) and Caltiki, the Immortal Monster (1959), Riccardo Freda, had been similarly busy on the ancient-world-fantasy front, helming two Masciste films and The Giants of Thessally (1961), but this would be the director’s first return to a Gothic milieu since the pair had worked together on the 1956 film.
I vampiri history repeated itself when that film’s producers, Luigi Carpentieri and Emmano Donati, expressed interest in making another horror film and Freda wagered that he could deliver a period costume Gothic in two weeks. According to Steele, the bet was made because there was “a particular horse he wanted very badly.” Sixteen days was in fact how long L’orribile segreto del Dr. Hichcock / The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (UK: The Terror of Dr. Hichcock) took to make, with cast and crew on a punishing schedule of eighteen hour days and feeling suitably deranged for most of them.
Freda believed that the earlier film had failed partly due to the real Italian crew names on the credits and posters. To avoid this, the director once again took on the nom de guerre of “Robert Hampton,” young screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi became ‘”Julyan Perry” and cinematographer Raffaele Masciocchi became “Donald Green,” but the most amusing of these has to be production designer Franco Fumagalli’s new name, “Frank Smokecocks”. Aside from the lead actors, the only artiste to be billed with his own name is the late Roman Vlad. And this is indeed the composer’s real name, hailing as he did from Bukovina, right in the shadow of the Carpathian Mountains.
Along with the anglicised names, the film also has three English lead actors in the forms of a suitably stodgy and Victorian Robert Flemyng as Hichcock, Harriet Medin-White (billed Harriet White), as Martha the shifty housekeeper, and Barbara Steele, top-billed of course, as Hichcock’s second wife, Cynthia. The end result could almost get away with passing itself off as a Hammer film were it not so, well, Italian.
The story is that of a celebrated doctor who saves lives in the operating room, with the help of his new wonder-anaesthetic, while also using said anaesthetic to simulate death in his sexual partner of choice. When he’s not grubbing around for the corpses of young girls in graveyards and morgues, that is. Dr Bernard Hichcock (or “Professor” to give him his proper title) at the outset has a willing playmate in his wife Margaretha (Maria Teresa Vianello, “Margaret” in the English dub) who acquiesces to the whole thing with a smile, as all good Victorian wives must, of course.
Total unquestioning acquiescence to male wishes without a thought of one’s own needs was part and parcel of the wife’s proscribed role in that era, and Dr. Hichcock’s games represent the logical reductio ad absurdum of this; the female participant is not even allowed to be present for this sexual event as a conscious entity. As Glenn Erickson puts it in his excellent piece for Images (‘Women on the Verge of a Gothic Breakdown’), “One doesn’t have to be Victorian to understand the sexual politics at work.”
The early turning point of the movie occurs where Hichcock becomes overexcited with the game, overzealously injecting Magaretha with what appears to be over three times the usual dose of the wonder-anaesthetic. She dies almost instantly, and his immediate outpouring of grief and regret speaks volumes of his deep love for her – or perhaps more his impotent rage at the loss of a favourite plaything.
Needless to say, the ‘Victorian’ representation of this is rather chaste by today’s standards, with all parties fully clothed at all times. But this is all that’s required to communicate the concept. The viewer understands that this is what’s going on and that’s shocking enough. No doubt were the film to be remade today we’d be subjected to interminable scenes of the good doctor humping away at Margaretha and Cynthia’s prone bodies, as though audiences are unable to grasp anything that they’re not shown explicitly and ad nauseum. Not so with Freda’s film; with this shocking status quo established, it’s on with the real story.
The narrative offers neither to condone nor condemn Hichcock’s actions – there are at no point any words of moral contextualisation from an ‘expert’, psychiatrist, or agent of the law, nor are we made privy to any mitigating circumstances that might help us understand how he has developed this most extreme of fetishes. The communication of this unholy lust is managed mainly through Flemyng’s frantic mugging and grimacing in the scenes where Hichcock is under its thrall. On the one hand rather amusing, but also strangely truthful on the other, Hichcock’s fevered facial expressions and Roman Vlad’s eerie recurring theme connect us with his wordless mental processes and hence make us feel complicit in his dark deeds.
It is only a matter of time before Hichcock can no longer resist the urge to induct new wife Cynthia into the dark playtimes of his secret room. When she awakes from the anaesthetic, startled already by the unfamiliar room, he emerges from behind a black valance a leering and hideous monster, his thin mask of Victorian respectability and civilisation ripped away to reveal the primitive within. Bathed in red-gelled light, it is an inhuman, almost corpse-like face of bestial lust that totters on that tenuous tightrope between comical and terrifying.
However, all this focus on the doctor belies the fact that Hichcock is for the most part a ‘new wife in peril’ film of the sort so masterfully achieved by our ‘hero’s’ almost-namesake, Alfred Hitchcock himself, in films like Suspicion (1941) and Rebecca (1940). Rebecca is a major influence, with the dead wife holding sway over a master and his servants, and plaguing the new pretender to his affections from beyond the grave. Martha is Hichcock‘s ‘Mrs. Danvers’, complicit in her master’s games and obviously greatly titillated by them judging by her facial expressions in the early sections. Devoted to her former mistress, she treats the newcomer with open contempt. When Cynthia finds an ornate door, she is startled by Martha, who gruffly informs her, “Your room’s up there.” “Why is this door locked?” Cynthia asks. “It’s always been locked,” replies the housekeeper, as though this should suffice as an answer.
Unfortunately, we never truly get to see the full extent of Martha’s devotion because she is for some reason written out of the story in time for the last reel, as though Gastaldi didn’t have a clue what to do with the character. Hichcock simply sends her away for the night and that’s the last we see of her. With so many Hitchcockian elements in place, it’s little wonder that many critics of the time took the film to be a camp parody of the master’s work.
But Freda’s film is a visual treat, from its deliciously fog-laden graveyard opening and huge gothic mansion exterior with perpetually storm-swept grounds, to their stark contrast with the brightly lit hospital scenes. Esteemed critic Raymond Durgnat, in a much-cited passage from his Films and Feeling (cited more often as an example of his transcendent film writing than for reasons pertinent to the film itself), extols the virtues of the scene depicting Magaretha’s funeral. A high shot shows the mourners crowded around the front of the mansion, a sea of black umbrellas in the pouring rain (clearly influenced by a similar scene in Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent ), with strong midday sunshine bearing down from the right. “As the procession passes a row of silhouetted, green-tinged cypresses, a shaft of sunlight pours down on them and for a split second is broken up by the camera lens into all the colours of the rainbow,” says Durgnat. ‘‘’Artificial’ as it is — the human eye wouldn’t see it — the effect ‘fits’, because it lifts to the level of paroxysm the tragic irony of sunlight at a young woman’s funeral.” The effect of this truly is stunning.
Another particularly eye-catching sequence takes place where the newly-arrived Cynthia hears dragging footsteps on the landing outside her room. As the camera prowls along the corridor with the intruder, the sounds of dragging steps are amped up and the landing suffused in primary-coloured light. From her side of the door, a terrified Cynthia sees the handle turn from the inside, in a moment that was clearly absorbed by a young Dario Argento, if Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980) are anything to go by. Brilliantly staged, the scene wouldn’t be out of place if dropped randomly into either one of those films, and it masterfully invites us to share in Cynthia’s suspense and terror.
Unlike in some of her other horror roles, Steele’s character enjoys our almost complete identification here, being, like us, the newcomer to the situation. In Black Sunday and others, the ‘good’ Barbara is completely overshadowed and upstaged by an evil doppelganger of some sort, but here we are convinced that Cynthia is quite genuine, even after being told that she has suffered from mental health issues up until recently. Of course, being Barbara Steele, her very appearance has sublimely sinister undertones to those familiar with it, making her as much a part of the Gothic fabric of Freda’s film as the graveyard gates at the film’s start.
In an interesting exchange with her husband’s assistant (and viable age-appropriate love interest) Kurt, played by Silvano Tranquilli (or “Montgomery Glenn” as he becomes for the credits), Cynthia says, “Don’t think because I married Bernard, I know about medicine.” After a pause, Kurt asks, “Since you married the Professor you are interested it seems? You are, aren’t you?” “Why… of course,” forms her answer, but her facial expression and subsequent awkward silence say the exact opposite. Although this would seem to suggest her motives for marrying the filthy rich Hichcock are slightly less than strictly romantic, no other hint or allusion to this is given, leading one to wonder if this was a subtext dropped in the rush to complete the film. Apparently, Freda ripped pages out of the script as he went along to speed things up and win his bet. Perhaps this also accounts for the film’s great economy of storytelling and refreshing lack of any redundant moralising around the situation.
There are other telltale signs that the film was made in something of a hurry. In one scene, Cynthia returns to her bedchamber after a pleasant night at the opera and coach-ride home with Kurt. Removing her cloak and laying it on her bed, she smiles tentatively, before looking straight at the camera and beaming warmly out at the viewer. This incredibly odd moment would surely have been destined for the cutting room floor had time and money allowed for reshoots. This is directly followed by Cynthia finding a skull under her bedclothes and fainting for the first time (of several) in the film. Another lapse is found in some clearly sunshine-drenched day-for-night shooting for the exteriors of Cynthia and Kurt’s coach-ride. For the same film to contain the sublimity of that funeral scene, so wonderfully described by Durgnat, and such slipshod lapses as these almost beggars belief.
As well as the obvious nods to Rebecca and Suspicion, there are also heavy shades of The Fall of the House of Usher with the later appearance of first wife Margaretha as an insane, wrinkled crone after her ‘Premature Burial’ experience and subsequent life spent lurking in the crypt. Magaretha here echoes the wheezing, cadaverous figure seen in I vampiri as the similarly-named “Marguerita du Grand”; that archetypal evil witch figure that resounds across Italian horror cinema. Secure in the knowledge that Bernard is still in love with her and her alone (which he is), Margaretha’s only exchanges with Cynthia are to goad or frighten her. As she menaces Cynthia in the secret catacombs that lead to the Hichcock family crypt, she calls out, “You must be buried like I was buried – shut up alive down here! […] It’s you! You who must die!” This is followed by her evil laughter echoing around the walls. It’s hard to decide who is the more insane here; Margaretha, or her husband, for believing that things will neatly go back to the way they were once Cynthia is out of the way.
Of course, the turning point for the not-so-good Doctor is that where Margaretha’s hand reaches out to claw at his neck as he leers lasciviously down at Cynthia, with the red-gel-imbued, distorted features described above. This is where his motivation changes; he’s no longer interested in making things work with Cynthia (if he ever was), nor is he interested in hanging around after hours at the morgue, or in trying to induct Cynthia into his grubby little game. From this point on he knows his real playmate is back and Cynthia is just an obstacle to their happiness. It’s shortly after this that he’s sneaking off to the bathroom cabinet to collect a bottle clearly marked “Poison” (complete with skull and crossbones!) to put in her milk, à la Suspicion.
By the climactic sequence, Hichcock’s mask of propriety has all but disappeared and he has degenerated into a wild beast, lashing out at anyone who gets in his way; namely Kurt, who unsurprisingly emerges as Cynthia’s saviour. It is hard to decide whether Hichcock’s sudden and highly unscientific intention to return Margaretha to her former beauty by shedding the blood of young Cynthia is born of the character’s complete derangement at this stage or laziness on the part of Freda and Gastaldi. Here they seem to be simply grabbing Marguerita du Grand’s (that is, Countess Bathory’s) old shtick off the peg to round things off.
Although not without a few glaring flaws, The Horrible Dr. Hichcock stands up proudly alongside Black Sunday as one of the most satisfying examples of Italian Gothic horror of the ‘Golden Age’. Considering its central thrust, Hichcock emerged oddly untroubled by the censors, even on its export travels, which seems a trifle strange when one considers the harsh treatment meted out to Black Sunday on its arrival in the UK. A financial success in its day, the intervening half-century has seen the film begin to receive something like its critical due.
Of course, not all of the films produced in this ‘Golden Age’ are revered as classics and critically reclaimed or championed by new generations. Far from it. Nor were they all necessarily ground-breaking or even impressive. But most were not without their charm, as we shall see with the same year’s La strage dei vampire / Slaughter of the Vampires in the very next instalment.