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An Englishman’s Guide to Italian Gothic: The Ghost (1963)

With Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960) opening the bloody floodgates of Italian export horror, Bava’s friend and former mentor, Riccardo Freda, responded with a horrific hit of his own; The Horrible Dr Hichcock (1962). Itself one of the best films in the Italian Gothic cycle, Hichcock also served to further promulgate Black Sunday‘s emerging star Barbara Steele as a ‘Queen of Horror’, whether the 25-year-old from Birkenhead liked it or not. It was successful enough to prompt its producers, Luigi Carpentieri and Ermanno Donati, to commission a follow-up from Freda, again teaming him with a top-billed Steele.  

the ghost posterThe result was 1963’s Lo spettro, translated directly into the uninspiring moniker of The Ghost for its export travels. Let’s face it, even ‘The Ghost of Dr Hichcock‘ would be at least a shade more memorable, but I guess it still beats What? (the US retitling of Bava’s The Whip and the Body). And, as though signposted by this limp dick of a title, the film itself lacks the immediate shock value of the previous opus – Hichcock‘s backdrop of the titular doctor’s darkly deviant sexual practices gives way to a more traditional-seeming ghost / haunted house narrative, and opens up on a more cosily familiar situation. However, the dark world that Freda presents us with here turns out to be anything but ‘cosy’.

One suspects the bland title and more ‘traditional’ story set-up (Leonard Maltin called it a “routine plot”) at least partly account for the noticeable paucity of writing on The Ghost in comparison to Hichcock and even Bava’s most minor of entries. Freda himself would have no doubt considered both Hichcock and The Ghost to be minor works within his own oeuvre, having enjoyed a more high-profile and prestigious career apex in the late forties and early fifties – the irony being that it’s these two (along with the Bava-completed I vampiri [1957] and Caltiki, the Immortal Monster [1959]), both released under the alias of ‘Robert Hampton’, that are today his most-seen among film cognoscenti. However, having far fewer horror credits on his long résumé than the likes of Messrs Bava, Fulci and Argento means that Freda rarely receives the same level of devoted fan-adulation as those directors, whose every film has been covered in minute detail a thousand times over and counting. Which belies the fact that The Ghost, while not without its own weaknesses, is in fact superior to several films from each of the ‘big three’s’ collective canons.

Steele is one of two returning cast members, along with the same small crew that toiled on Hichcock, although this one was penned by Freda himself, with Oreste Biancoli (Bava’s Erik the Conqueror [1961]), as opposed to the busy Ernesto Gastaldi. Biancoli had been writing for film since 1930 and was one of the seven screenwriters that laboured on fleshing out Cesare Zavattini’s outline for Bicycle Thieves (1948). Not that Freda would have been impressed by the latter; with the exception of Rossellini’s first couple of films he despised neorealism with a passion. But this was a collaboration between two reliable old hands (Freda had entered the business in 1937), that had already gelled together on two Maciste epics.  

Although clad in Edwardian drag, we find The Ghost to be a sort of Italian Gothic take on Les Diaboliques (1955), while maintaining the last film’s delicious penny dreadful atmosphere. After the Victorian London setting of Hichcock, we’re taken from John o’ Groats to Land’s End to find ourselves in a non-specific area of “Scotland 1910”. In place of Robert Flemyng’s ‘Bernard’, we find a Dr John Hichcock (Elio Jotta) as master of the manor house, participating in a séance while a storm rages outside. Playing the part of medium at the head of the table is Hichcock’s housekeeper, Catherine (Harriet Medin-White, returning from Hichcock in a near-identical role), wailing words in Sanskrit which apparently translate as “The black sign of death is on this house.”

This Dr Hichcock is paralysed from the waist down and has two major coping strategies in play. One is a recently developed obsession with spiritualism, hence the séances. “They’re my only interest in life now,” he opines. “By means of these séances I can cross the border, the border of the spirit world, to which I belong.” The other is a radical course of self-medication that sees him injected with dangerous doses of curare, then quickly given “the antidote”, the theory being this will shock his system out of paralysis. However, this treatment appears to be making him worse rather than better, and all he seems to crave is a quick death. He’s insufferably irritating into the bargain, and far from what you might call ‘easy on the eye’.

As for his young-enough-to-be-his-daughter wife, Margaret (Steele), she is most assuredly easy on the eye, thank you very much, and she’s coping with all this by engaging in a passionate affair with John’s live-in doctor, Charles, as played by handsome American actor Peter Baldwin (of I Married a Monster from Outer Space [1958]) in a Vincent Price beard. Charles has been working with Hichcock on his ‘curare cure’ method, honestly believing in John’s “wonderful inspiration that will save the lives of millions of poor cripples.” The moment we see he and Margaret together, we know what must be coming next, and as sure as eggs is eggs, this time Charles withholds John’s antidote after administering the deadly curare.

However, despite Hichcock being consigned to the crypt, things don’t turn out exactly as the lovebirds had hoped. Firstly, it transpires that old John has bequeathed most of his fortune to the local orphanage, much to the delight of the visiting Canon Owens (the always-wonderful Umberto Raho), who runs it. Most of these riches are held in a huge safe, but the key cannot be found. After Catherine informs them that her late master “kept it on his person”, the lovers are soon jimmying open his coffin – to no avail. Next thing they know, they’re hearing the ghostly ring of Hichcock’s carillon bell (that he so loved to annoy folks with in life), having his wheelchair come tumbling downstairs of its own accord (possibly inspiring similar action in The Changeling [1980]), and hearing his not-so-dulcet tones mocking them through a ‘possessed’ Catherine, as they scrabble around trying to find the key to all that loot. Worse still, the late doctor also appears as a terrifying apparition in the throes of death, in one instance hung from the neck, in another clutching at a split-open stomach. Driven to the point of madness themselves, it seems a sticky end is on the cards for our scheming pair…

The first thing one takes away from The Ghost is, quite literally, how dark it is.  Barring the odd excursion to the Hichcock crypt, most of the action is confined to the house at night, with that small core of four main actors usually up-lit or side-lit from one source, suggesting the light of the candelabras we see dotted around. Long shadows are cast everywhere. Throughout the film we find the characters stumbling around in semi-darkness, drawing the viewer ever further into Freda’s claustrophobic milieu as our scheming lovers become increasingly unstuck. But aside from all this literal darkness, it’s the black hearts of our story’s players that make The Ghost such a gloomy place to visit.

Where Steele essayed a good Barbara/bad Barbara dual role in Black Sunday and others, The Horrible Dr Hichcock had modelled her on the nameless and blameless heroine of Rebecca, with Medin-White acting as her ‘Mrs Danvers’, and our deviant doctor being unmistakably the villain; no less than a Victorian Bluebeard. Here Steele is doing what she does best. Margaret is driven completely by callous self-interest; or ‘evil’ if you want to be all dramatic about it. It’s surprising that this isn’t considered one of her more iconic performances. She has a ton of screen time here (and in full lovin’ colour), where those doe eyes and cruel lips go through the whole spectrum of emotions. Whether she’s snarling, grinning avariciously, raising her eyebrows, ranting hysterically, or laughing triumphantly, the viewer can’t help but be utterly mesmerised by her. She is absolutely the pulsing, jet-black heart of this movie.  

As in the last film, Freda of course ensures that Steele is sumptuously attired at all times, with John Hichcock’s passing early in the film facilitating her spending the remainder clad in a variety of sublimely glam black mourning outfits. A should-be-iconic Barbara shot occurs at the funeral itself, one of very few outdoor scenes, gorgeously shot in a sun-dappled forest. The camera closes in on her face, shrouded in a black-spotted gauze veil, and tension is written all over its smooth lines. After this, we watch her become increasingly unhinged and distrustful of Charles as the ‘haunting’ continues and her late husband’s riches continue to elude her.

Thanks to a spot of crafty doubt-planting on the part of Hichcock’s still-faithful servant Catherine, this culminates in Margaret mutilating Charles with a cut-throat razor, in a surprisingly brutal sequence for the time. As we take Charles’ point of view, blood drips down the camera lens while Margaret continues to repeatedly slash away at him, only cutting away briefly to show us a self-satisfied Catherine creeping up the stairs. Margaret then drags her lover’s prone body down to the cellar and sets him on fire despite his still displaying weak signs of life. Where we had Steele as ‘innocent’ in the previous film (and her upstanding, age-appropriate love interest Kurt [Silvano Tranquillo] waiting in the wings to save the day), the grim world of The Ghost makes this appear almost a fairy tale in comparison.

Despite his being first cuckolded, then murdered, the audience is not encouraged to waste a great deal of sympathy on old man Hichcock, either. His unattractive thick lips and bushy eyebrows, along with his irksome turns of phrase, make him loathsome enough to help us understand why Margaret can’t seem to abide the idea of spending another moment with him. Elio Jotta mostly worked in TV, but also provided a villainous turn for Piero Regnoli’s Maciste in King Solomon’s Mines (1964); one suspects the main reason he was cast here was to provide us with a scary-looking ‘Ghost’. Sure enough, a well-circulated still of his leering, up-lit visage in the guise of a ghost for this film was re-used on numerous subsequent European horror film posters and fumetti covers for several years afterwards.

At the film’s climax, few seasoned genre addicts will be surprised much to learn that Hichcock is actually “alive and kicking”, as he puts it, emerging from a secret bookcase-doorway, having faked his own death in an elaborately devious scheme to destroy the lovers. His ‘curare cure’ was in fact working, and he’s regained the use of his limbs. The ghostly manifestations were all the work of he and Catherine, and nothing supernatural has actually occurred. As he stands over Margaret gloating, Margaret learns from Hichcock that a cut on her hand is laced with his beloved curare; paralysis and madness await.

Not only do we see the extent to which he’s enjoying all this (out comes the ‘bad guy laugh’), but we also see him casually do away with his accomplice, Catherine, bringing home the idea that he is the greater of the two evils after all. After this we doubt he could ever be much interested in improving the lot of any “poor cripples” besides himself. However, Hichcock’s triumph is short-lived when he celebrates with a glass of “Dutch gin” he finds on the table – filled with his lethal-plant-extract-of-choice by Margaret moments earlier, when briefly flirting with suicide. The last maniacal laughter we hear is Margaret’s, as she’s carried away bodily by the arriving police.

The Ghost is as sumptuously mounted a production as you’d expect from Freda at this time, never once breaking its dark spell and forming an excellent companion piece to his triumph of a year earlier. It’s far from perfect, with lags in pacing, some silly dialogue, and the odd cheap scare (Medin-White pulls the old ‘outstretched grasping monster hand’ gag – twice). It feels more derivative than Hichcock, and lacks that film’s strong central performance from Robert Flemyng, not to mention the more obvious shock/sleaze value of the necrophilia angle. But it also lacks Hichcock‘s occasionally rushed feeling, day-for-night shooting, and those strange loose ends of dialogue and gaps of logic caused by Freda famously ripping pages from the script as he went along. Where Flemyng could be said to have carried Hichcock on his shoulders, so here does Steele, and although much younger has no difficulty in rising to the challenge.

Never a great fan of the genre, Freda would bow out of horror for a while after The Ghost, perhaps thinking a return to more prestigious past glories beckoned. However, come the early seventies he was back on the gravy train with middling giallo The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire (1971) and the more Gothic-oriented Tragic Ceremony (1972). The final film of his career was low-budget giallo Murder Obsession (1981). While not without their own peculiar charms, none of these films would match the quality of his two Hichcock melodramas. Both stand as Technicolor jewels in the dark tiaras of both the Italian Gothic cycle and the genre filmography of our Queen of Horror.

About Rob Talbot

Returning from early days of Diabolique, Rob Talbot is a compulsive writer and cult cinema obsessive. He also writes for UK horror magazine Scream, including the popular 'Eurohorror of the Week' column for their website, and has also been published extensively in Starburst and Bedabbled!: British Horror & Cult Cinema, amongst others. Other obsessions include Italian soundtracks, Krautrock, and hard SF novels.

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