The Horrible Dr Hichcock
Dir. Riccardo Freda
This slice of quintessential Italian Gothic horror is a darkly beautiful and disturbing rumination on the most forbidden of desires… the love for the dead…
Robert Flemyng stars as the tormented titular doctor, a respected surgeon with a morbid and uncontrollable lust for sexually-liaising with the dead. He and his wife Margaretha (Maria Teresa Vianello), indulge in dark and sordid sexual encounters together: he sedates her with an anaesthetic he created, and as she slips into unconsciousness, he copulates with her deathly-still body. Margaretha eventually slips into unconsciousness, seemingly for the last time, when her husband administers too much anaesthetic during one of their macabre liaisons. Inconsolable, the doctor is unable to continue living in the house with ‘too many memories’ of his beloved wife, so he moves away.
Cut to twelve years later and Hichcock returns with a new wife, Cynthia (the eerily beautiful Barbara Steele). All is seemingly ‘normal’ with the doctor and his new wife. However this doesn’t last long. Cynthia experiences a number of strange occurrences in the house that unnerve her to the extreme. She eventually begins to suspect that her new husband is trying to kill her in order to be reunited with his first wife, who Cynthia believes to stalk the halls of her new home…
The story unravels in London, 1885 – a time containing its own hefty sexual undertones of repression and forbidden desire. Typical attitudes of the time dictated that men were the active party during intercourse and women inactive and docile. There are no exchanges of dialogue or touches between Hichcock and Margaretha until she is unconscious. Even though she complies with his demands (it is never made clear how the couple came to this arrangement) and is every inch the ‘good wife’ society at this time stipulated she be, her husband still strays – risking his career to ravish cadavers at work and in the nearby cemetery…
In his marriage to Cynthia, Hichcock does appear to be attempting to change his ways. Flemyng’s credible performance carefully highlights the tortured doctor’s struggle with his dark desires.
Much of The Horrible Dr Hichcock relies on cliché and genre convention, particularly in the scenes featuring a nightgown clad Steele, candelabra in hand, wafting through the dark and creepy corridors of the house. Secret passageways, seemingly never-ending thunder storms, sinister housekeepers and cunning plans to drive someone insane, are the stuff of high gothic melodrama/hokum. However, it is still a wonderfully atmospheric, tasteful and moody film. The baroque sets and lighting, graceful camera work and lavish production values, all combine to create a dreamily romantic and grandiose affair, steeped in haunting imagery and a lingering ability to unsettle to the core.
Seemingly typical of Italian horror, the illogicality and lack of narrative cohesion bleeds away into astounding imagery and artistic flourishes, conveying events through a series of provocative images. While the content of the film is far from explicit, there is absolutely no doubt concerning what is actually occurring.
The elegantly choreographed opening depicts the assault of a gravedigger by an unseen assailant, the subsequent opening of the coffin and fondling of the beautiful corpse inside. Events become increasingly unsettling and this downright shocking image echoes throughout the rest of the film.
An unnerving reference to Carl Theodor Dreyden’s Vampyr (1932) occurs when Cynthia wakes up inside a coffin with a glass window, revealing her distraught features; her inaudible screams fog up the glass and provide yet another disturbing and claustrophobic moment. Freda is another director who has an affinity with the face of Barbara Steele – her imperilled features look as iconic in this film as they did in Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960).
The name of the titular character aside, the film also abounds with sly references to the work of Alfred Hitchcock. The threatened new wife and a portrait of the dead wife (Rebecca, 1940), the discovery of a skull in a bed (Under Capricorn, 1949), and the poisoned glass of milk (Suspicion, 1941). Indeed the concept of a man with an obsession for a dead woman was only hinted at in Vertigo (1958) – here it is openly explored.
The film was unique in its exploration of this unnatural desire – one wonders what the censors of the time thought. Other films with resplendent necrophiliac imagery such as The Black Cat (1934) and The Tomb of Ligeia (1964), only hinted at such occurrences. The Horrible Dr Hichcock explores them in non-judgemental depth. The film never feels exploitative – this theme is central to the plot and characterisation. It is a brave film that does not proffer macabre content and then pretend to condemn it to ‘redeem’ itself. As a result it proves to be a startlingly thought provoking and hauntingly romantic piece of work.