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 secret. Dr Hichcock has a pathological fascination with dead bodies, and harbours a deep desire to engage with them in sexual activities. 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 (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. In his marriage to Cynthia, Hichcock does appear to be attempting to change his ways. Flemyng’s performance carefully highlights the tortured doctor’s struggle with his dark desires, which he cannot seem to resist.
The Horrible Dr Hichcock is resplendent with classic Gothic imagery, 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. The baroque sets and lighting, graceful camerawork and lavish production values, all combine to create a dreamily, darkly 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 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 mist 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. A newly married woman realising her husband harbours dark secrets 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 morbid 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 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 haunting piece of work.