“Death will take you as you sleep! A sleep as deep as Death!” Barbara Steele doesn’t realize that her husband is using her to recover a forbidden sexual thrill. Riccardo Freda’s film plays games with Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography, but it also generates a Euro-horror spell like no other. Outrageous in 1962, it was a Technicolor ode to funereal surrealism. New in this review — a crazy theory that might upend story assumptions about L’orribile segreto del Dr. Hichcock.
The Horrible Dr. Hichcock
1962 / Color / 1:78 widescreen / 77 88 min. / Street Date September 13, 2016 / L’orribile segreto del Dr. Hichcock; Raptus The Secret of Dr. Hichcock, The Terror of Dr. Hichcock / available through the Olive Films website / 29.98
Starring Barbara Steele, Robert Flemyng, Montgomery Glenn (SIlvano Tranquili), Teresa Fitzgerald (Maria Teresa Vianello), Harriet White (Harriet White Medin), Spencer Williams, All Christianson, Evar SImpson, Nat Harley.
Cinematography Donald Green (Rafaele Masciocchi)
Film Editor Donna Christie (Ornella Micheli)
Original Music Roman Vlad
Written by Julyan Perry (Ernesto Gastaldi)
Produced by Ermanno Donati, Louis Mann
Directed by Robert Hampton (Riccardo Freda)
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
‘Back in the day’ the average horror film was more tolerated than welcomed. Riccardo Freda’s Italian L’orribile segreto del Dr. Hichcock was initially released to the critical silence elicited by most horror pictures. That changed after it was championed by the surrealists, who considered its transgressor doctor a surrealist hero in pursuit of a delirious objective: an ultimate rapture. It was frequently mentioned in the company of other surrealist-approved films like Duck Soup, King Kong and Peter Ibbetson. Then the usually dry The Monthly Film Bulletin expanded its remarks to note in Hichcock a new kind of cinematic insider spoofery, years before Brian De Palma: director ‘Robert Hampton’ and writer ‘Julyan Perry’ affectionately restage motifs and situations from Alfred Hitchcock movies. The movie is serious, but its title is a sly pun. Even the MFB realized that all of the film’s credits had been Anglicized, to give the impression of an English production. The names weren’t changed to protect the innocent, but to fool Italian audiences, who like everyone else in the early ’60s preferred Hammer films to home-grown horrors.
Released in America two years later with a down-market ‘do you dare’ ad campaign, The Horrible Dr. Hichcock surprised viewers with an unthinkable theme: necrophilia. The ad copy danced poetically around the taboo subject matter: “The candle of his lust burnt brightest in the shadow of the grave!” … “His secret was a coffin named desire!” The dialogue makes no overt mention of any such forbidden activity, but the central image on view is the sight of the indeed horrible doctor suffering his ‘unholy desires,’ grimacing in stress as he tries to resist his compulsion. Whenever Doc Hichcock is on screen alone, the delirium factor shoots through the roof. Roman Vlad’s funereal, swooning music score — with the BEST morbid theme ever for a horror movie — seems to drive him forward. And when he reaches the object of his passion the images launch into chromatic expressionism: a white-tiled surgery holding room suddenly lights up in a fiery red representing unadulterated LUST. The red light that suffuses the scenes is pure cinema — it has no organic source.
For years The Horrible Dr. Hichcock saw scant mention in print; it was far too adult to be featured in the adolescent-pitched magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland. If it should show up on TV, schedulers knew not what they were getting — I can imagine a broadcast technician watching and thinking, ‘Is this movie about what I think it’s about?’ In 1962 anything resembling necrophilia was sick humor outside polite discussion — ‘dead baby’ jokes maybe, but not that. The first overt joke I can remember to reference the subject was a throwaway line in a Woody Allen movie: “I’d call you a sadistic bestial necrophile, but that’s beating a dead horse.”
Those who saw The Horrible Dr. Hichcock on a screen in Technicolor must have had a special experience: back in film school it was an unattainable show, top on the list of Pictures One Could Not Find. In the 1890s, brilliant surgeon Dr. Bernard Hichcock (respected English actor Robert Flemyng) is experimenting with a powerful anesthetic that allows him to perform previously impractical surgeries. But even Bernard’s assistants don’t know that he molests corpses in the morgue. Even more incredible, Hichcock has worked out a bizarre sex game with his wife Margaretha (Maria Teresa Vianello as Teresa Fitzgerald). With the aid of his sinister housekeeper Martha (Harriet White Medin as Harriet White), Bernard uses his anesthetic to put Margaretha in a deep sleep approximating death, so as to facilitate his strange sexual preference. But something goes horribly wrong… Some time later, Dr. Hichcock returns from Italy with a new bride, Cynthia (Barbara Steele). He takes up his practice again, but to the consternation of his assistants he refuses to use his serum. Cynthia soon realizes that nothing is as it should be. Martha is resentful and cold, and enough strange things happen to convince Cynthia that the house is haunted by Wife #1. What she can’t possibly know is that Bernard is again falling under the spell of that old black magic. He still has vials of his anesthetic serum close at hand.
I first saw The Horrible Dr. Hichcock in a 16mm print I purchased for $40 from college friend Robert S. Birchard. It was missing several minutes and lacked an end title, but the incredible music was intact, and ‘Donald Green’s’ cinematography looked good, even in slimy B&W. After pouring over old issues of Mini-Minuit Fantastique borrowed from James Ursini, I learned only that actress Steele hadn’t liked filming in cold crypts, trying to look glamorous while working twenty-hour work days. Horrible did show on TV once, but in faded color and heavily edited to accommodate extra commercials.
Then came the 1990s, and I believe a Sinister Cinema tape of the original version, which allowed me to speculate on the film’s mad themes for an online essay that was reprinted in the first Horror Film Reader: Women on the Verge of a Gothic Breakdown: Sex, Drugs and Corpses in The Horrible Dr. Hichcock. And then came the revelations in Tim Lucas’s magazine Video Watchdog. Lucas determined that the alternate title Raptus, The Secret of Dr. Hichcock was not a legend, but was actually on export prints before the film was re-titled for England (The Terror of Dr. Hichcock) and America (The Horrible Dr. Hichcock).
Through authoritative interviews with the prolific Italo writer Ernesto Gastaldi (“Julyan Perry’), Tim Lucas learned that the shooting script had pages of standard expositional dialogue that presumably filled in a few blank spots in the movie’s characterizations and motivations. Director Freda reportedly simply threw all that material away and instead concentrated on the macabre visual flow. Various story clues may be disconnected, but the film has an extraordinary concentration on its dark themes.
We finally arrive at a point where Bernard once again immerses himself in madness. He surrenders to his sex mania and restages one of his funeral lovemaking sessions, but this time with an unwilling partner. The climax of this chemically-induced seduction is a horrific visual that can only be explained as Cynthia’s subjective experience, under the influence of the paralyzing serum: Bernard’s face bathed in the expressionist scarlet haze, bloating and changing shape as if transformed from within by his perverted lust.
Among the early Euro-horror hits Hichcock is THE prime corridor-wandering movie. The motif requires one vulnerable heroine in a nightgown, exploring an unknown creepy house or garden. Candelabra in hand, Cynthia takes at least four long walks through the overgrown garden and underground tunnels, searching for the ‘phantom bride’ with the high top laced boots and the skull-like face. Ms. Steele probably saw little merit in the picture because her character is a passive prop most of the time. Freda is a weird director. His camera travels nicely but he also slams us with smash zooms. There was apparently enough time to imaginatively light the set (not easy for color on location in 1962) but not enough time to properly rehearse the actors. Flemying is always on task, agonizing like a drug addict wanting his fix. But on more than one occasion the director seems to abandon Barbara Steele. One scene really looks like a stage wait, with Barbara hearing a cue and falling into character as we watch. For a full beat she stands smiling at the camera patiently waiting.
Some of the Hi t chcock parallels cited by The Monthly Film Bulletin are easy to spot: Rebecca’s sinister housekeeper; a wretched dead-alive woman kept in a cellar (Psycho), a sinister glass of milk Suspicion, the skull by the pillow (Under Capricorn). But there’s also a pointed parallel in depth with Vertigo. Both it and Horrible see a man trying to make one woman take the place of her dead predecessor. Scotty Ferguson and Bernard Hichcock are soul brothers sharing an unspeakable desire, even though Scotty’s necrophilia is not directly physical. Also from Vertigo come the stylized, scarcely motivated shafts of colored light that place Scotty’s obsession in a feverish haze, a sensory overkill. Bernard’s erotic excitement is represented by blasts of red that fill rooms with a ‘lust from beyond the grave.’
Thematically, at least, The Horrible Dr. Hichcock goes beyond the gothic framework to work out an original, resolutely adult story, which crosses the boundaries of safe ‘horror’ subject matter. It of course remains a generic construction — a hero appears to rescue the damsel in distress, and the finale is a standard Rebecca- like conflagration. Modern horror films now make Freda and Gastaldi’s elegant little bit of nastiness seem tame. But not really. Back in the relatively complacent world of 1962, shocking an audience with scary ideas was a meaningful thing to do.
Olive Films’ Blu-ray of The Horrible Dr. Hichcock is a good encoding of the American version of this film distributed in 1964 by Sigma III. The film is licensed from Melange Pictures, a holding company established by Viacom for the Republic library. Somewhere along the way Melange acquired dozens of orphaned independent productions; thankfully it seems to have taken good care of the film elements as well.
The average fan will be pleased to finally have The Horrible Dr. Hichcock in their collection. The image is dark and on the cold side, with colors that are reasonably bright. The soundtrack fares worse. Overall it is thin, and has a great deal of hiss. The music never seems to be running at a consistent speed, and succumbs now and then to subtle wow and flutter. I believe the American soundtrack may always have sounded this bad.
Olive put out a helpful news blurb explaining that, yes, their American cut is shorter than the original Italian version, but that the trims weren’t made to remove salacious content, as was always suspected. Footnote #4 in my Women on the Verge… spells out some of the differences.
This American cut adds many dissolves that once were effective direct cuts, such as the match-action syringe comparison, now ruined with yet another stupid dissolve transition to a coach carrying Bernard home. Other establishing shots are repeated unnecessarily, and some scenes are trimmed so much that they seem like remnants. The American distributor Sigma III surely wanted a shorter running time to interest more theaters to book it in double bills. But what in the Italo cut was mysterious, has in Horrible become almost incoherent.
Thanks to collector friend Robert Seletsky, a number of years ago I was able to see the original Italian cut L’orribile segreto del Dr. Hichcock on a 2008 Medusa PAL DVD in the Italian language only. I had resisted the Italo track because I wanted to hear Bernard Hitchcock speak with Robert Flemying’s baleful, clipped English accent. After I heard and saw the Italo original I no longer missed Flemyng’s voice. Compared to the beautifully mixed Italo soundtrack, the English mix is a cheap and shoddy construction, with a poorly written dub script. Extra off-camera dialogue is dropped in here and there, either trying to clarify things or make jokes (“Yes, but you must admit the doctor is a bit strange himself, isn’t he?”). Some weak chatter from Margaretha’s guests after her piano recital (Roman Vlad’s funereal piece, of course) are crudely doubled, producing the effect of an echo, a mistake. The clubbing of the gravedigger that now opens the film was originally right after the title sequence. It’s missing the sound effect of the blow, and the gravedigger’s loud groan.
The replacement music for the title sequence is a string of badly edited music measures, and we hear every mismatched music cut. The original track is a full-blown sampling of Vlad’s stirring score, with a break for silence — and a scream from Cynthia Hichcock. The Italo music track is much stronger. For the life of me, I don’t know why Roman Vlad’s score is not better known or available in some other form. His funeral march is sensational, the best thing of its kind, ever. I’ll from time to time play the old Freda/Bava film I Vampiri, just to hear Vlad’s track on that one. It’s tamer, but hits the same spooky tone of menace.
The image on PAL DVDs of the Italo cut is much better, with a softer, more detailed image and much brighter colors. This is unfortunately just a product of duping when the movie was imported; the Horrible version was surely multiple generations down the duplication tree. I’m frankly pleased that Olive’s transfer looks as good as it does.
Not another Savant theory…
Not long ago I had a thought that should have occurred to me long ago, what with the film’s overt Psycho connection. During the entire second half of the movie, we only see housekeeper Martha (who is just as crazy as Bernard) and Magaretha together in the same frame once, seen through a window into the fruit cellar basement apartment. That shot is yet another echo of Psycho, in that we only see the back of Margaretha’s head, sitting in a chair facing away from us. When Martha touches her, Margaretha doesn’t even look alive. See where I’m going with this? If it weren’t for the resurrected Margaretha telling Cynthia her story of premature burial, I’d believe that the ‘ghost Margaretha’ was Martha dressed up to impersonate the dead woman. It’s also somewhat telling that Martha just disappears from the story before the events of the last day. Where’d she go? Even Mrs. Danvers was given the courtesy of a flaming farewell, in Rebecca.
Hmmm. This is of course just an idle theory, but what if, after Freda jettisoned a fistful of script pages during filming, the film’s ending had to be hastily simplified? What if, originally, we discover that Margaretha really did die, and that the woman in the cellar is her shriveled corpse, pickled and preserved like Mrs. Bates? The prowling woman in the wedding dress is really Martha dressed up, assuming Margaretha’s identity to both haunt Cynthia and provoke Bernard. Note that the ‘ghost’ Margaretha’s cackling explanation to Cynthia is all handled without synch dialogue; it could have been rewritten. And Bernard’s promise to rejuvenate Margaretha with Cynthia’s blood is just the raving of a madman – improvised on the spot, perhaps.
That’s a whole lot of ‘perhaps,’ of course, even if it explains some of the movie’s inconsistencies. The whole construction sounds far too complicated, as it would make Martha an equal partner in the macabre proceedings, and reduce Bernard to a pawn. It’s also like one of Gastaldi’s ‘twisty,’ overly talky giallos written ten years later. This would have been a question to ask actress Harriet White Medin… if only to lay a wild theory to rest.
(Thanks again to Robert Seletsky for all his help, and for letting me see the original L’orribile segreto del Dr. Hichcock.)
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Horrible Dr. Hichcock Blu-ray rates:
Video: Good – Minus
Sound: Fair +
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? Yes; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 10, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson