Thursday, February 14, 2013

I Heart the Dead: The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (1962)

When fans and scholars of classic 60s horror films mention the Italian Gothic strain, two names invariably surface: Mario Bava, the director who spearheaded the Italian movement with the 1960 film, Black Sunday, and its star, the black-eyed goddess, Barbara Steele who also starred in Black Sunday. Even beyond the horror genre, Black Sunday is hailed as a classic. But to me, Black Sunday is not the definitive Italian Gothic. That honor goes to 1962’s The Horrible Dr. Hichcock.

Bava actually owes much of his claim to fame to Hichcock’s director, Riccardo Freda. Bava was cinematographer on the earlier Freda film, I Vampiri. From Black Sunday to Whip and the Body and later films such as Kill, Baby, Kill and Bay of Blood (all of which, by the way, are worth tracking down and viewing) Bava’s greatest strength as a director are his overwrought visuals which give his films, rather than story and performance, their power.

Freda’s ghoulish valentine to necrophilia (written for the screen by Ernesto Gastaldi) draws a more nuanced performance from Robert Flemyng as the titular doctor, especially when compared to the hammy performance of the leads in the similar films Nightmare Castle and Castle of Blood.

The Horrible Dr Hichcock opens in a London cemetery in 1885 where an unseen figure dispatches the gravedigger in order to purloin the body from its coffin. Within the next few minutes we learn that the brilliant surgeon, Bernard Hichcock, has a penchant for putting his lovely wife into a drug-induced death-like trance in order to satisfy his peculiar sexual proclivity. One night, things go horribly awry and Dr. Hichcock discovers he has accidentally murdered his wife.

Enter Barbara Steele, ever the new bride and target for Hichcock’s death lust. From this point on the film borrows liberally from everything from  Jane Eyre to Rebecca, with a few references to various Alfred Hitchcock films thrown in for good measure (hence the title) as the good doctor tries everything in his power to introduce Cynthia to his sordid little sex games. Hichcock is filled with the requisite billowing curtains, cobwebbed corridors, and candelabras held aloft, but you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen Steele trapped in coffin with a glass window in its lid.

Like most of the films from the Italian Gothic period, a decent American print has remained elusive. There is still no official release in the US, but several weeks ago I acquired a DVD from this dealer one eBay. The letterboxing and color blows away my old Sinister Cinema VHS tape as well as a DVD purchased from another dealer several years ago. The screenshots here are direct from this DVD version. Whether you are a collector or curiosity seeker, if you love pure Gothic cinema, The Horrible Dr. Hichcock comes with my highest recommendation. If I could take only one film representing Italian Gothic to a desert island, this is it.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Spaghetti Gothic 101: Nightmare Castle

Not my favorite Barbara Steele movie (that would be The Horrible Dr. Hichcock, coming to The Midnight Room next week), but any way you slice it Nightmare Castle packs an awful lot of bang for your buck. This is another one I originally purchased on VHS from Sinister Cinema years ago. The censored version as originally released in the US is in public domain, so there are numerous DVD editions floating around at various price ranges.

In 2009, Severin Films acquired the rights from the European copyright holder and presented Nightmare Castle in as near to a perfect print as we will probably ever see, restoring close to fourteen minutes of footage along with the rest of the original music score by Ennio Morricone. Morricone is well known to Spaghetti Western fans as the composer of the scores for For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Sad to say his idea of a Gothic soundtrack is mostly overblown organ music and ridiculously over-the-top romantic themes that swell at inappropriate moments.

The story itself is a garish mishmash of Gothic tropes beginning with mad scientist Dr. Steven Arroway’s discovery that his wife is having an affair with the hunky gardener. Arroway systematically tortures the young lovers with whips and chains before dousing them with acid and electrocuting them. I guess if you’re going to dispatch adulterers you may as well do it in style.

Greedy Dr. Arroway thought he was going to inherit his wife’s money, but before her death, Muriel left her fortune to her half-sister Jenny, a blonde dead-ringer for Muriel incarcerated at the local insane asylum. But wait – it gets better.

After coaxing Jenny into leaving her money to him in her will, Arroway breaks her out of the asylum only to attempt to drive her mad all over again. What he doesn’t count on are Jenny’s psychic dreams in which she learns that someone murdered her sister in the greenhouse. There’s some other weird stuff about the mad scientist’s experiments – he restores the wrinkly housekeeper’s youth and raises plants that drip blood, and there’s a handsome love interest for Jenny in the form of her former psychiatrist who makes house calls.

The plot is lurid and as Grand Guignol as the soundtrack. The star of the show is, of course, Barbara Steele, demonstrating her acting chops as both Muriel and Jenny. (She plays duel roles in Black Sunday and An Angel for Satan as well). Many reviewers of her films around the internet have commented that she is put to best use when the camera makes a fetish of her face and body. Ultimately, she is as pure a 1960s sex symbol as Bridget Bardot and Raquel Welch.

As I mentioned earlier there are numerous DVD versions to choose from, but the Severin release is the only one worth purchasing, not only for presenting the most complete version for American audiences, but also for the outstanding thirty minute interview with the dark goddess herself.

I’m not much of a film critic, just a lifelong fan of these creaky old horror shows. If you’d like to know just how revered some of these Spaghetti Gothics are among collectors and horror fans, check out what some of the experts have to say at the links below.