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.

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