Today we reminisce about
The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (1962)
Directed by Riccardo Freda aka Robert Hampton
Starring: Barbara Steele, Robert Flemyng
* Published specifically for Dark and Deep: The Gothic Horror Blogathon hosted by Gabriela at Pale Writer *
Over the past few years, I have been rediscovering the horror genre after having drifted away from it. As a youngster, nothing was more thrilling than a scary movie and the bloodier they were, the better. Since becoming a mother and living through certain experiences however, I find that that my tolerance for gore is not as it once was. In fact, I sometimes seem to be frightened by the slightest innuendo of terror or the paranormal. Watching the complete Friday the 13th or more recently the Halloween series has admittedly been a lot of fun and if anything, it has reinforced my love for classic horror.
Horror films from the pre-Code era and the Golden Age of Hollywood relied mostly on the power of suggestion to scare their audiences. Shadows and sounds (screams, creaky doors/wood, loud noises, etc.) were used to heighten sensations and create a specific ambiance. Often times, actors would be filmed reacting to something occurring off-screen and although the audience could not see the same thing, the message sent was often as clear as day. Special effects were sometimes utilised but to such a lesser degree than today’s CGI-enhanced films that it has to even make a comparison. Although modern audiences tend to consider older films as insignificant or boring, they can actually be more captivating than anything being made today. Our featured film, The Horrible Dr. Hichcock, is certainly one of them.
“Sleep as deep as death”
The year is 1885 and it is a dark, bleak evening in London with heavy fog. In a local cemetery, a gravedigger is preparing a plot for a new arrival. He is nearly done with his shovelling when suddenly he is hit violently over the head to unconsciousness by a cloaked assailant. The attacker is not interested in money or worldly possessions; it wants the deceased body of beautiful young woman that is resting inside of the coffin – not for medical experimentation or for ransom, but for pleasure. You see, this person practises a dastardly sexual fetish that is almost beyond taboo: necrophilia.
At University College Hospital the next day, the gravedigger is about to undergo surgery and is attended to by the team of renowned head surgeon Dr. Bernard Hichcock (Robert Flemyng). They manage to stabilise him and reassure both his daughter and the inspector assigned to the case that he will survive. Hichcock then proceeds to go home where his wife, Margaretha, is holding a dinner party. Since he is very fatigued, he decides to go directly to his room and allow her to carry on entertaining her guests with her piano playing. However, she promptly dismisses everyone much to her husband’s surprise, heading to a secret area where she waits for Bernard. When he arrives, the entrancing and exquisite Margaretha has laid herself on a four-post bed with velvet and lace detailing, as if she is offering herself to him. Bernard goes to a red box at the foot of the bed where he fills a needle with some of his own, special anaesthetic and proceeds to inject Margaretha, who loses consciousness almost instantly. Aroused at the sight of his wife’s limp and unresponsive body, he starts to fondle her with the full suggestion that he will go on to have intercourse. This ritual plays out quite frequently between the two until one evening when Bernard goes too far. Overtaken by his perverted desires to double the usual dosage of anaesthetic, Margaretha succumbs to an overdose and dies in his arms. Inconsolable, Bernard leaves London after Margaretha is placed in the family crypt.
Twelve years later in 1897, Bernard decides to return to his old homestead with his new wife, Cynthia (Barbara Steele). She is as young and as beautiful as Margaretha had been though somehow seems more naïve owing to her discomfort in the house and her emotional struggles with Bernard. From the very first night in the house, she experiences a series of odd occurrences, amongst them: seeing ghostly figures, hearing heavy footsteps outside of her door, and discovering a human skull in her bed. Bernard questions the veracity of Cynthia’s claims and remains distant from her, still caught up in the tragedy of losing Margaretha. He fails in his attempt to restrain his fiendish desires when he tries on multiple occasions to sexually desecrate the body of a recently deceased young woman in the hospital morgue. Slowly but surely, both Bernard and Cynthia are destabilised in their daily lives and in their marital union.
In the meantime, Martha, the long-time housekeeper of the Hichcock Estate, stays mum during this whole ordeal with the exception of revealing that her mentally ill sister has been staying at the house with her since Bernard’s departure twelve years prior. She suggests that this could explain the screams and the “apparitions” that had been plaguing Cynthia. All of this sounds reasonable until one stormy night when Bernard hears a familiar piano tune being played, leading him to make a shocking discovery that will affect Cynthia’s ultimate fate.
The Horrible Dr. Hichcock was made as a low-budget Italian production that was filmed within a matter of weeks. Barbara Steele managed to complete her scenes during a break from the Federico Fellini directed 8½ which was released in 1963. Her appearance in Hichcock no doubt helped solidify her popularity as a horror actress having previously starred in another Italian project, Black Sunday, in addition to The Pit and the Pendulum alongside the great Vincent Price. Steele would go on to star on several more Italian horror films, with most of them being cult favourites. Robert Flemyng was well established in the theatre and steadily appeared in films from the 1950’s to the 1970’s. He was nearing the age of 50 when he starred filming Hichcock and was initially very uncomfortable with the subject matter but was obligated to continue on due to a contractual agreement. Flemyng’s cinematic career would be more focused on drama and even comedy although he did revisit the horror genre with The Blood Beast Terror, co-starring alongside another revered great, Peter Cushing, as well as The Body Stealers.
During the 1960’s, Italy (and Spain) doubled for the Old West in many a Spaghetti Western and also became a stand-in for horror films. Having been made so inexpensively, no one really expected Hichcock to be a runaway hit or even one that was extremely memorable. The film had an overwhelmingly positive reception from critics and proved to be popular with audiences despite the very objectionable subject matter at hand. Though it is not officially considered as part of the Italian giallo genre, it certainly helped set the stage for many horror films in the decades to come.
Discussion & Thoughts (contains spoilers)
Some critics noted that Hichcock took inspiration from a handful of classic thriller/horror pictures like Jane Eyre, Rebecca, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; the latter of which had already been made for the screen six times in the United States alone by 1962. Since the gothic period is very specific in terms of costumes and décor, it is not surprising that Hichcock would visually resemble these other films set during the same period. I will say, however, that I did notice specific similarities to the Alfred Hitchcock-directed (no relation) 1949 film Under Capricorn.
Milly and Mrs. Danvers
Martha the maid could easily be compared to Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca and in my opinion, she is as relatable to Milly the housekeeper in Under Capricorn. Milly was stern and distantly cold like Danvers but the big difference is that she had a close relationship to her employer, Sam Flusky. Danvers was intimately acquainted with Rebecca de Winter and although she was a dedicated employee of Maxim de Winter, the only thing she cared about was the former missus of the house. In fact, Rebecca became an obsession to her. Similarly speaking, Martha seemed to have a strange fixation on Margaretha and privately took care of her for the entire twelve years Bernard had been gone. On the contrary, Milly detested Lady Henrietta Flusky – as Danvers detested the second Mrs. De Winter – and tried to push her out of the picture so that she could ultimately gain Sam’s affections. Now, Martha does not give the impression of being head over heels with Bernard Hichcock though, at the same time, they seem to have an unspoken understanding about his sexual deviancies. It is as if Martha is a voyeuristic participant in the drugging and eventual ravishing of both Margaretha and Cynthia. There is definitely something going on between the lines.
An eerie similarity between The Horrible Dr. Hichcock and Under Capricorn:
Cynthia discovers a skull under her covers that was placed there by Martha and Lady Henrietta finds a shrunken voodoo head on her bed that was put there by Milly.
If you have read this far, you have figured out that Margaretha does in fact survive the overdose and is alive though she has lost all of the splendour of her youth. It has been suggested that Bernard willingly brought Cynthia back to London in order to use his new wife’s blood to restore Margaretha to good health. This is something that I cannot agree with because Bernard was unaware that Margaretha was alive, not having even been told of her survival by Martha. Also, if he had known, why would he wait so long to return to London? When Bernard does discover that his beloved is alive and well, it takes him no time at all to devise a plan to murder Cynthia so that he can re-create his old life with Margaretha. I will say that it is hard to see how Bernard and Cynthia ended up together in the first place because he seems completely indifferent to her.
Overall, I can say with complete affirmation that I was very pleased to discover this film and it honestly exceeded my expectations. While I was awaiting something quite cheesy and done in an exaggerated style, The Horrible Dr. Hichcock contained excellent acting along with a fantastic ambiance that was enveloping at the same time as abhorrent. You literally feel the desperation of Bernard’s impulsive and deep-seeded lust as you do Cynthia’s uneasiness. The simple yet efficient soundtrack of haunting organ music worked wonders as did the magnificent colour scheme used in some scenes, such as when Cynthia is heading to the underground crypt by candlelight (photo above). I cannot recommend this film enough although obviously I would warn those who have an aversion to extreme taboo and horror to take a few steps back! 🙂