Friday 15 November 2013

The Terror of Dr Hichcock [1962]

THE TERROR OF DR HICHCOCK is an Italian gothic horror film that was directed by Riccardo Freda (under the pseudonym Robert Hampton) and originally released in June 1962 under the title L'orribile segreto del Dr Hichcock.  It stars Barbara Steele, Robert Flemyng, Silvano Tranquilli and Harriet Medin. Set in late 19th-century England it tells the story of Dr Bernard Hichcock, a brilliant but perverted surgeon whose necrophilia has not only taken over his own life but has also corrupted his wife, a willing participant in his twisted sexual fantasies.

This film is a good example of the contrast between the British and Italian gothic horrors.  While the two share a thematic focus on the veneer of respectability masking the decadence of the aristocracy it has always seemed to me that British horror films, particularly in the 1960s, were much more reserved than their Italian counterparts, as if British film-makers were reluctant to or prohibited from going too far with the material. Which of course results in the films purporting to deal with horrific, perverse or erotic subjects but in reality being unwilling to shed their own veneer of respectability.

Italian film-makers never appear constrained by anything so bourgeois as good taste and are unafraid to tackle head on the implications of the stories they tell.  While Hammer could quite happily have made a film in which necrophilia was hinted at, I doubt they could have made a film which featured scenes of its leading man in the throes of sexual ecstasy fondling and kissing the corpse of a young woman, as Freda has done in THE TERROR OF DR HICHCOCK.

It's interesting that British horror cinema produced plenty of male stars - Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing foremost among them, two refined and aristocratic English gentlemen - whereas in Italy the stars tended to be women, for example Barbara Steele and Edwige Fenech. Italian society may or may not have been as patriarchal as British society but its cinema at least was more egalitarian.  Steele gets top billing here above Robert Flemyng which would have been unthinkable in a British picture of the same period, even assuming she could have got the work in the first place.

Robert Flemyng and Barbara Steele as Bernard and Cynthia Hichcock
Anyway, I'll stop banging on about national / gender politics and get back to the film itself.  As the title implies, there's a great debt to Sir Alfred in this movie.  Freda has a great time chucking in as many references to the great man as he can manage; I spotted at least five but I'm sure there are more.  Hitchcock loved a perverted hero himself of course and in VERTIGO [1958] James Stewart's character is perhaps the most respectable necrophile in cinema history.  Not only that but the markedly less respectable Ed Gein served as the inspiration for proto-slasher PSYCHO [1960].  Both films are an influence on Freda's although he chose the high gothic of something like REBECCA [1940] as his visual touchstone.

Harriet Medin as the Mrs Danvers-esque housekeeper Martha

Martha supplies Dr Hichcock with a glass of milk for his wife, in a clear nod to SUSPICION [1941]

Two Hitch influences for the price of one here as Cynthia spies on Martha feeding the corpse-like Margherita
 Hitchcock is not the only influence however.  The famed Roger Corman series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, about which I have written extensively on this blog, were clearly in Freda's mind, not only in narrative and thematic terms but also visually.  Freda may not have been as great an artist as Mario Bava but his use of colour and the wide screen are reminiscent of the febrile images of HOUSE OF USHER [1961] and THE PREMATURE BURIAL [1962].

An extraordinary still from Cynthia's drugged, hallucinatory vision of her husband plotting to kill her
I've written about Barbara Steele many times before so I'll limit myself to saying she's excellent in this movie: for once she plays an entirely good character.

Barbara Steele
Robert Flemyng gets the best part though; even though he's an appallingly twisted individual he is also a life-saving surgeon so it's difficult to see him as wholly evil. Flemyng is very good at showing us just how conflicted Hichcock is and how his dark desires repulse even him.

Robert Flemyng

Since his death it has been suggested that Flemyng was a closeted homosexual; I don't know how true that is but if it is correct then it would go a long way to explaining why Flemyng is so good in this part.  I should point out that I'm in no way equating homosexuality with necrophilia, merely indicating that Flemyng may have had good reason to empathise with someone who had to suppress his own emotions.

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