Tuesday 11 November 2014

The Ghost [1963]

THE GHOST is an Italian gothic horror film that was directed and co-written by Riccardo Freda and originally released in March 1963 under the name Lo spettro.  It stars Delirium-approved Barbara Steele, Peter Baldwin, Elio Jotta and Harriet Medin.  Set in an Italian's conception of Victorian era Scotland it tells the story of two lovers who murder the woman's husband so they can a) be together, and b) inherit his considerable wealth.  However, once the deed is done they find not only that his wealth seems to have vanished but also that the man himself has come back from the grave to terrorise them.

One of the very first films to appear on these pages (here) was Freda's I VAMPIRI which is considered by many to mark Italian cinema's first foray into horror cinema in the talkie era.  A very good film it is too, one that has ambitions beyond fangs and bats: it has serious points to make about the inequalities of contemporary society.  By way of contrast, THE GHOST is a traditional gothic horror piece and therefore is more akin to Freda's remarkable necrophile story THE TERROR OF DR HICHCOCK made the year before (and also written about on this blog here).  Indeed, the titular ghost is the spirit of one Dr John Hichcock.  I don't think there is meant to be any link between the two films other than in the mind of the producer and, as I imagine he fervently hoped, the punters.

Digging for treasure #1
Although I VAMPIRI got there first it tends to be overlooked in favour of Mario Bava's THE MASK OF SATAN [1962] which unlike Freda's film was a box office success not just in Italy but abroad. As such, Bava's gothic setting became the model to follow, even for Freda.  Whether Freda should have stuck to his guns is probably a moot point because the Italian genre film business being what it was then producers would have gone for the proven money maker every time.

Two examples of classic horror imagery: the man of science and the man of God...
...and the funeral
So having adopted the gothic setting for his previous horror film, Freda ran with it again on THE GHOST.  In a typically Italian attempt to recreate previous successes (I'm actually doing the Italians a disservice there - everyone did it, e.g. Redford / Newman) the film not only reuses the character's name but also recast Barbara Steele and Harriet Medin in more or less the same parts.  Steele is again the tormented wife (albeit not quite so innocent this time) and Medin is again the Mrs Danvers figure.

Dr and Mrs Hichcock
Thematically there are links too.  In DR HICHCOCK the central theme was love: necrophilia admittedly but love nonetheless.  Such a trangressive love in fact that it destroyed the good doctor's marriage and finally the man himself.  There is a transgressive love at the heart of THE GHOST too: adulterous love, for one thing, and the love of worldly goods for another.  Which of those came first is never quite made clear and is instead left for the viewer to judge.

Mrs Hichcock and her lover Dr Livingstone
It's a remarkably cynical and jaundiced view of humanity is this film.  Unlike DR HICHCOCK there aren't any likeable characters and they're all guilty of something or another.  Even the murdered spouse is a manipulative, jealous heathen who, as the film opens, is conducting a seance to further his obsession of establishing the point at which the soul enters the spirit world.  Moreover, the local vicar is an ineffectual man, registering his puritannical distaste for what they get up to at the big house but doing nothing to prevent it.

The hauntings begin
When the hauntings begin and the lovers begin to crack they turn on each other with a disturbing savagery.  It's not the hauntings per se that cause it, although they do act as a catalyst.  No, what provokes the emotional and physical violence is the thought that one or other of them is trying to make off with the loot and leave the other behind.  One sequence, in a nod to William Castle's MR SARDONICUS [1961], the lovers go digging in Dr Hichcock's coffin to find the key to his safe. More than anything, Freda's examination of how love can go wrong when money is at stake reminded me of the classic film noirs, like THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE [1946] and particularly DOUBLE INDEMNITY [1944].

Digging for treasure #2
Barbara Steele as Margaret Hichcock
As the young lovers, Barbara Steele and Peter Baldwin constitute a hit and a miss.  Steele is great, as she always is - she has a passion so intense that she can hardly keep it in and indeed doesn't.  It's always a pleasure to see one of her films that I've not caught before and even though she tends to be dismissive of them these days she's invariably the best thing about them.  Baldwin on the other hand is less impressive, although as others have found - such as John Richardson and Ian Ogilvy - playing next to Barbara Steele is very much playing second fiddle; let's face it, next to that ball of fire anyone is going to look bland.

Peter Baldwin as Dr Charles Livingstone
Elio Jotta who plays Dr Hichcock is an actor I'm not familiar with.  All I can do is parrot what imdb tells me, which is to say virtually nothing.  It does tell me that this was only his second feature so considering he was already in middle age I would hazard a guess that he was mainly a stage actor, or at least came from a stage background.

A rare smile from Harriet Medin as Catherine
Harriet Medin was an American actress who like so many of her contemporaries found work in the Italian film business when Hollywood proved a tough nut to crack.  Besides her two films for Freda, she made three for Mario Bava before returning to the US in the early 70s.  She wasn't done with genre features though, appearing in a film I am very fond of called SCHLOCK [1973], directed by John Landis, as well as two mega B-movies in DEATH RACE 2000 [1975] and THE TERMINATOR [1987] no less.  She died in 2005, aged 91.

The soundtrack by Franco Mannino didn't make much of an impression, I must confess, but he was an experienced composer who worked a lot on genre pictures but also in the mainstream: he scored the great Luchino Visconti's last two films.  The DP was Raffaele Masciocchi who worked a lot with Freda including both of the Dr Hichcock pictures.

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