3/9/11

The Horrible Secret of Doctor Hichcock (on the Hump)

Hello all. This week in lieu of a regular Hitchcock post or a regular Guest Post I have something entirely irregular. Initially I had planned to review Dario Argento’s Do You Like Hitchcock? today, but with Dario’s cancellation as a guest for Horrorhound Weekend, I scrapped that idea. Instead I turned to one of the newly announced guests for a Hitchcock related post. I did not know if the film would have any connection to Hitch other than a similar last name being mentioned in the title of L'orribile segreto del Dr. Hitccock or The Horrible Secret of Dr. Hichcock. The real draw for me, past the novelty of the title, was the appearance of scream queen Barbara Steele in a top billed role. Barbara, the star of films as diverse as Black Sunday, Chained Heat, and Piranha, has long been a favorite of mine. I never thought I would get a chance to meet her though, but thanks to Horrorhound Weekend, I shall. Until then, I’ll have to make do with this twisted little thriller starring Ms. Steele.

Within minutes of the title sequence of the film, it is plain that Dr. Bernard Hichcock (Robert Flemyng) does have a horrible secret. The skilled 19th century physician has developed a new kind of anesthesia that, in large doses, can even put the body in a torpor that mimics death. For the good doctor, the anesthetic has more than just a practical application. He also liked to dose his wife Margherita with it and carry out his deepest necrophilia fantasies. That is until the Doc injected the missus with a bad batch and accidentally killed her. Pained with grief, Hichcock moved away for twelve years, and when he returns it is with a pretty young wife, Cynthia (Barbara Steele). Their newlywed bliss is brought to a grinding halt as soon as they move into his old home. Adorned with portraits of Margherita in nearly every room, the home feels very much like Bernard’s first wife is still in residence. As the Doctor’s affection for his new bride becomes more distant, Cynthia begins to believe that they are not alone in the house. Cynthia’s only hope is to uncover all of her husband’s secrets before they catch up with her.

My hope was different. It was one that longed for a connection deeper than a similar surname to connect the Master of Suspense to this film from director Riccardo Freda. I found it, kinda. There definitely seemed like a tad more hope when the Doctor’s first name turned out to be Bernard, as in regular Hitchcock composer Bernard Herrmann. Speaking of which, the score, by the Romanian composer with the evocative name Roman Vlad, is highly reminiscent of Herrmann’s work, filled with lush string arrangements and menacing brass. After more than two thirds of the film had gone by, I had given up hope of a direct nod to Hitchcock. Then suddenly Dr. Bernie poured his wife, who was feeling “ill” a glass of milk to help her sleep. A glass of milk from which she would not awake from her slumber. A similarly suspect glass of milk also appears in Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941), again being passed from a husband to a wife. It seems that prolific Italian horror scribe Ernesto Gastaldi did throw more than a wink at the Master into the script. Gastaldi would become a master of terror in his own right penning the scripts for The Case of the Bloody Iris and All the Colors of the Dark, two of the greatest of the giallo boom.

With that secret uncovered, it was time to dive in and see what kind of other secrets the Horrrible Doctor Hichcock has in store. Riccardo Freda isn’t one of the big names in Italian horror, but he was a mainstay and workhorse of the genre. He even hired a young Mario Bava as his cinematographer on many films. This seems a bit ironic as there was more than one time where I felt Freda, here working with Raffaele Masciocchi behind the lens, exhibited some of the same camera work and gelled lighting that Bava himself would employ two years later in Blood and Black Lace. It would be interesting to look at Freda’s films before and after his involvement with Bava to see if there is a discernable difference or if he taught the Father of the Giallo a thing or two. There is also one sequence where Cynthia wakes to a nightmarish reality. I don’t know exactly how it was done, but it was as stunningly weird as anything out of Argento’s oeuvre. A last notable contributor is Ornella Micheli, who served as editor on Dr. Hichcock. He would go on to fill the same role in films such as Anthropophagus and Buio Omega as well as Don’t Torture a Duckling for Lucio Fulci.

While The Horrible Secret of Doctor Hichcock definitely has some of the hallmarks of an early giallo, the film has way more in common with the gothic horror mysteries popular at the time. The problem is that the film moves at a glacially slow pace with only the sequences featuring Ms. Steele making an impression. That’s not to say that her role is without major problems. Cynthia is supposed to be recovering from “shock” after the death of her father, but it takes almost nothing to make this girl faint. She keels over at least eight or nine times over the ninety minutes. See a skull in your bed, faint. Look through a keyhole and see your husband crafting a noose, faint. Now, come on, that is not a good time to be fainting. I don’t know if she hadn’t had lunch or if it was brought on from lack of sleep or if her corset was on too tight or something, but if Cynthia wants to escape a menace, either real or supernatural, she needed to get it together. While the role in Dr. Hichcock isn’t as meaty as Black Sunday or She Beast, Barbara looks simply radiant in late Victorian era fashions and there must have been careful planning put into her lighting and hairstyles.

Her co-star, the awkwardly named Robert Flemyng, may have been the title player, but he sucks the life right out of the picture at times with his staid performance. Perhaps since his character liked to get it on with the dead, Flemyng decided to give a performance with a similar tone, but whatever the case, I found him dreadful. Silvano Tranquilli barely registers an impression as the nosy young doctor with an eye for Dr. Hichcock’s wife. Silvano would later play a much bigger and better role in the giallo classic Black Belly of the Tarantula. Going nearly completely unnoticed is Harriet Medin as the creepy, disheveled maid, but she must have been noticed by someone. The next year she became a Mario Bava regular with appearances in Black Sabbath, The Whip and the Body, and Blood and Black Lace. She would also later appear in Death Race 2000 as the radical Thomasina Payne before settling into a string of minor character roles in movies and TV which found her more often than not billed as ‘Elderly Woman’.

The Horrible Secret of Doctor Hichcock nearly lives up completely to the promise of the title which brought the film to my attention in the first place. While it will most appeal to fans of Italian horror or Barbara Steele, anyone who likes to “get their gothic horror on” (which is a phrase I don’t hear nearly enough) will find something to like here. Today there’s only 15 days until Horrorhound weekend, but I can assure you that if anyone needs to find me as soon as I get registered and checked in, I can be located in line to meet Barbara Steele. While some may pooh-pooh the idea of meeting celebrities or paying for an autograph, twenty or thirty bucks are a small price to pay to get to spend a moment thanking a wonderful woman like Barbra Steele for her contribution to film. Would it be greater if I was just in some bar and bumped into Ms. Steele? It would, and if I knew that magical bar where all the people I’d like to meet hung out in, well, let’s just say that would be my horrible secret.

See everyone back here Friday for the triumphant return of You Don’t Know Shat!: Year Three!


Bugg Rating


1 comment:

  1. I'm pretty fond of this movie but then I'll watch Barbara Steele in anything.

    ReplyDelete

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