Italy in the 1960s produced two enduring classics of Gothic horror cinema — both starring Barbara Steele. One of those pictures, The Horrible Dr. Hichcock, is today’s Trillion Dollar Movie. It’s got style and atmosphere to spare, over and above a controversial theme and the always-appealing presence of Steele.
In his book Cult Movies, Danny Peary described Steele as “The most fascinating actress ever to appear in horror films with regularity…Her beauty is mysterious and unique: her large eyes, high cheekbones, jet-black hair, thick bottom lip, and somewhat knobbly chin don’t seem synchronized, and as a result her face can be looked on as being either evil…or sweet.” Usually, she was cast as an evil figure, frequently a witch, as in Mario Bava’s Black Sunday, the 1960 masterpiece that launched her career as an icon in Italian horror. The Horrible Dr. Hichcock, made two years later, reveals her sweet side, although in a most macabre and sinister story, with echoes of Ann Radcliffe and Edgar Allan Poe, touching upon the morbid and taboo subject of necrophilia.
Steele plays Cynthia, the second wife of Dr. Bernard Hichcock, a highly respected surgeon with truly perverse personal habits. His first wife dies satisfying his kinky whims. As part of their bedtime rituals, he injects her with an anesthetic that causes her heartbeat to drop, simulating death, before proceeding to make love with her limpid “corpse.” One night, he administers an overdose, and she doesn’t appear to regain consciousness.
A similar fate awaits Cynthia once Dr. Hichcock marries her many years later, spiriting her away to his same mansion that was the site of his original transgression. She does harbor premonitions of doom. Not only does the ancient housekeeper give her the chills, but she hears shrieks in the night, sees an apparition on the premises and pictures her new husband as an ogre. Is she neurotic and losing her mind? Or should she run for cover as soon as possible, perhaps enlisting the help of the doctor’s young, dashing assistant?
Much of what’s here is stock-in-trade for haunted house movies, but director Riccardo Freda (using the pseudonym Robert Hampton) kicks the visuals into hyperdrive, caressing each ornate fixture with his camera in a way that transforms the house into a delirious embodiment of the not-so-good doctor’s psycho-sexual fantasies. He’s called “Hichcock” for a reason — references abound to the thrillers of Albert Hitchcock, especially Rebecca, but also Suspicion. The performances by Robert Flemyng as Hichcock and Steele are powerfully expressive, even though some diehard Steele fans pooh-pooh her in this outing, because she does more screaming and batting her haunted eyes rather than flashing them in a menacing fashion.
One fun note of trivia: Harriet Medin, who plays the maid, moonlighted on the side as the English-language dialect coach for Italian starlet Gina Lollobrigida. Do enjoy, and return next Friday for another Trillion $ Movie.