Monday, September 05, 2016

Revealing the Secrets of THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK

Robert Flemyng sets the mood in Riccardo Freda's THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK.
Before there was HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT, there was HICHCOCK/HAMPTON - better known under its theatrical release title:

THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK was the US release title only, given to a film released in the UK in its uncut English-dubbed export version, THE TERROR OF DR. HICHCOCK. The US version, which shared a set-in-cement double bill with Jess Franco's THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF, was cut down to 76m 48s from its original 88m length. I was only being slightly glib with my opening line because, years before François Truffaut's extraordinary interview book presented its ground-breaking analyses of Alfred Hitchcock's visual tropes and techniques, Italian director Riccardo Freda (under his Anglocentric pseudonym of "Robert Hampton") used this opportunity to gather some of his own favorites together and play with them toward new ends.

To illustrate a few examples... There is a funeral scene that pays homage to the assassination scene in Hitchcock's FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (1940):

There is a poisoned glass of milk that recalls one in SUSPICION (1941):


There is a scene in which a young woman discovers a skull secreted in her bed, à la UNDER CAPRICORN (1949):

And, most significantly, HICHCOCK also contains allusions to VERTIGO (1958):

But where THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK transcends its namesake, and VERTIGO, is in its remarkably frank incorporation of necrophilia as its protagonist's primary peccadillo.

In the film itself, the third of those preceding images is seen first. I have known and loved this crazy film for decades, but it wasn't until I saw the film in high definition for the first time this past weekend - thanks to Olive Films' new Blu-ray disc - that I noticed that the corpse about to be buried in the pre-credits sequence is the same young woman's corpse he is irresistibly drawn to at the hospital where Dr. Hichcock presides as a distinguished surgeon, about halfway through the picture. This revelation alone showed me that the story must have been reordered somewhat in the editing room. If the pre-credits sequence was meant to depict the fulfillment of Hichcock's thwarted hospital fondlings, this means that his succumbing to actual necrophilia wasn't written to be his "thing" all along, but rather came about years of whistling around his tendencies with his kinky sex games with willing wife Margareta (Maria Teresa Vianello aka "Teresa Fitzgerald") - whom we see allowing herself to be injected with her husband's experimental anesthetic to the point of complete physical passivity. It is only twelve years after her death following an apparent overdose that Hichcock's kink is fully formed, a circumstance wherein he can relive the memory of Margareta's complete physical passivity and come to deal with the cold fact of her death.

Robert Flemyng's performance in this scene - and in the film, generally - is nothing short of operatic and magnificent. Like many actors in his place, he accepted the film as an opportunity to spend time in Rome, and yet history has proven it the role for which he'll likely be remembered. Though fans tend to think of HICHCOCK as a Barbara Steele film, it doesn't offer one of her better performances. It doesn't help that the role itself is underwritten, but she upstages herself throughout with bizarre, compulsive flexings of her hands, distracting the eye from her face. She does figure in some memorable scenes, however, particularly the scene in which she finds herself drugged and occupying the altar-like bed in her husband's supposed "laboratory," where her predecessor formerly yielded her will to that of her husband. It's one of the great delirious scenes in Italian horror, and one that makes fairly early use of special makeup effects involving inflatable bladders.

Note also in that sequence the presence of incandescent red lighting, which at this time was the signature expression of Freda's former cinematographer Mario Bava. When I interviewed Freda many years ago for my Bava book, he confirmed for me that his collaborations with Bava continued past the point when published filmographies claimed they stopped. There was a reason for the secrecy surrounding such involvements, namely that Bava was, by this point, a director in his own right and it would have proven detrimental to that career to be seen accepting side-jobs on the projects of other directors. A director didn't "shine other people's shoes." Actor Brett Halsey also confirmed for me that he first met Bava on the set of another 1962 Freda film, THE SEVENTH SWORD (La sette spade del vendicatore), where he was shooting an atmospheric scene in a torture chamber with lots of incandescent red lighting - which is what caused me to ask Brett about the scene in the first place. Mind you, if Bava did have a hand in filming this sequence, it doesn't mean that he worked with Barbara Steele a second time; Flemyng's half of the scene, the half affected, was obviously shot separately. I didn't specifically ask Freda about Bava's possible involvement on THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK because the state of available video copies at that time gave no hint that such was likely. However, seeing this scene with its scarlet hues now red to bursting, I am tempted to revise my thinking... but not only for this. There is also the matter of a certain transitional shot that, now that I've finally seen it in high definition, made my suspicions that much more certain.

The first shot you see in the following sequence is the actual exterior of the villa where the film was shot. The following grabs are exteriors of the villa shown with an illuminated upstairs window, and also during storms - which, while utterly convincing on an old VHS tape, are exposed in high definition as trick shots involving a painting of the exterior with foregrounded foliage (including a potted plant!), tree trunks seemingly fashioned from black rubber tubing, and foregrounded rain from a watering can with a flickering light for lightning! Everything that went into this trick shot was consistent with techniques Bava brought to his own films, making HICHCOCK now highly suspect as a film that employed Bava as an independent unit. This trick shot is the kind of thing he could have created at home or on a weekend. 

Something else about THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK that I never quite realized until this latest viewing: When Ernesto Gastaldi was hired by this film's producer Luciano Martino to write his script, it was always part of his mandate to emulate the latest British and American models of gothic horror. Certainly there is something in this film, which tells the story of Hichcock's return - with a new wife in tow - to his brooding villa a dozen years after his first wife's death, only to find it haunted by her spectre, which alludes to the Poe films of Roger Corman as well as the works of Alfred Hitchcock. But what I have never really noticed before about HICHCOCK is that it contains all the pieces that Robert Towne needed to write Roger Corman's THE TOMB OF LIGEIA (1965).

To wit: Both films are about necrophilia and second marriages, with an older man haunted by his first dead wife marrying a much younger woman and subjecting her to her predecessor's memory - as in Hitchcock's REBECCA (1940).

Both films find the master of the house enabled in his strange fetishes by the compliance of an aging domestic, who has a dark devotion of their own to the past lady of the house - and the young wife witness to strange things that persuade her that her predecessor may not be dead after all.
Hichcock's late wife also has a familiar, a black cat named Jezebel, who - as in LIGEIA - puts in an appearance atop her mistress's coffin.

Near the climax of both films, a character is depicted with a bloody shoulder. 

And both films end in hellish conflagrations, with the young wife freed from the past and delivered into the arms of a man who truly appreciates her for who she is.
THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK (version) has had only one prior domestic release on home video: a VHS release on the Republic Video label. Olive Film's Blu-ray is its first domestic release on disc and it's first high-definition release anywhere. It's region-free with English dubbed dialogue and optional English subtitles. The image quality, as you can see, is absolutely ravishing throughout, and sometimes sharp enough to expose technical faults in the cinematography, including instances where the image is not quite in focus. That said, it looks and feels like the Technicolor it says it is. Here is a contrast of how one shot appears in the Italian (L'ORRIBILE SEGRETO DAL DR. HICHCOCK) and US releases, respectively:
Clearly, the Italian transfer is brighter (as it is throughout) and its 1.78:1 framing offers more screen information on both sides and and bottom than the 1.85:1 Medusa release - otherwise, the two grabs look so completely different, suggesting different times of day at the very least, it's tempting to regard them as alternate lighting experiments using the same set-up. The Italian frame, with the purple clinging so uncannily to that tiled column, also brings to mind the possibility of Bava's extracurricular hand. It stark qualities remind me of the ambulance shot in BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (1964). The US framing is a bit tighter but ultimately non-disruptive, and I also feel it's generally more successful than the Italian disc (which, incidentally, has no English option) at delivering the brightness levels and color intensities the film was intended to convey.

Naturally, it's disappointing that the film can only be shown in this country in the truncated form of a 50+ year-old theatrical release, and that it has been released in a no-frills package without commentary or context. But this is one you'll want to have anyway; it's one of the most important Italian gothics of the 1960s, and it's exciting to finally have this important variant (now the property of Paramount Pictures!) available in such a lovely presentation.

It streets next week, on September 13.

(c) 2016 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved by the author.

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