Bad Bedside Manners in ‘The Horrible Dr. Hichcock’

Perverse and perfervid and splendidly overripe.

The Horrible Dr. Hichcock belongs to a strain of Italian horror in the late ’50s and ’60s that evoked Gothic Victorian melodrama, or more specifically the gaudy productions of Hammer Studios and Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe films. Despite its variant spelling, the title tells you that the film also owes debts to Alfred Hitchcock, particularly a plot that’s a kinky variant of Rebecca.

In that famous story, a young bride arrives at her husband’s mansion only to be disturbed by whispers about his dead first wife, not to mention the hostility of a loyal housekeeper. In the Italian update scripted by Ernesto Gastaldi (as “Julyan Perry” to sound British) and directed ripely and zoomily by Riccardo Freda (as “Robert Hampton”), the first reel shows us exactly what happened to the first wife.

Illustrious surgeon Bernard Hichcock (Robert Flemying) has a kink. He can only be sexually aroused if his beautiful wife Margaret (Teresa Fitzgerald, aka Maria Teresa Vianello) is unconscious, so they have a ritual where he injects her with a sleeping drug. She seems to look forward to it, which implies she’s happy to miss the action. Since Hichcock is a doctor working with a new anesthetic, it’s fair to wonder if his predilection attracted him to a profession where he has power over sleeping people. Anyway, he tries the anesthetic on his wife, an unfortunate experiment resulting in his unwitting widowerhood.

Years later, he returns to his virtual mausoleum of a house with bride Cynthia. Here is where the film finally introduces its heroine, played by Barbara Steele of the prominent cheekbones and faintly otherworldly vibe that made her the era’s ubiquitous “scream queen” of Italian horror. Cynthia had been a psychiatric patient, no doubt prostrate and narcotized, when he fell in love with her. Now that she’s strong and healthy, she notices he’s “different” towards her as they sleep in different rooms. Patronizing and infantilizing her is par for the course, but his compulsions lead him increasingly to fantasize actual necrophilia as the ultimate domination.

Meanwhile, Cynthia suspects that the deceased first wife may still be around, possibly due to the glowering housekeeper Martha (Harriet White) and her remarks about her unseen sister. “She’s quite mad,” intones Martha. Then Hichcock says, “Martha may appear a little odd, but you’ll soon get used to her.” Also stalking the place is the former mistress’ black cat Jezebel, an ironic name for a world where any sign of female sexuality must be feared and neutralized. Mastering her habit of fainting inopportunely, it will be up to Cynthia to use her brains and rescue herself amid references to Bluebeard and Alice in Wonderland when she goes “through a looking glass” into the mansion’s secret flipside, although a rather incoherent ending leaves some details ambiguous.

The film’s vision of patriarchal order is rotten with corruption under the mask of respectability, as demonstrated most vividly in a red-tinted hallucination (?) where Bernard wears a bloated mask, as though tainted by syphilis or some other sexual horror. The scene where the good doctor sweats over a young patient’s corpse is queasy and creepy even today, making it remarkable for 1962. The only previous movie we can recall with a comparable erotic charge for corpses is Luis Buñuel’s 1955 effort The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz. Indeed, exposing the kinks of outwardly respectable, middle-aged men of the bourgeoisie is more consistently a Buñuelian theme than a Hitchcockian one.

Above all, this is a film about color, as rich swathes of Technicolor wash the screen in lush lighting cues for no apparent reason beyond their own perfervid delirium. It’s all splendidly overripe. As Tim Lucas notes on Video Watchblog, it’s apparent that Freda received uncredited help from friend and fellow director Mario Bava, a master of color and visual effects.

Olive Films has licensed this gorgeous print from Paramount, which released this English-dubbed version in the US in 1964. It’s about 11 minutes shorter than the Italian version, mostly for matters of pacing, and it’s too bad we don’t have both versions to compare. There are no extras.

RATING 6 / 10