Part of the Italian Horror Blogathon at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies

The phrase that I have chosen, "Masters of Italian horror", doesn't entirely describe the work of Riccardo Freda, surely not a name spoken of in the same breath as Mario Bava, Dario Argento, and Lucio Fulci. But his historical importance is such that he's worthy of elevation to the status of, if not Master, then at least Father. Freda, you see, was the director of the first Italian horror movie of the sound era, 1956's I vampiri (though his cinematographer, Mario Bava, took over at a certain point), and of the second, 1959's Caltiki, the Immortal Monster (though his cinematographer, Mario Bava... hey, wait a second), and we cannot help but assume that Freda thus had some measure of influence over how these films turned out, and the whole corpus of Italian horror that built upon those films' model.

Eventually, Freda even made horror movies all by himself without Bava having anything to do with them at all, of which the most prominent is easily The Horrible Secret of Dr. Hichcock, sometimes rendered in English more bluntly as The Horrible Dr. Hichcock, and always rendered with that distinctly "T"-less spelling that makes my fingers itch every time I type it. The horrible secret, we learn reasonably early, is indeed horrible, enough of a cinematic taboo in 2013 that I can't even imagine how it played in 1962, to say nothing of how the censors of any country in the world stayed asleep at the switch long enough for it to see release to paying audiences in the first place. I speak of necrophilia, though even that isn't quite as fucked up as what the film depicts: in its opening sequence, set in London in 1885, we meet the Hichcocks, notable surgeon Bernard (Robert Flemying) and his wife Margaretha (Maria Teresa Vianello), who like to have sex while she's drugged into a coma on his revolutionary new anesthesia. And I do very much mean they like it: the expectant grin she gives to her husband as he starts to pull out the equipment to give her a shot makes it absolutely clear that this is not the first time they've played this game, and it's very much consensual.

By this point, mind you, we've already seen that Dr. Hichcock's interests don't lie solely in pseudo-necrophiliac monogamy: the opening scene reveals him sneaking into a graveyard to fondle a corpse he finds there. This matters later.

The Hichcocks are aided in their kink by the housemaid Martha (Harriet Medin), whose own little smirk of pleasure when the doctor gives her the unstated command to hurry his wife up through the party she's hosting downstairs states just how much she's not offended by this arrangement. And presumably, things could be ever thus, with the married couple engaged in their weird, non-reciprocal pleasures, and Bernard sneaking off to play around with dead girls in the cemetery every now and then, except that one night, the doctor decides, quite consciously but for no obvious reason, to give his wife an extra-large dose of anesthesia. This triggers a frightening and unpleasant choking reaction from the terrified Margaretha, and Dr. Hichcock is unable to help her, despite his transparent horror at what's happening. He is so heartbroken that he decides to leave the house immediately after the funeral.

Twelve years later, a remarried Hichcock decides to try and resume his life, bringing his young bride Cynthia (Barbara Steele) back to his large London home. It takes all of one night for Cynthia to realise that things in the Hichcock home are severely fucked up: a screaming woman in an unseen room that Martha promises is her sister, people creeping around at night, and her husband revealing certain threatening predispositions that she doesn't know what to do with, all make for an unpleasant living situation that only gets worse as secrets begin spilling out, and Bernard decides to start practicing his old sexual habits again, whether his new wife is in on the game or not.

It is known of The Horrible Dr. Hichcock that Freda and writer Ernesto Gastaldi (both of them, incidentally, hiding under pseudonyms; the idea seems to have been to convince the Italian market that the film was an American or British import, as those were still bigger draws) had a lot more exposition and explaining ready to go, but the shoot went over schedule, and those bits were the first casualty, leaving us with a film where a lot of motivations and backstory doesn't exist except through implication. I will freely acknowledge that the film turned out better as a result. We don't need to know exactly how the Hichcocks' marriage worked, or every thought that crosses through Bernard Hichcock's mind; the only question that genuinely feels wanting to me is why Martha kept the secret of Margaretha's survival (which the film wants to pretend is a secret, but of course it's not) from Dr. Hichcock all those years. Everything else is communicated well enough through the film's visuals, and I suspect that everyone complaining that The Horrible Dr. Hichcock leaves a lot of things unclear is really just admitting that they don't like films that do important parts of storytelling exclusively through imagery.

But that is exactly what we like about Italian horror films, and I find that this particular movie strikes a splendid balance between being cryptic and weirdly-written after the fashion of so many later genre films from that country, and having all of its images grounded in explicating the plot and characters, rather than just being gorgeously baroque for the sake of it. The thing about Dr. Hichcock that's special even among Italian horror is how much of its effect is based in acting - traditionally the last thing you'd rush to praise in one of these movies - especially the acting done by Flemyng, who later claimed to hate the film, indicating that he'd done everything he could to sabotage it with his performance. Mission emphatically failed, if that was truly the case: the one constant throughout the whole film is that Flemyng's face, in just a handful of frames, communicates the inner workings of his character with a force and impact that would have taken pages and pages of screenplay to cover verbally. And since the film trades extensively on the massively fucked-up sexual peccadilloes that dominate Hichcock's life, having a quick means of communicating the shadings of his psychology to the audience is absolutely essential. There are other good bits of acting in the film - the only generally ineffective performance is that of Silvano Tranquilli as the colleague who starts to realise that Hichcock is up to No Good - although I wish that Steele had a bit more to do than recoil in horror; but the film lives and dies with Flemyng.

Of course, Freda does a lot to help the actors along. His aesthetic does not show noticeable influence from Bava (this film was shot by Raffaele Masciocchi, whose bread and butter appear to have been in the peplum, or sword & sandal epic): like early Bava, the emphasis is heavily Gothic, but the extreme phantasmagoria of Bava's films is nowhere in evidence, and Freda generally keeps his camera much closer to the thing he's depicting. The effect is something closer to naturalism, which is useful in two ways: one, because it allows the spikes of outright fantastic imagery to land with quite a bit of force (the way that a room suddenly explodes with red light when Hichcock spots a dead young woman to violate; a stunning shot of Cynthia pounding on the glass window in a coffin, trying to beg for help, and succeeding only in steaming up the glass with her breath). Two, because the creation of a fairly grounded visual normalcy means that the necrophilia material is much harder to escape than it would be in a more vividly imaginative horror setting; though obscured by many decades, the film is plainly depicting something like the real world, and this gives its kinky sexuality far more potency than I know what to do with, even 51 years on.

Ultimately, everything that is most fascinating about The Horrible Dr. Hichcock has to do with sex. It's a good horror film, mind, though the last ten minutes with their series of Shocking! reveals, and the gradual reduction of Cynthia to a screaming, running victim take a lot of the sting out. But it's even better as a film of psychological exploration - I will not even call it "psychological horror", since the film takes careful pains to never depict the sexual behavior of the Hichcocks as aberrant or immoral. It is simply a fact of their existence, and only once Dr. Hichcock has to look elsewhere to get his rocks off do the really terrifying behaviors start up. The film's vagueness about anything we don't directly see makes this a lot more unnerving than it might be, since we're never entirely clear what happens to Cynthia, or what happened between her and Hichcock before their arrival in London; we might have suspicions, but we don't know what he's been up to with corpses, or how those corpses get made; we surely don't have much sense at all what's going on in Margaretha and Martha's heads, and that leaves itself open for all kinds of interpretation.

It's possible to read the Hichcocks' marriage as the ultimate example of Victorian repression, or the ultimate violation of it; as something uniquely benign or especially unhealthy. The film's triumph is that it gives us just enough certain knowledge that we can start to make all kinds of alarming assumptions for ourselves, and it uses the striking visual contrast between the desperate Flemyng and the fragile Steele as a catalyst to make sure that those assumptions will all be unpleasant ones. It's quite a trick to have the driving force behind a plot be implication and innuendo, and while there's a lot to like about the film as pure Gothic horror (that coffin scene will stick with me for quite a while), it's at its very best when it's asking unresolved, uncomfortable questions about sexual behavior and power imbalances between men and women.