Synopsis: London, 1885. A man assaults a sexton who is digging a grave, knocking him unconscious. The man then opens the coffin that was about to be buried, finding inside the body of a young and beautiful woman. Reaching in, he begins to fondle it . At a nearby hospital, Professor Bernard Hichcock (Robert Flemyng) reassures his patient before giving him anaesthetic. After the surgery, Hichcock leaves the hospital, telling his colleagues that he and his wife, Margaretha (Maria Teresa Vianello), have guests that evening. However, upon reaching his home, Hichcock watches through a window as Margaretha plays the piano for their friends before entering unseen through a back door. Encountering the housekeeper, Martha (Harriet White Medin), Hichcock asks her to tell Margaretha that he is tired and has gone to his room. Martha assures him that "everything is ready". Downstairs, Martha gives Margaretha a significant look, upon which she rises and excuses herself to her guests, who leave. Hichcock takes a glass vial downstairs to a darkened room, where Margaretha lies waiting for him. He lights the many candles around the room, then prepares an injection from the glass vial, which he administers to his wife. As she lapses into unconsciousness, he kisses and caresses her body . At the hospital, the daughter of Hichcocks patient thanks him for saving her fathers life. He tells her that his success was entirely due to his new experimental anaesthetic. At home, Hichcock prepares another injection for his wife, making it stronger than the previous one. He administers the drug, and almost immediately Margaretha suffers a reaction, gasping helplessly for breath before losing consciousness. Hichcock tries to revive her but cannot, and screams in horror and despair . After Margarethas funeral, Hichcock leaves his house, telling Martha that he cannot bear the memories, and asking her to care for the place in his absence. Twelve years later, Hichcock returns with his beautiful young wife, Cynthia (Barbara Steele). Already unnerved by a violent thunderstorm, Cynthia is even more upset when she sees the huge portrait of Margaretha that still hangs upon the drawing-room wall. Martha offers to take Cynthia to her room. Before either can move, a terrifying scream rings through the house. Martha explains that her sister, who is mentally ill, has been living with her, but that she will be returning to the hospital the next day. Upstairs, Cynthia is perturbed to find that her room was also Margarethas. Meanwhile, Hichcock finds Martha gazing at Margarethas portrait. She gives him a long, angry look, and he leaves her without speaking. Looking out of her bedroom window, Cynthia sees a woman in white in the garden, who seems to vanish in the storm. Retiring to bed, Cynthia hears footsteps approaching, then sees the door handle move. She calls out, but there is no answer. The next morning, Cynthia tells her husband of her experience, but he dismisses it as imagination. After he has left for work, Cynthia notices a mysterious locked room. She asks Martha about it, but is told only that "it has always been locked". That evening, the Hichcocks attend the opera with Dr Curt Lang (Silvano Tranquili), one of the Professors colleagues, who is quickly smitten with Cynthia. Hichcock is called to the hospital, and Curt escorts Cynthia home. As she struggles through the overgrown garden, Cynthia hears a womans voice warning her that she will soon die. Encountering Martha, Cynthia asks her when her sister will be leaving, and is astonished to hear that she already has. In her room, Cynthia finds a skull in her bed, and screams and faints . At the hospital, Hichcocks patient dies after he refuses to use his experimental anaesthetic on her. Alone in his office, Hichcock struggles vainly with himself before going to the morgue where his former patient, a young and beautiful woman, lies dead .
Comments: For me, one of the most exciting aspects of the DVD revolution is the sudden availability, uncut, widescreen, and in their original languages, of scores of European horror films previously available only in the most compromised of forms. Short on logic and narrative cohesion, long on dreamy visuals and atmospherics, these Euro-horrors can be a bewildering, even risible experience for the uninitiated. However, viewers willing to suspend disbelief and give themselves up to the mood of these films may well reap a very rich reward. In this era of smug, jokey, relentlessly unhorrifying horror movies, where a half-inch shift from absolute predictability is likely to see a film hailed as "startlingly original", the Euro-horrors have never looked better. Whatever their structural shortcomings, these are genuine horror films, the real McCoy, seeking to disturb and unnerve the viewer with their violence, both physical and psychic; their stunning imagery; and above all with the sheer audacity of their subject matter. It is incredible to think that a scant five years after a little bloodshed, the occasional body part and a dash of cleavage in The Curse Of Frankenstein drew howls of outrage and revulsion from the critics, someone dared to make a horror film that not only dealt explicitly with necrophilia, but had the temerity, if not to condone its protagonists actions outright, at least to remain remarkably non-judgemental about them. Yet such is the case with Riccardo Fredas The Horrible Secret Of Dr Hichcock, in which the traditional Gothic horror story collides head-on with the clinical sexuality of films like Psycho and Peeping Tom to produce something uniquely unsettling. As its title suggests, Hichcock abounds with visual references to The Master himself: the portrait of the first wife and the sinister housekeeper from Rebecca; the glass of milk from Suspicion; the skull in the bed from Under Capricorn; and so on. (Significantly, these are all films about threatened wives.) Thematically, however, The Horrible Secret Of Dr Hichcocks main debt is unquestionably to Vertigo, and not just because of its subject matter. By telling the story largely from its "hero"s perspective, and accompanying his actions with a lush, romantic musical score, Freda makes it clear that, like its model, Hichcock is at least in part a love story amour fou if you like, but amour just the same. Where the two films diverge is in what they do and do not tell their audiences. Perversely, Hichcock manages simultaneously to be much more and much less explicit than its predecessor. Certainly, the scenes of Bernard Hichcock in action leave no doubt whatsoever in the viewers mind as to whats going on (begging the question what on earth were the censors of the time [not] thinking??), while concurrently, there is a striking absence of verbal explanation. It has been documented that, running out of time, Freda simply cut from the script all the scenes in which the motivations of the characters were spelled out. Thus, while we see what is happening, the question of why is left entirely to the imagination of the viewer. In my opinion, it is precisely this that gives The Horrible Secret Of Dr Hichcock its lingering power. There is barely a moment in the film that isnt capable of two or three different interpretations, each one more sinister than the last. Put simply, the more you think about this film, the more deeply disturbing it becomes.
The central mystery of The Horrible Secret Of Dr Hichcock is: What is the real nature of the relationship between Hichcock and Margaretha? Not just for the Gothic overtones, nor the then-current state of medical science, is the opening of this film set in "London, 1885". By placing the action smack in the middle of Victorian England, Freda and screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi bring to their story a whole range of ready-made sexual connotations. This was an era when it was believed that sex was something enjoyed only by "bad" women, while for "good" women, it was a trial of marriage that had to be endured. It was also a time when a significant number of Victorian husbands, believing steadfastly in the Madonna/whore concept of women, were stricken with "domestic impotence" the psychological inability to make love to their by-definition "innocent" wives. (Although there is no evidence in the film to suggest that this is in fact whats going on, it occurs to me that the Hichcock scenario is a perfect solution to this difficulty: Hichcock, a "good" husband, has sex with his wife; while Margaretha, a "good" wife, remains oblivious to it.) While Bernard Hichcocks necrophilia provokes an involuntary recoil in the viewer, it is worth asking (legal and moral issues aside for the moment) whether there is really such a difference between sex with an actual corpse, and that with a woman whose only idea is to "lie back and think of England"? Of course, the physical ramifications of the situation are only one aspect of it. Much more troubling are the psychological ones. While a corpse-like sex partner might seem totally unappealing from one perspective, it is also conceivable that some men might prefer it to the alternative if that alternative is a living, breathing woman whose own desires and needs must be built into the sexual equation. Forgive a facetious interjection, but while watching this film I was irresistibly reminded of an ad for Duckman that has been playing cable here recently, in which the outraged fowl hurls bricks through the office windows of Cosmopolitan magazine. "Thats for making women expect an orgasm every damn time!" Is it this that drives Bernard Hichcock? Does he need a sex partner so docile, so submissive, so lacking in any desires of her own that only a corpse can satisfy him? It is very noticeable that, other than to the extent necessary to administer the drug, Hichcock does not touch his wife while she is conscious. Only after the drug takes effect does she seem to hold any physical attraction for him. And what of Margaretha herself? The film makes it quite clear that her involvement in her husbands fetishistic sex game is entirely voluntary. She retires to the funereally decorated Sex Room at the first hint, and greets her husband with a warm, loving smile, which remains on her face until unconsciousness takes her. (During this section of the film, Bernard and Margaretha never speak to one other something that serves to indicate both the extent of Hichcocks death fantasy and the familiarity of the two of them with every detail of it, and to deepen the mystery of their relationship still more.) The question is, of course why? Whatever gratification Margaretha Hichcock expects/gains from her absolute submission to her husband, it certainly isnt an orgasm, after all; and we are given no reason to infer that the Hichcocks ever have ordinary sex. So why exactly does she participate in his sexual ritual, not just willingly, but eagerly? Why indeed did Hichcock marry her in the first place? Did he recognise in her a kinky kindred spirit? Or did he indoctrinate her into his perverted world after marriage? Does Margaretha believe that this is what "normal" sex is like, that all married people do it this way? Or most disturbing possibility of all does she think that in allowing herself to be drugged and ravished night after night, she is simply being a good wife? It is worth remembering that, not only in Victorian times, but for many decades afterwards, the responsibility for the success or failure of a marriage was held to rest entirely with the wife. Her job was to be completely ruled by her husbands wishes, to the point of having no opinions of her own. If her husband strayed from home, it was because she wasnt making that home sufficiently inviting. If he was unfaithful, it was because she wasnt alluring (or submissive?) enough. In short, whatever the husband did wrong, it was the wifes fault. (Paradise lost, hey, fellas?) Put into this context, Margarethas surrender to her husbands necrophile lust becomes not just understandable, but rather horribly believable. After all, in a society where a womans worth is gauged purely by her ability to "hang onto a man", the question of what she might actually have to do to make that possible becomes almost irrelevant.
But alas for Margaretha! we in the audience know what she presumably does not: that even her total compliance with her husbands most extreme sexual demands is not enough to keep him faithful. (Typical bloody male .) Even though he has a willing sex partner at home, Hichcock still risks his career, even his life, by venturing into the morgue and the cemetery to find his "ideal woman". It may be here that we find an explanation for Hichcocks accidental "killing" of Margaretha. The second time we witness the preparations for the ritual, Hichcock prepares and administers a much larger dose of anaesthetic than upon the previous occasion. (Indeed, I imagine that for some viewers, the most horrifying aspect of Hichcock will be the size of the syringe used upon the unfortunate Margaretha.) What is the purpose of this? Is Margaretha developing a resistance to the anaesthetic? Or is it that, compared to the real corpses that Hichcock has been, ah, dallying with, his wife unconscious, but still warm, still breathing - just isnt dead enough?
As with nearly all of the questions raised by The Horrible Secret Of Dr Hichcock, these remain unanswered. Believing his (nearly) ideal wife dead, Bernard Hichcock flees both home and job, returning twelve years later with a new wife, and presenting the viewer with a whole new set of questions. On the surface, Hichcocks second marriage and his relationship with Cynthia look conventional enough. That he has chosen a bride so physically dissimilar to his first seems to indicate that he has resolved to live a "normal" life, a feeling reinforced by the rare sunshine that accompanies the newlyweds journey home. (This scene is remarkably similar to one in The Tomb Of Ligeia, made three years later. Even though AIP, unable to restructure it into something suitable for children, passed on the opportunity to release The Horrible Secret Of Dr Hichcock in the US, it is impossible to believe that Roger Corman didnt see the film before making Ligeia.) Professionally, Hichcocks refusal to use his experimental anaesthetic, even though it means the death of a patient, also suggests the turning over of a new leaf. Examined more closely, however, all of these factors prove capable of a frightening alternative reading; while the second Hichcock marriage begins to look even more disturbing than the first. It is true that Cynthia in no way resembles Margaretha, but there are some people in this film that she does resemble. When Bernard Hichcock pries open the coffin in the opening scene, we see that it contains a young, beautiful girl with raven-black hair. When he risks exposure by molesting a body in the hospital morgue, the body is again that of a young, beautiful, dark-haired girl. Who am I describing here? And how exactly did Hichcock and Cynthia meet? Attempting to deflect Curt Langs growing suspicions, Hichcock tells him that he fell in love with Cynthia while she was being treated for shock after the death of her father. But Hichcock is a surgeon. Was Cynthia ever his patient? Did her ever operate on her? Did he anaesthetise her? And what of Hichcocks refusal to use his anaesthetic? Was this really an attempt at reformation, or did he find a suitable object of desire on the operating table and simply let her die? In either case, it is the sight of this ill-fated patient that finally causes the breaking of the dam holding back Hichcocks unnatural lust. When Curt almost catches him in the act in the morgue ("I was just checking the state of coagulation," he explains quickly eeewww!), Hichcocks overwhelming frustration sends him back to Cynthia and this time he doesnt care whether his sex partner is willing or not. While Cynthia lies sleeping, her husband slips a needle into her arm. She wakes some time later to find herself in the "games room", her husband leaning over her, his face a distorted, twisted mask. As he approaches her, a hand suddenly reaches for his neck. Cynthia screams and faints and the film cuts to Hichcock at the hospital the next day, leaving the viewer reasonably certain of the identity of "Marthas sister", but uncomfortably uncertain of what has taken place during the night .
With Margaretha resurrected, Bernard Hichcocks first action is to try and rid himself of Cynthia, now nothing more to him than a superfluous encumbrance (indeed, was she ever anything else?). Cynthia, however, is one step ahead of him, surviving the first attempt on her life and managing to convince Curt Lang that her husband really is trying to kill her. During the final section of The Horrible Secret Of Dr Hichcock, the film sadly goes somewhat off the rails, turning from a daring psycho-sexual drama into a much more conventional horror story, complete with a threatened heroine, a last-minute rescue, the vanquishing of all the "villains" and a climactic conflagration (this last suggesting that if Roger Corman saw Fredas Hichcock, Freda had in turn seen Cormans House Of Usher). It is also here that the films unaddressed issues stop being just mysterious and become frankly baffling. The most significant of these is the role played by the Hichcocks housekeeper, Martha. We know that Martha was a party to Bernard and Margarethas ritual, and that she is enraged by Hichcocks second marriage. Most importantly of all, we know that it was she who rescued Margaretha from her premature grave, caring for the deranged woman until her husbands return. What we do not understand is, why didnt she tell Hichcock that Margaretha was alive? We have no evidence that Martha resented Hichcock, or Margarethas marriage, or even the sex games. On the contrary, the three seem like a perfectly happy trio of conspirators. Perhaps we are meant to infer, from Marthas Mrs Danvers-esque mien, that she went along with the Hichcocks marital arrangements purely out of devotion to her mistress, and hid Margarethas existence from her husband out of jealousy. So why is there so little hostility between Martha and her employer? Why does she collude in Hichcocks plans to dispose of Cynthia, when this will undoubtedly mean the re-establishment of his relationship with Margaretha? It is impossible to construct even the semblance of a satisfactory answer to these questions. All we know for certain is that, learning that Margaretha is still alive, Hichcock immediately wants her back. (His delight in her return suggests that he does have some genuine feelings for her outside of the bedroom, which is at least one point in his favour.) As for Margaretha, she is equally willing to resume her former role as if the whole "buried alive" thing had never happened. But first the two of them must dispose of Cynthia. Here we have an unwelcome intrusion of "traditional" horror, as the Hichcocks plot to use Cynthias "young blood" to restore Margarethas ravaged looks. It is also here that we finally get to look inside the mind of Margaretha Hichcock, and a sad, tragic place it is. Other than the only words that we ever hear her speak directly to her husband ("In her you were looking for me only for me."), most of Margarethas dialogue consists of her either threatening Cynthias life, or gloating that Bernard prefers his first wife to his second or in other words, that he would rather to have necrophilial sex with her than with any other living woman. That Margaretha finds in this a cause for celebration is the final and perhaps most frightening aspect of the Hichcocks unnatural love.
In its design, The Horrible Secret Of Dr Hichcock is a classic Gothic thriller, with most of the action taking place in one of those mysterious mansions full of long dark corridors, secret rooms and flickering candelabra; where no matter what time it actually is, it always seems to be night; and where outside there is invariably either a violent thunderstorm or an impenetrable fog. (In one scene, a trip home after an evening at the opera takes place in broad daylight! While I assume this is merely careless day-for-night work, it does add another disorientating touch to the proceedings.) Visually, the film is a delight, with cinematography, art direction and lighting effects that simply cry out to be seen in a good quality, widescreen print. (Which is a stupid thing to say what film doesnt?) Roman Vlads sweeping musical score is another major asset. As is quite frequently the case with the Euro-horrors, it is the acting, and hence the delineation of the characters, where the film is at its weakest. As Martha, Harriet White Medin does little but glower ominously. Silvano Tranquili, as the films token conventional hero, is unsurprisingly bland and uninteresting. The only thing remotely imaginative about the character of Curt is that he is an early disciple of Freud. This does not, as you might expect, cause him to dismiss Cynthias fears, but rather to recognise that they must be addressed, this open-mindedness finally allowing him to save her life. The necessarily passive nature of Margarethas character makes the performance of Maria Teresa Vianello difficult to judge. Still, she is certainly beautiful, and a desirable sex object (and as a great many men besides Bernard Hichcock believe, thats what really matters). Barbara Steele is, as always, fascinating to watch as Cynthia, but nevertheless, her performance is nowhere near one of her best. This is not, in my opinion, Steeles fault, but due to the combination of a lack of direction and the rather wishy-washy nature of her character. The problem (proving that rigid stereotyping of women is not confined to Victorian times) is that the whole concept of the character of Cynthia is boxed in by the notion that a "good" women must by definition be frail and helpless. (Indeed, the entire film is underscored by the broader convention that insists that the "good", while naturally "weak", will ultimately prevail, while the "evil", although "strong", will ultimately be defeated. As Oscar Wilde rightly pointed out, this is precisely what "fiction" means .) Watching a woman with as much personality and force of character as Barbara Steele spend so much of her screen time gasping, screaming and fainting is an uncomfortable experience. Still, once or twice Cynthia does get to demonstrate a degree of superiority over most of her cinematic sisters. For one thing, she recognises almost from the first that her husband poses a threat to her (not that Im advocating swift suspicion of husbands, mind you .); while she never for one moment allows herself to be ridiculed or bullied into believing that any of her experiences have been "all in her mind". Her perspicacity seems to have done Cynthia little good, however, when she wakes from another of her innumerable faints to find herself enclosed in a coffin, one equipped with a glass face plate (shades of Vampyr and Ligeia, for that matter). In an unforgettable scene (the highlight of Barbara Steeles performance), there is a brief moment during which realisation comes to her, and then she screams .while we in the audience hear nothing we merely watch as the glass plate fogs up .
Ultimately, however, it is the performance of Robert Flemyng as the eponymous necrophile that holds The Horrible Secret Of Dr Hichcock together. Flemyng has claimed in interviews that he hated the film; that he found its concept ridiculous; that he gave a deliberately bad performance in order to sabotage it. If so, none of this shows up on the screen. On the contrary, the superimposition of Bernard Hichcocks sweaty, panicky intensity upon Flemyngs own cool and upright Britishness is precisely what makes the film so memorable. In addition, it is quite astonishing, given the overall paucity of exposition, just how much we understand of what is going on in Hichcocks mind. As the doctor wrestles unavailingly with temptation, we can read in Flemyngs eyes exactly what his character is thinking and feeling; and when he finally surrenders, we almost feel what he feels: relief, freedom, and above all an unholy, frightening joy as he is reunited with Margaretha. But since this film was made in the early sixties, there can be no future for this unnatural couple. Both Hichcocks do finally meet their downfall, but most significantly, this does not seem to happen purely as a result of their sexual (mis)conduct. Bernards punishment seems to be meted out to him not as you would expect, because of his real necrophilial acts, but because he tries to force his twisted sexual tastes upon an unwilling partner; while it is Margarethas part in the attempted disposal of her successor that in turn puts her beyond the pale. For me, the enduring interest of The Horrible Secret Of Dr Hichcock is precisely this: that so much of it takes place in this atmosphere of moral greyness; that it dares to infer that maybe there isnt really anything really wrong with the first Hichcock marriage after all. While most horror films insist upon an absolutely inflexible sexual code, ruthlessly punishing anyone guilty of even the mildest transgression, this one has the nerve to suggest that if Bernard and Margarethas sex life is mutually consensual, if it makes both of them happy, well, why the hell not? The boldness of all of this is quite staggering; and whether you agree with the films laissez faire attitude or not, it at least serves as a salutary reminder that no third party can ever truly comprehend the dynamics of a marriage; and that "love", like beauty or indeed, like most things is entirely in the eye of the beholder.