Saturday, September 19, 2009

Horror's dirty word

The world of horror is a big tent—there's room for all kinds of monsters. Vampires, werewolves, zombies, ghouls—all are welcome. However, there's one creature that even the most ardent horror fan finds repulsive–the necrophiliac. There are two main reasons, I think: one, because the idea is so revolting; and two, because said "monster" is a living human being, and such things actually happen in the real world.

Frankly, the subject matter isn't everyone's cup of tea under any circumstances, but daring filmmakers occasionally turn their cameras to this quease-inducing topic with varying results. Drive-in audiences were traumatized by Love Me Deadly, a combination of '70s fashions, shocking sexuality and Lyle Waggoner. Extreme trashhounds adore German filmmaker Jorg Buttgereit's underground films Nekromantik and its sequel, but they're definitely not for everyone. There was even an "art" film made in Canada in 1996, Kissed, about a young woman's attraction to stiffs. I mean real stiffs.

Due to the subject matter, these films are necessarily exploitative, but among the brash shockers are little jewels of perversion, one of which I'm going to discuss in this post.

Riccardo Freda's The Terror of Dr. Hichcock (1962) has quite an agenda for a film of its vintage. Made during Italian horror cinema's gothic golden era, it's the story of a Victorian-era doctor whose double life, if exposed, would make him the scandal of London.

In a foggy cemetery, a gravedigger is clubbed senseless by a mysterious figure that opens the unburied coffin and fondles the female cadaver inside. We soon learn that the figure is Dr. Bernard Hichcock (Robert Flemyng), a distinguished surgeon whose development of a new anesthetic has taken him to the top of his field. His personal life is another matter, however. Not only is he drawn to the cadavers in the hospital morgue, he also uses his anesthetic for sex games with his willing wife, Margaretha (Maria Teresa Vianello). The drug puts her into a cataleptic state, allowing Hichcock to have his way with—for all intents and purposes—a corpse. One night he goes too far, injecting her with a lethal dose, and can only watch helplessly as she succumbs.

Twelve years later, he returns from Italy with his new wife, Cynthia (genre icon Barbara Steele). Here is where the "Hichcock" in the title comes into play. We're in Rebecca territory now, complete with a foreboding mansion, a sinister housekeeper (Harriet Medin) and the spectre of Margaretha that seems to cast a shadow over everything. Matters grow more complicated when it is revealed that Margaretha, who is not dead after all but recovered from the overdose, is now an insane hag roaming the dark halls—and she doesn't want that "other woman" with her husband!

What's remarkable about Terror, besides its matter-of-fact treatment of the subject matter, is its approach to Hichcock himself. Far from passing a moral judgment, the filmmakers depict Hichcock as something of a sexual pioneer, a man who has not only accepted but embraced his inner necrophile. The contrast between the wives is interesting, too. Margaretha's excited expression as Hichcock approaches her with the needle parallels the excitement of a junkie. She seems to represent Hichcock's "liberated" side while Cynthia, cold and withdrawn, is the "safe" wife who will help him repress his urges...but it doesn't work out that way.

The film is very dreamlike in tone, which some have attributed to a tight shooting schedule that forced some expository scenes to remain unfilmed. Both Steele and Medin acknowledged that Freda would throw away pages of the script to stay on schedule. Nevertheless, it works, and some critics embraced it as a surrealist masterpiece. Loaded with gothic atmosphere and complemented by a lush score, The Terror of Dr. Hichcock is a lyrical examination of one of society's biggest taboos.

Freda made a sequel of sorts, The Ghost, also with Steele. Hichcock appeared in name only as the feeble husband Steele plots to kill with the aid of her lover.

Here's a trailer I put together using material from Sinister Cinema's source print. Rather than take a modern approach, I cut it in the style of old school television spots.

Although it's commendable that Sinister makes it available in any form, this is a film that deserves rediscovery and restoration.

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