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The Horrible Dr. Hichcock
Page 1Page 2    article by Glenn Erickson -- page 2 of 2

Cynthia (Barbara Steele) trapped in a coffin in
The Horrible Dr. Hichcock.

Actually, contemporary criticism still comprises some of the best writing on The Horrible Dr. Hichcock. Raymond Durgnat's response went beyond his admiration for the hypnotizingly exciting Barbara Steele to focus on Freda's direction in the funeral scene, where sunlight shining through misty raindrops produces a painfully beautiful rainbow effect (here is where we can assume Durgnat saw a pristine copy of the film). Durgnat points out how death and beauty are effortlessly joined in one simple image, an equation he applies equally to Ms. Steele's screen persona. Fusing the concepts of desire and death, she herself has become a sort of morbid fetish-object.6

The Horrible Dr. Hichcock also attracted the attention of surrealist critics, who see the title character as a pioneer, a hero "on the trail of the marvelous" in territory untouched by moral conventions.7 The surrealists love Horrible for its lack of concern for conventional cinematic "realism." They especially love movies where the distinctions between "real" and "dream" filmic content are blurred (Peter Ibbetson), or, better yet, undetectable (Belle de Jour). The "liabilities" of a narrative that often makes no sense or where simple day and night are sometimes indistinguishable8 become plus factors: for surrealists, delirious, illogical dislocation is an end unto itself. The white-tiled surgery that suddenly and unaccountably glows bright red, and Hichcock's "unholy lust" that distorts his face into a horror-mask, are poetic effects totally without narrative rationalization.

The funeral scene from
The Horrible Dr. Hichcock.

In its initial review the Monthly Film Bulletin was amused by the movie's play with familiar Alfred Hitchcock film conventions, which for them, along with the humorous anglicized names, indicated a lively sense of humor at work. From Rebecca comes the basic "haunted bride" plot, complete with first wife's portrait and conspiratorial housekeeper. Suspicion's poisoned glass of milk is a direct quote. The rainy funeral is visually reminiscent of a scene in Foreign Correspondent. Most telling is the very Vertigo-like color wash stylization that heightens Hichcock's delirium: a comparison of the obsessive romantic/sexual agendas in The Horrible Dr. Hichcock and Vertigo suggests a more serious thematic relationship between the films than the MFB's "camp parody" conclusion would admit9. There are similarities in the obsessive manias of Scotty Ferguson and Bernard Hichcock that would seem to beg further investigation. Even a cursory analysis reveals that Freda's lowly horror film goes far beyond simply imitating the master of suspense, to propose a radical sexual theory of its own.

Bernard Hichcock's outrageous sexual manipulation of wives Margaretha and Cynthia, like Scotty Ferguson's obsession, is an expression of the masculine drive for an unattainable sexual ideal. This selfish and often destructive mania is easily recognizable, even in contemporary American culture. There is at present a booming trade for mail-order brides from poor developing countries, chattel for men presumably seeking cooperative women uncomplicated by "liberal" American ideas. Is that not equally as chilling as Hichcock's scheme? Many of these men presumably seek compliant sex partners who can be dominated completely--is that not Hichcock's goal? Hitchcock's desire is for the perfect love object, not a companion. And his personal solution carries a certain logic. Would not a corpse for a lover be the perfect non-complaining, totally compliant partner?--an object, a victim, a scapegoat, a passive receiver of affection and abuse, one incapable of spoiling the selfishness of the sexual act with an agenda of its own? It's an ugly concept, but a completely believable one.

The inquistive Cynthia roams the estate.

The Horrible Dr. Hichcock transcends its exploitative title by presenting a bizarrely accurate assessment of sexual alienation. The strange irony is that Hichcock's relationship with his first wife Margaretha is, up to a point, "conventionally conservative"--i.e., the male has the active desires, and the female role is to be willing to indulge them. One doesn't have to be a Victorian to understand the sexual politics at work. Their bizarre game in the secret black velvet "love room" also makes logical cultural sense. With the advent of anesthesia, Victorian childbirth became the exclusive business of male doctors. Because the ideal female was supposed to be sheltered from such unpleasantness, it was assumed she would welcome the opportunity to not even be a conscious participant in the event. Under those conditions it would seem to follow that women consenting to sleep through the animalistic, painful, and messy experience of childbirthing, might also opt out of having to be present for the messy, animalistic and often humiliating sex experience as well. After all, this was a society where women were supposed to want sex not for themselves but only as a way of pleasing their husband/masters. The brief glimpse we are given of the doomed Margaretha shows her an avid participant in her hubby's "funeral" game, radiant in the selfish/unselfish knowledge that she and she alone can help him reach his sexual ideal. Cannot women identify with her unconditional surrender to the will of her mate? When does compliant devotion become sexual slavery?

Margaretha's return from the grave introduces a second relationship-based dynamic, a bald lift from Rebecca but distilled here to its essence. As competitors for Bernard's affections, Cynthia and Margaretha seem to function even more obviously as possessions of matrimony, as objects and not women. Before, Margaretha surely considered her domestic relationship a viable one: he fulfilled her needs, she his. Now, transformed by the serum (and/or a premature burial) into an insane hag, she has become a Dorian Gray-like personification of the sick truth of her marriage. The only communication between these two women is Margaretha's vicious gloating over the fact that Bernard has chosen her over Cynthia. Only one of them is a knowing partner in her husband's game, but neither is anything more than a sexual pawn in an equation that values only Bernard's needs and desires. How can true honesty be achieved between beings with alien sexual agendas, conditioned from childhood to entice and possess the other through deception? After all, no matter what either wife accepts about the extent of his obsession, neither satisfies Bernard's "forbidden desires," which are finding expression elsewhere--on the job, in the neighborhood cemetery ... those pesky perverted men, anyway!--always pursuing sensation, and not relationships! In her dog-like consent to "the game," Margaretha will never know her husband's desires for the tyranny they truly are. Cynthia's one unwilling experience in "the game," apparently with insufficient serum to render her completely unconscious, creates a macabre situation that rather nastily compares loveless matrimonial sex to surgery without anesthesia! The real horror in the film lies in the crimson spectacle of the helpless Barbara Steele experiencing the full extent of her husband's secret rapture--visualized when his horrifying face, engorged and distorted, materializes demon-like from behind the black lace of her four-poster canopy. That terrifyingly unexplainable bloated apparition, in universal terms, represents the menacing sexual stranger that, to a woman in doubt, any male can suddenly resemble.

Cynthia (Barbara Steele) becomes the unwitting
participant of Dr. Hichcock's sex games.

View an animated GIF of this scene. (16 frames, 166KB)

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Go to notes.

© 1997 Glenn Erickson

Glenn Erickson is a working film editor and an amateur "film detective." He runs a Web site column for MGM Home Entertainment called MGM Video Savant that answers consumer mail and discusses video and film history, formats, and minor mysteries.


Italian Horror Menu page

Italian Horror: A Brief Introduction

Mario Bava: The Illusion of Reality

Mario Bava's Rabid Dogs

Mario Bava Biography

The Horrible Dr. Hichcock

The Devil's Commandment

Castle of Blood

Nightmare Castle

The Bloody Pit of Horror

Italian Horror in the Seventies


Italian Horror Web Links


Photo credits: Silent Scream and Sinister Cinema


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