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When sex and death are indissoluble
L'Orribile segreto del dottor Hichcock (The Horrible Secret of Dr Hichcock / Raptus, 1962)
David Del Valle disects Dr Hichcock's horrible secret in this entertaining look at Riccardo Freda's underappreciated Gothic horror gem.
Raptus, the alternative title of Riccardo Freda's L'Orribile segreto del dottor Hichcock (The Horrible Secret of Dr Hichcock, Italy, 1962) is certainly apt, as its effect on individuals attracted to the macabre is not unlike a rapture or delirium of cinematic pleasure. The atmospheric visuals of Riccardo Freda's masterpiece of sexual alienation and necrophilia stands without precedent in the Golden Age of Italian Horror that virtually seized the Roman film industry from 1956 to 1966.
With more than a nod to the literary influences of Ann Radcliffe and the 19th Century that informed them, L'Orribile segreto del dottor Hichcock is a catalogue of Victorian repressions regarding desire and death, the marriage bed and the grave. The perverse behaviour of our "hero," Dr Bernard Hichcock (Robert Flemyng) – much like that of Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) in Vertigo (1958) or Verden Fell (Vincent Price) in The Tomb of Ligeia (1965) – results in the creation of a fetish-object of desire and death from each of his wives. The screenplay removes Dr Hichcock from moral convention entirely and, as the surrealist critics observed, with no narrative rationalisation his actions can be savoured as a nightmare fantasy dramatically enhanced by Rafaelle Masciocchi's scarlet lighting. The film's funeral sequence in particular led esteemed critic Raymond Durgnat to comment on how effective such lighting could be, capable as it is of giving horror a visual poetry unique in the cinema.
The good doctor and his first wife, Margherita (Maria Teresa Vianello), are dyed-in-the wool Victorians whose sex games have tragic consequences. Margherita is a willing participant in those nocturnal rituals which seem only to satisfy Dr Hichcock, a man whose lust remains unsatiated unless the body in question is as cold and lifeless as possible. Margherita's role during these episodes seems to be to close her eyes and think of England; apparently a perfect wife would do this and more to keep her man at hearth and home. How all of this finds its way into an Italian landscape of black cats and Roman Catholic guilt is one of the paradoxes wherein L'Orribile segreto del dottor Hichcock is regarded by many film scholars to be the penultimate example of Italian Gothic horror, equaled only by Mario Bava's seminal La Maschera del demonio (Mask of the Demon / Black Sunday, 1960).
L'Orribile segreto del dottor Hichcock was completed in an astonishing 16 days in April of 1962. Freda, a notorious gambler, made the movie on a wager that he could create a period film in two week's time. The submissive sexuality and mysterious subtext was partly a result of the director's decision to toss out a dozen pages of Ernesto Gastaldi's screenplay, reasoning that there was no time to delve into the motivations of the main characters.
The object of all this sexual tension is the queen of Italian gothic cinema, Barbara Steele. Her reputation rests on the series of films she appeared in between 1960, when Bava made her an icon of fetishism in La Maschera del demonio, until her swansong Un Angelo per Satana (Angel for Satan), directed by Camillo Mastrocinque in 1966. Here, Steele enjoys a change of pace as her role of Dr Hichcock's second wife is not a villainess but a victim of her husband's obsessions. Cynthia is the new lady of the manor, and like Joan Fontaine in the Hitchcock films (Rebecca , Suspicion ), she begins to suspect her husband of poisioning her as well as being haunted by the specter of his first wife.
Steele recalls the making of L'Orribile segreto del dottor Hichcock:
Freda I liked very much. He had energy and intelligence. He is the one director out of all the Italians that I felt a true connection with even though he was very autocratic. I liked him enough to feel an obligation for him to win his bet and buy this particular horse he wanted very badly. Dr Hichcock was done while I was still shooting 8 1/2  for Fellini. I did it strictly for the money. We were working 18 hour days and believe me, you don't relish a close-up after that kind of suicidal pacing and trauma. Oddly enough, I actually liked those deranged working hours. It's difficult to keep the momentum on a picture like that when you have these phenomenal pauses between takes. But Freda prevented this by maintaining absolute control at all times with no preparation. You have to feel safe with the director and Freda knew exactly how to keep me in a state of crisis long enough to get what he wanted. I wish we had done more pictures together.
More cast and crew
Freda had ushered in the first of the Italian horror films in the sound era with I Vampiri (1957), and L'Orribile segreto del dottor Hichcock was the brainchild of the two producers of that earlier picture, Luigi Carpentieri and Emmano Donati. Although I Vampiri was not a financial success, the pair decided to make another horror movie under the banner of their jointly-owned company, Panda Films. Freda believed that one of the reasons I Vampiri failed was that Italian audiences could not accept the idea of Italians making these kinds of pictures, so on L'Orribile segreto del dottor Hichcock they anglicised the names of all concerned with the exception of the three principal actors, Barbara Steele, Robert Flemyng and Harriet White. Only the film's composer, Roman Vlad, retained his correct name.
Carpentieri and Donati then secured a true specialist in the genre, Ernesto Gastaldi, just 25 years old at the time. He had already written the screenplays for Il Mostro dell'opera (The Vampire of the Opera, 1961), Lycanthropus (Werewolf in a Girl's Dormitory, 1961) and L'Amante del vampiro (The Vampire and the Ballerina, 1961). Gastaldi's career would span four decades, making him the chief architect of many of the classic gothic horror films and gialli that are so well-regarded today.
Gastaldi's genius here was to invoke the master of masters, Alfred Hitchcock, and not only through the film's title character. He extended the homage to the very theme of the film, the obsession for a love that has died (referencing Vertigo), a perverse amour fou between Steele's character and the former Mrs Hichcock. References to other Hitchcock movies are weaved into the fabric of L'Orribile segreto del dottor Hichcock, beginning with the housekeeper (Harriet White), who is a cipher for Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson) in Rebecca; the portrait of the first Mrs Hichcock, also from Rebecca; the glass of milk from Suspicion; the skull that Cynthia finds in her bed, from Under Capricorn (1949); not to mention that all four of these Hitchcock films deal with threatened wives.
The role of Dr Hichcock was interpreted by Robert Flemyng, a staple of the British film and television industry who appeared in various productions until his death in 1995. His most notable roles were in George Cukor's Travels with My Aunt (1971) and Stephen Soderbergh's Kakfa (1991). His only other genre credit was Vernon Sewell's The Blood Beast of Terror (1968), opposite Peter Cushing.
Flemyng was interviewed by the late film historian Alan Upchurch in March of 1992 regarding his work in L'Orribile segreto del dottor Hichcock.
My agent sent for me and asked me to meet with the producers. Carpentieri was in London, and I met him, and he said that he spoke Italian, and very little English. He gave me the script. And I rather liked him. My agent said, "Would you like to do it?" and I said, "Well, I want to go to Rome, yes!" The script was in English, called Raptus, and it was hilariously funny. On the first page it said, "For some people, sex and death are indissoluble." I thought, "Oh, good gracious me!" By the time I got back to Brighton, I found out the script was about necrophilia! Freda knew how to compose a picture and how to move it, how to cut it and all that. He was a very talented man. The film was made on a shoestring. I think I got, oh, a thousand pounds or something. Barbara may have gotten a bit more. I just hammed away at it and hoped for the best.
The Hitchcockian housekeeper, Martha, was played by veteran actress Harriet White Medin, who was hired even before even the director as she was known to be a fine English actress as well as a dialogue coach for Gina Lollobrigida. In the summer of 1995, Medin and Steele were reunited at a cocktail party at this writer's home in Beverly Hills. They had not seen each other since the filming of Lo Spettro (The Ghost), Freda's 1963 sequel to L'Orribile segreto del dottor Hichcock. Harriet recalled,
Barbara was very much the star in those days, and I remember seeing her years later in New York at a screening of 8 1/2. On Hichcock, I remember getting a call from Mr Flemyng asking me if I read the script. I said yes, isn't it terrible, and we agreed to act as badly as possible to make sure they would never take it out of the vault! Of course, Freda made sure he got the best from each of us regardless. Freda was a very unpleasant little man, always shouting at people and screaming at the crew for one thing or another. Barbara was always late and it drove him crazy. It reached a point that I did not enjoy going to work. I was somewhat new at all this, and I kept doing things that he did not like, yet Freda knew his craft and was good at his job. I much preferred working for a man like Mario Bava. Until your party, Barbara and I had no time to get to know each other. On both of those films, she was always being made up and had to worry about the lighting and the columnists that came on the set. There was no time for much of anything but the work.
One of the guilty pleasures in viewing L'Orribile segreto del dottor Hichcock is the brooding, highly dramatic musical score of Roman Vlad (who is also responsible for the compositions in Lo Spettro). Here, Vlad infuses the Techicolor images with a force that intensifies the obsessive and ghastly secret of Dr Hichcock. His other genre scores include The Mighty Ursus (1961), Caltiki the Immortal Monster (1959), Hipnosis (1962) and the film that started it all, I Vampiri (1957).
As we have passed the 40th anniversary of the making of L'Orribile segreto del dottor Hichcock, it has withstood the test of time and the criticism of those involved in its creation. Director Freda passed away 20 December 1999 with the knowledge that he was a pioneer in the field of Italian fantascienza, in the company of Mario Bava and Antonio Margheriti as the architects of the Golden Age of Italian Gothics. All three directors were captivated by the presence of Steele in their films. Since L'Orribile segreto del dottor Hichcock is the crown jewel in Freda's canon, we may conclude with his description of the Queen of Italian horror:
Barbara Steele! Remarkable! Her eyes are metaphysical, impossible, like the eyes of a Chirico painting. Sometimes, in certain kinds of light, her face assumes an aspect that doesn't seem quite human, and would be impossible for any other actress.
David Del Valle
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