It's always a treat when a hitherto-unknown old film manages to be so offbeat and compelling that you feel you've seen something really memorable, and at the same time you completely forget about the film's age. This is just the experience I had with The Horrible Secret of Dr Hitchcock (L'orribile segreto del Dr. Hichcock), a really unusual period Gothic which draws in elements from Hammer, 'old dark house' horrors and the Bluebeard myth - whilst also very much making its own mark by developing some unsettling themes indeed.
The film is set in London, 1885, and it's straight in there with the macabre when a gravedigger is attacked as he works, his assailant evidently rather interested in the beautiful female corpse which was about to be committed to the ground…after this compelling opening scene, we cut to our first meeting with the film's male protagonist, Dr Bernard Hitchcock (Robert Flemyng), a pioneering surgeon who works at a nearby hospital. He's involved in developing a certain new kind of anaesthesia - but, he seems to like to take his work home with him, shall we say. When he returns home that night to his young wife, Margaret (Maria Teresa Vianello) he knocks her out with anaesthetic before they get intimate. However after doing this one too many times, he gets the dosage wrong and Margaret winds up really lifeless.
The distraught doctor leaves his post, and leaves England altogether. When he finally returns, he brings with him a new bride - Cynthia (Barbara Steele), a woman he had been treating for nerves before falling for her. Things quickly go awry in their relationship, though; the house is in disarray and decay, and Martha - the housekeeper - says that she currently has company in the form of her insane sister, whose screams set the young bride's nerves on edge. Cynthia tries to tell herself she's imagining it, but she also feels that there is something supernaturally sinister in the house too. Meanwhile her husband is growing increasingly secretive and distant, and Cynthia begins to suspect his intentions towards her…
Thus far this sounds like standard gothic horror fare, but the film throws a real curve-ball in terms of developing the plot in a neat way and ratcheting up the tension with a generous, sweeping musical score and good performances, especially from the eponymous Ms. Steele, who does a star turn at being scared out of her wits. As this movie progresses, it never feels hackneyed whilst equally feeling somehow familiar, and right up until the final scene it manages to generate surprise. I loved the take on Victorian London - lavish, glamorous, but also uniquely lurid. The sets and costumes here are worth of any Corman Poe and each shot has evidently been carefully constructed. It also felt very Italian: the colouration and style all screams Italian from this period - and the presence of Bava icon Barbara Steele redoubles that impression. This is a pot-boiler of sinister characters with sinister motivations - a mood piece, with a slow, creeping pace and reliance on atmosphere. And, Doctor Hitchcock's secret? Even nearly fifty years on, it makes for a pretty ghastly finale!
This is definitely one for fans of period Gothic - as am I - and it's a film very ahead of its time in many ways. It's classy, quietly unsettling and gorgeous to behold, with a pleasingly frantic ending. The screener I saw was of excellent quality; crisp, vibrant colours and rich blacks with clear sound levels. The soundtrack worked especially well, being all-encompassing and dramatic. No scratches, no drops in sound level, and no disparity in the quality of picture arrived to spoil my enjoyment of this little gem; it looks like new, whilst retaining its 60s aesthetics intact. The Horrible Secret of Dr Hitchcock comes highly recommended from yours truly.
Review by Keri O'Shea