A master surgeon, one of—if not the best—in the world, has a depraved secret. Riccardo Freda's THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK is a Gothic horror delight set in London. A beautiful pianist, Margaretha, who is ill, Hichcock's beloved, dies after his anesthetic, used on patients, accidentally kills her.
Hichcock must leave his manor because Margaretha's memory torments him, resigning from the hospital and in doing so the doctor meets a new love, Cynthia (horror iconess, Barbara Steele), returning to home and job shortly afterward.
As a popular surgeon and doctor, with a distinguished reputation of success, Hichcock is always in demand and so his career often keeps him away from Cynthia who is uncomfortable in the manor. Hichcock, though, after losing Margaretha, will not use the anethstesia any longer as a physician, and this decision increases the mortality rate of the patients under his care, earning disappointment and criticism from those who work alongside him. Meanwhile, Margaretha's memory, all her portraits enshrined throughout the manor, walls and walls adoring her beauty, becomes a burden to Cynthia who just wants to have one room that doesn't remind her of love lost.
Through Bernard, we learn that Cynthia was in a hospital due to a terrible mental shock as a result of her father's death, establishing a potential psychological problem which might be contributing to several eerie instances where she hears voices forewarning her of death to come, not to mention, footsteps, a turning doorknob, and a skull found on her bed. Hichcock does have a suspicious maidservant, Martha, who shows her disapproval when Bernard is in her presence, and doesn't hide her disgust for Cynthia or the sheer fact that he has "replaced" Margaretha with another. A locked room Martha is protective of intrigues Cynthia—what is in this room?
Another subplot concerns Bernard's assistant, Curd, who falls in love with Cynthia, his feelings quite evident when they are alone together; it creates the obvious awkwardness because both know these feelings exist. As time goes by, Hichcock becomes more and more distant and cold, which certainly affects his marital relations with Cynthia.
Truthfully THE HORRIBLE SECRET OF DR. HICHCOCK is as much a dark, Gothic soap opera as it is a horror movie with all the elements in place, in particular, the result of Bernard's infatuation with the corpse of a lovely woman at his hospital and how his alienation for Cynthia slowly drives a wedge between their marriage (and, it is certain to drive her into the arms of Curd who would offer her more of a fruitful relationship).
What is interesting (or at least what *I* found interesting) is that not only does Hichcock have a secret, but Martha is hiding something as well. The room with the mirror, Hichcock's old laboratory, holds that secret Martha has been intent on keeping to herself, and soon Bernard—as does Cynthia through investigation (or, as one might call plain, old snooping)—will experience himself what she has been hiding. I think this is when the movie hits its stride, near the hour mark, with what I consider the film's greatest set piece, during a loud thunderstorm, the lightning bright and powerful, where Bernard hears a familiar tune from the piano in his manor, someone in a white dress, face covered by a veil, which initiates his long dormant perversion to flower, poor Cynthia the victim of his deviant uprising.
He will use his anesthesia to paralyze Cynthia, so that she resembles a corpse, unable to move, in order to satiate his deep rooted psycho-sexual deviance. I loved how the movie unravels, the knowledge that Cynthia is in danger because we are allowed to have moments with Hichcock and see the undercurrent of depravity lurking underneath, only a matter of time before his Hyde surfaces. The sinister atmosphere director Ricardo Freda builds is methodical, a slow-burn approach known during this period in Gothic horror when pacing isn't a factor European filmmakers were concerned with.
What I love about Barbara Steele is that she can slide into the heroine and villainess roles, ably talented to convince in performance as a victim-to-be, vengeful ghoul, or manipulative menace. Her period in Italy and Europe yielded good and bad, but when you have both PIT & THE PENDULUM and BLACK Sunday on your resume, I'd say that constitutes a solid career, even if it lasted a period of ten years. There is a great scene right out of Von Dreyer's VAMPYR where Cynthia awakens to find herself trapped in a coffin with her inscription written on the outside.. Freda's camera steadily drawing near the casket where a small window (some coffins were made to show the deceased's face prior to burial) to unveil Steele's face, her eyes opening, all that horror being buried alive present, Cynthia's fate grim.
Following this is an intense conclusion where Cynthia attempts to escape from what could be Margaretha's specter—Hichcock's home has underground tunnels, prisons, and a crypt, identifiable to Gothic horror films featuring castles, there always seems to be secret passageways and architectural labyrinths to discover by unfamiliars who walk unknowingly into them. The ending is closer to Corman than Bava, however, the burning castle and handsome hero coming to save the damsel in distress. Robert Flemyng I thought was excellent, the way his hands caress the bodies of those he craves to ravage (mostly bodies of the dead!), and how he shows the teeming unrest and disquiet that lies beneath; I think he's a tortured soul who cannot help himself. Silvano Tranquilli has the uninteresting part of bland love interest for Steele..these are the parts that are written without the vitality normally dedicated to the more colorful villain as evident in Corman's Poe films with Vincent Price.