After finding a breakout dual role in Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960), in which she both played an evil witch and an innocent youth, Steele became one of the top leading ladies of the genre for the duration of the decade. Much of her filmography is filled with forgettable B-pictures, but a smattering of highlights rise from the rubble every so often. Among those gems is her sole movie of 1962, the beautifully grotesque The Horrible Dr. Hichcock.
In the movie, itself directed by genre dignitary Riccardo Freda, Steele plays Cynthia, the new bride of respected doctor Bernard Hichcock (Robert Flemyng). Since she’s young and since the movie is set at the end of the 1800s, we figure she’s accepted his proposal because security is such a difficult thing to come by and because being a woman in the 19th century isn’t such a fun pastime for a girl of her age. Naïve and hopeful, she expects a marriage of comfort and predictability, and that’s just fine.
But Cynthia is unaware just how tainted Bernard’s past is. A closeted necrophiliac, the real reason Bernard's been a bachelor for so long is because he accidentally killed his wife a couple years ago during one of their sexual funeral games. (It’s suggested that he regularly drugged her and raped her as she slept). In the aftermath, he fled his original property, running from his past ever since.
So when Bernard decides to come back to his old mansion with his new wife in tow, expectedly the situation’s far from a placid: He discovers that his dead wife didn’t actually die (she rapidly aged instead), and that she’s now secretly living on the manor with a devoted attendant. Still smitten, Bernard tosses aside his newfound love, plotting to kill Cynthia and use her blood to restore his first spouse’s youth.
The movie’s a more hallucinogenic version of 1944’s Gaslight — only the wife’s being driven crazy for a much different reason — and what a glamorous chiller it is. Though only a skinny 76 minutes, The Horrible Dr. Hichcock’s hardly malnourished: In addition to its deluge of fortifying Gothic chic imagery, it makes for both a compelling take on youthful sexual anxiety and a disturbing account of one man’s obsessions and fetishes ultimately destroying him. Steele’s performance is prepossessingly emotive, and Flemyng is note-perfect as a seemingly ordinary man hiding a rotting interior.
Not a moment is wasted in this minor genre excursion – look at it as though it were a ghostly companion piece to the Poe/Corman/Price vehicles of the ’60s, perhaps even outdoing them in sheer stylistic intellect. (It’s a wondrous juxtaposition of rococo and Lovecraftian darkness.) Dr. Hichcock might be horrible, but watching him do bad is unmissable. B+
1 Hr., 16 Mins.
The Horrible Dr. Hichcock October 19, 2017
arbara Steele has a face ripe for the horror genre. Her eyes enormous — always bugged in a misting of fear — and her mouth supple and pouting, she carries a sort of Victorian beauty with a hint of a modern edge. Danger is a sexy, vibrating sensation when felt by her; she makes the carrying of a candelabra down a dark hallway or the donning of a billowing ballgown a thrilling image. Of cinema’s scream queens, Steele is by far the most interesting.