"Yes, but you must admit that the good doctor is a little strange himself, isn't he?"
If you only knew.
Dr. Bernard Hichcock (Robert Flemyng) has devoted himself to perfecting an anaesthetic of his own concoction -- one that allows him to engage in medical procedures no one else in the late 19th century would dare attempt. When these surgeries are a roaring success, as they so often are, he's hailed as a hero. When they don't...well, sometimes it leaves the good doctor with a new plaything in the morgue. You see, Dr. Hichcock is a necrophiliac, and his sexual fascination with lifeless, immobile women extends to his own bedchamber. The good doctor has been routinely injecting his own wife (Teresa Fitzgerald) with this anaesthetic, sending her into a sleep so deep as to be indistinguishable from death. Dr. Hichcock increases the potency of his concoction for work and play until one tragic evening, an injection doesn't simulate death so much as cause it.
Devastated by the loss of his Margaret, Dr. Hichcock can no longer bear the sight of his palatial home. He instructs his housekeeper (Harriet White Medin) -- who'd assisted in her master's unspeakable pleasures -- to care for the estate in his absence. As the saying goes, time heals all wounds, and Hichcock does one day muster the strength to return: this time with a new wife, Cynthia (Barbara Steele), by his side. She doesn't take to her new home. Shrill screams. Ominous footsteps. The sound of someone -- or something -- attempting to open her door as she lay in bed...a bed that was once Margaret's. The housekeeper's gaze locked upon a towering portrait of the late Mrs. Hichcock. The sight of a figure in white dashing through the garden. Is it the housekeeper's hopelessly mad sister, as she claims, or is the spectre of Margaret that looms over the house more than just a metaphor?
Though The Horrible Dr. Hichcock is most infamous for its necrophiliac tendencies, it's noteworthy for far more than that. There's no mistaking which filmmaker its title is meant to evoke, and it is indeed littered with thematic and visual references to Alfred Hitchcock's work, from the severed head stowed beneath a bed in Under Capricorn to Suspicion's ominous glass of milk to the more figurative attempt at resurrecting a lost obsession in Vertigo. Barbara Steele is a delight, as ever. Prone to fainting and screaming though Cynthia may be, she at least occasionally exhibits a strength and drive that set her apart from the harried, nameless protagonist of Rebecca: a film to which The Horrible Dr. Hichcock also owes no small debt. Robert Flemyng brilliantly conveys every aspect of Dr. Hichcock -- his respectable veneer, his depraved compulsions, and his descent into stark, raving madness. The film's gothic imagery is also striking, replete with the candelabra, cobweb-strewn corridors, skulls, hidden passages, torrential downpours, bursts of lightning, fog-blanketed forests, and ominous architecture this subgenre demands. Much could be written about the relationship between Dr. Hichcock and his wife as she's living and breathing. She's a knowing, willing participant in his drug-induced games. As profoundly as he clearly loves her, she's summoned to the funereal sex chamber through an intermediary -- we never see them speak -- and he can't bring himself to embrace her until she's unconscious.
Other elements don't work quite so well. Martha the housekeeper vanishes with no explanation. The film would've unfolded in an entirely different manner if she and Dr. Hichcock had sat down for a proper conversation upon his return. Cynthia's inner strength varies wildly depending on whatever the current scene demands. Little effort is made to establish any of them as proper characters, really. The Horrible Dr. Hichcock builds to a gloriously gonzo climax, though it's one that isn't altogether in step with the hour and change preceding it. For a film that makes it a point to push the envelope, aspects of the finalé are disappointingly traditional, incendiary and over-the-top though they may be. It's also very much worth noting that the only version available to Olive Films is this re-edited and significantly shorter American cut. It's reportedly clumsy in comparison to the British release, The Terror of Dr. Hichcock, and it runs some twelve minutes less than the version that made the rounds in Italy. Long unavailable on home video domestically, its uninspired presentation on Blu-ray reflects Paramount's complete and total lack of interest in the film. Still, this is a movie that's rarely found its way onto DVD in any country, and Olive's release marks its debut in high definition. There's certainly much to be appreciated about that.
Whatever elements Paramount have in their vault for this heavily cut/re-edited American release are far removed from the original camera negative. Though there's never any doubt that I'm watching a proper Blu-ray release, definition and detail are rather lackluster. The image is soft and flat, with its colors lacking much in the way of vivacity. This master is peppered with flecks of dust, nicks, and the like, and although it's hardly to the point of distraction, The Horrible Dr. Hichcock still stands out as one of the more weathered presentations to cross my desk in recent memory. High definition eye candy it's not. Still, this is the first Blu-ray release of the film the world over, and that's cause for celebration, even if it's of the least preferable cut.
There's been all manner of speculation about the film's original aspect ratio. I assume that it was shot with 1.66:1 in mind, but this 1.78:1 presentation doesn't appear to be particularly compromised. Given the lean 76 minute runtime and lack of extras, it follows that The Horrible Dr. Hichcock arrives on a single layer Blu-ray disc.
This particular cut of the film was edited expressly for the U.S., so it comes as no surprise that The Horrible Dr. Hichcock is exclusively presented in English. The 24-bit, two-channel monaural DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is, much like the visual end of this presentation, rather rough-going. Mild hiss, clicks, and pops persist throughout the entirety of the film. Its score occasionally wobbles as if the master tapes are on the verge of snapping. Thin, dated, noisy, and generally underwhelming.
Also included is a set of English (SDH) subtitles.
None. I do feel the need to point out how beautiful the original poster art looks on this cover, though.
The Final Word
DVD Talk's own DVD Savant has written a marvelous review of The Horrible Dr. Hichcock -- one more deeply researched and borne of a longstanding admiration of the film than I could possibly match with my one, sole viewing. I'm very much left with the sense that this is a movie that cries out to be experienced multiple times for it to be fully appreciated. My kneejerk reaction is so mixed that I'm not sure how best to neatly summarize my thoughts. This isn't a film I'd enthusiastically recommend as a purchase sight-unseen, and the lack of extras or alternate cuts is disappointing, if understandable. Still, the modest asking price at some retailers -- $12.99 at Best Buy, as I write this -- certainly makes that roll of a dice easier to take. Those with a passion for Gothic horror, particularly if the film's more lurid elements intrigue them, will doubtless find The Horrible Dr. Hichcock to be a fascinating discovery on Blu-ray.