Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Vamp or Not? Raptus, the secret of Doctor Hichcock

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I decided to look at this, on the basis of a ‘Vamp or not?’ article as I have heard the film associated with the genre. That said the vampiric elements are sparse and you have to look rather closely to spot them in what is Riccardo Freda’s fairly typical Italian Gothic horror with a disturbing element involved.

The film, set in London in 1885, begins with scenes of a cemetery. disturbingA man digs a grave (at night for some reason) whilst another, face unseen, enters the graveyard. The intruder attacks the grave digger from behind, knocking him out, and then jimmies open the coffin revealing the corpse of a young girl. As the intruder runs his hands along the corpse we realise that he has necrophilic intent.

At the University College Hospital Professor Bernard Hichcock (Robert Flemyng) is preparing to operate on the gravedigger. He injects him with an anaesthetic of his own creation, though the operation must be done quickly as he is unsure as to how long the anaesthetic will keep the man under. We discover that the anaesthetic brings about a death like state, tricking the organs into basically switching off and slowing the flow of blood.

Margaretha druggedAfter the operation Hichcock goes home. He tells his housekeeper, Martha (Harriet Medin), to tell his wife, Margaretha (Maria Teresa Vianello) that he is going to bed and she indicates this to the young woman, who is playing piano for guests. She quickly excuses herself and sends them home and goes to a bedroom, best described as funereal. She lies on the bed and allows her husband to inject her with his concoction. In her death like state he has his way.

Robert Flemyng as HichcockOne of the titles of the film is ‘The Terrible Secret of Dr Hichcock’ and this is the terrible secret. The Doctor is a necrophiliac. He places his wife in a death-like state in order to be with her – albeit a consensual arrangement – and we can assume that the defilement of the corpse at the beginning of the film was Hichcock as well.

The next time he injects his wife he puts extra anaesthetic in the syringe. Unfortunately she reacts badly to it, choking before slumping into the trance. He then realises he has killed her and is overcome with grief. A funeral is held, she is interned in the crypt and he leaves. However during the internment we get an interesting image.

Cat over casketWe see his wife’s cat climb over the coffin. Looking at the Vampire Encylopedia reveals “the animals (cats) were kept away from corpses lest they jump over them and transform the deceased into a revenant.”

Twelve years later Hichcock returns to London with a new wife, Cynthia (Barbara Steele). newly wedsIt is quickly clear that, whilst she knows he is a widower she does not know of his sexual predilections nor what the deceased Mrs Hichcock allowed him to do. As they arrive at the house it also becomes clear that Martha dislikes her new mistress. At first arriving at the house they hear a scream. Martha tells them it is her sister, who is mad and being shipped to an asylum the next day.

The film then follows two main stories, with Cynthia becoming convinced that the house of haunted by the former Mrs Hichcock, whilst the Professor becomes more and more drawn towards his sexual preference. He even, nearly, defiles the corpse of a patient he lost because he will no longer use his anaesthetic.

Margaretha returns from the graveEventually he actually sees Margaretha and this pushes him to use the anaesthetic on Cynthia. However any act he might have committed is disturbed by the fact that Cynthia awakens (though he later tells her she was delirious) and also by interference by Margaretha, who wants her husband back. You see Margaretha awoke in her coffin, after Hichcock had left, and is now quite mad. It is raising from the dead, of a sort, but from a premature burial.

Barbara Steele as CynthiaThe Professor now wishes to kill his bride, who is not a typical damsel in distress and is actually suspicious and not buying his lies. This culminates with a scene that is the only other vampiric reference. Cynthia is trussed and hung over a bowl. Hichcock tells Margaretha that he will use Cynthia’s young blood to make her young again. Quite where this Báthory-esque reference came from is anyone’s guess, but it is there none the less.

All in all this is a fairly slow film and certainly not the best example of Italian gothic cinema. It is atmospheric and has a rich soundtrack that adds layer upon layer of melodrama to the proceedings. It also has a very risqué subject matter but the story exposition can become lost in the need to throw us another gothic image.

Harriet Medin as MarthaThere are vampiric elements to this, as I pointed out, but they really are not enough to call this vamp. The black cat is a good, traditional piece of lore but might have been added by accident. The raising from the dead is more an awakening from hibernation and being prematurely buried – a fate that almost takes Cynthia at one point, leading to a great scene by Barbara Steele. The use of blood to restore youth is too little too late, feeling out of place and tacked on and over in a blink.

The imdb page is here.

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