Friday, September 9, 2016

Off the Shelf: The Horrible Dr. Hichcock / The Monster of Piedras Blancas (Blu-ray)

by Patrick Bromley
Two cult horror classics are making their high-def debut just in time for #ScaryMovieMonth!

We're just a few weeks away from October (ohmygoshohmygosh), and if you're anything like me you have already begun assembling your list/pile of stuff you want to watch during the best month of the year. Some may be classics you look forward to revisiting annually. Some are staples that you just haven't gotten around to seeing yet and swear to yourself that this is going to be the year you finally see The Omen and The Amityville Horror and Mirrors, even though there's a good chance you probably won't because why break the streak now? If you've exhausted many of the more popular options, you might, like me, have to start searching for smaller, more obscure titles to get your #ScaryMovieMonth fix. Enter two new Blu-ray releases from Olive Films.

The 1962 Italian film The Horrible Dr. Hichcock is the kind of movie you can't believe ever got made in the early '60s, a period we tend to associate with the leftover kitsch of '50s radioactive fear films. Set in the late 1800s, the movie stars Robert Flemying as the titular Dr. Hichcock, a doctor with a particularly dark sexual fetish: he's a necrophiliac who likes to simulate death with his wife by drugging her until she's unconscious and the having sex with her. One night, he accidentally administers too much anesthesia and kills her; cut to several years later with the doctor remarried to Cynthia (the incomparable Barbara Steele) and designs on using her blood to reanimate his lost love. You know, like you do.
There are so many ways in which The Horrible Dr. Hichcock is like every other gothic horror film of the '60s -- primarily the kind that Roger Corman was making with Vincent Price, but also other Barbara Steele vehicles like Nightmare Castle. It features a big, beautiful, spooky house. There is a lost love in the past and even a giant painting of her on the wall. There is a housekeeper who seems as though she cannot be trusted. Like almost every gothic horror movie of the 1960s, it climaxes with a mansion (or, in some cases, castle) consumed with flames. If you didn't know better, you might just call this a run-of-the-mill two hander in which Barbara Steele slowly discovers some dark secrets and grows more and more frantic as the movie progresses. But then you remember that the whole impetus of the movie is that the title character is a necrophiliac who accidentally killed his wife while indulging in his twisted sex fantasy and suddenly The Horrible Dr. Hichcock feels nothing like the other films of this period.

Nothing about the movie is all that explicit; save for a shot of Hichcock kissing his wife's (clothed) breast and then burying his face in her cleavage once she's unconscious (!!!), the rest of the dark and/or deviant content in the film is basically implied. But what's implied is so fucked up even for 2016 that it's impossible to imagine it slipping past any censors in the early '60s. Maybe the Italians are just more lax about that sort of thing? Director Riccardo Freda was a filmmaker who worked a lot but who never made many movies with recognizable titles (though he is responsible for one of the best-titled giallo films of all time: The Iguana With the Tongue of Fire). Based on his work here, he's as good at creating atmosphere and dread as most of his contemporaries, really finding the opportunity to shine in a brilliant nightmare sequence that is effective and disturbing in all the intended ways. But maybe the best thing about Dr. Hichcock (besides its lunatic premise) is Barbara Steele, who could play the distressed damsel losing her sanity just as well as she could play the evil intensity of villains she created for Bava and Jack Hill. With her jet black hair and impossibly enormous eyes, she's an actor who never appears more at home than inside a dark castle.
But now we travel from the atmospheric Technicolor castles of Dr. Hichcock to the stark black and white beaches of Piedras Blancas, California. Adam Riske has already said a lot about writer/director Irvin Berwick's 1958 effort The Monster of Piedras Blancas, a movie I wasn't even aware of until he wrote a column about it a few months back. There's not a whole lot I can add to his thoughts. The movie isn't particularly "good" by traditional standards of storytelling and technique, but that's not often how we measure our enjoyment of horror movies. When it comes to horror, there can be just one or two elements that we key into that make us love a movie: the effects, a particular performance, the photography, whatever. The Monster of Piedras Blancas is what our own JB often likes to call "goofy fun" -- a standard '50s monster movie, albeit one with a bit of an edge. When you've seen as many horror movies as I have, you begin to appreciate even the minor variations.

At Piedras Blancas beach, teenage girl Lucy (Jeanne Carmen) is anxious to find independence and be with her boyfriend Fred (Don Sullivan). Unfortunately, Lucy's father, lighthouse keeper Sturges (John Harmon), is incredibly protective of his daughter in no small part because he fears the legendary monster of Piedras Blancas. He's dismissed by the townspeople as an old loon until a series of brutal murders begin. Surprise, jerks! The monster is real!
A typical "beach monster" movie in most ways except for those it isn't, The Monster of Piedras Blancas is slow and talky, full of the exact kind of clumsy exposition Joe Dante so brilliantly lampooned with Robert Cornthwaite's character in Mant!, the movie within a movie in Matinee. ("He's beginning to metamorphose...or "change.") The monster is barely glimpsed, and when it does finally arrive it's a garage sale ripoff of the Creature from the Black Lagoon and the alien in It! The Terror from Beyond Space. The Creature likeness is not accidental; producer Jack Kevan was one of the men at Universal responsible for supervising the making of the gill-man suit in the original Creature and then designed the Piedras Blancas monster, apparently based on a hazy memory.

There isn't much to distinguish the film from other B-movies of its ilk save for a few small touches. It is, as Adam pointed out in his original piece, gorier than a lot of its contemporaries in that it features two shots of a severed head (any other onscreen violence is in keeping with the period). There's also a sexuality to the film that makes it feel a little edgier and more adult, most of it courtesy of star Jeanne Carmen. Most often in these '50s monster movies, the young lovers are utterly chaste -- good for an embrace and maybe a kiss -- but Jeanne Carmen is burning with sex. She spills out of her costumes and at one point even sleeps with her boyfriend; the pair are seen in post-coital moments, with Carmen lying naked under a sheet. This is almost unheard of for the time. The knock-off nature of the film, coupled with the extra sex and violence (though tame by today's standards), gives The Monster of Piedras Blancas more in common with the exploitation films of the 1970s than many of counterparts. And where '50s monster movies and '70s exploitation movies meet, I'm a happy man.

Both movies get 1080p HD upgrades for their respective Blu-ray releases, though The Monster of Piedras Blancas fares a little better in high def, either because it has been better preserved or because the contrasts of its black and white cinematography lends itself more to a good-looking transfer. The Horrible Dr. Hichcock is more inconsistent; colors are well-represented but the image is less stable, almost going out of focus at times. I have no doubt this has to do with the available elements and that this is as good as the movie is ever going to look, but Blu-ray collectors who have gotten spoiled by new 2K scans being done for garbage like Microwave Massacre may lose sight of the fact that not every catalogue horror title can be remastered from the bottom up. No bonus features are included, but the features both come with optional English subtitles.

The Horrible Dr. Hichcock and The Monster of Piedras Blancas are interesting and lesser-known entries into their respective subgenres, worthy of seeking out for horror fans who have already crossed most of the familiar titles off of their lists. The pleasures offered by each film are different and entirely dependent on what mood you're in, but they deliver in their own ways. If nothing else, they demonstrate that there were filmmakers working in the horror genre in the late '50 and early '60s who were getting away with way more than remember.

The Horrible Dr. Hichcock Blu-ray release date: September 13, 2016
77 minutes/1964/NR
1.78:1 (1080p)
DTS HD 1.0 Master Audio (English)
English Subtitles

The Monster of Piedras Blancas Blu-ray release date: September 13, 2016
71 minutes/1958/NR
1.78:1 (1080p)
DTS HD 1.0 Master Audio (English)
English Subtitles

Buy The Horrible Dr. Hichcock from Olive Films here and The Monster of Piedras Blancas here.


  1. Jeanne Carmen's dad in the movie is so not burning with sex that I can't even imagine how much burning with sex her mom was. #HelenOfTroy

  2. Monster of Piedras Blancas at least something a bit different.

    There's a video of a local monster movie host on YouTube that plays an audio interview he did with Les Tremayne about this film. Surprising part is that the little boy in the movie was the director's son...and his limp was due to contracting polio.