Friday, August 31, 2012

The Ghost / Lo spettro (1963)

‘Epic’ has sort of become a popular internet slang term these days and is generally used as a descriptive response for anything that comes off as grandly awesome. I normally prefer using it in the more traditional sense as a tag for a long story that spans multiple books or movies. So, even given its standard runtime, why is ‘epic’ the first adjective that comes to mind when thinking about Riccardo Freda’s generically titled Gothic horror/mystery THE GHOST?

In trying to come up with a possible answer, I find myself realizing just how well nearly everything about THE GHOST hits the spot. From the opening séance to the fulfilling ending, there ends up being a very attractive mental journey, dense with macabre elements, to a destination that could only be described as maniacal insanity, just before the film closes out with a religious representative reminding us that the devil is a very real person. I feel that it is this cadaverous journey, mostly within the confines of a richly decorated Scottish 1910 mansion as well as the grand supernatural, alien beauty of the film’s star, Barbara Steele, that merits the ‘epic’ tag.

Am I right when I say that Steele was an essential component in helping several Italian Gothics rise above being standard genre fare? Just like the chorus to a particular ‘80s Roxette song, she’s got the look. Here, Steele doesn’t portray her usual dual role of a good and an evil character but only the latter in this film, and it really is what she does best. She’s on fire in an immortal murder scene late in the movie that brings to mind the phrase ‘slashed to ribbons’. 




Steele is in her prime and at her best in THE GHOST as Margaret Hichcock, which only adds to Freda’s masterpiece, because in addition to this scene stealing murderess, the film still also pushes a lot of the right buttons. Music, ambiance, and visual style are all ace and totally unique to this specific era of horror filming and couldn’t possibly be recreated and exhibited in the same manner today. That isn’t to say that it is all style and no substance; the overall direction of the story does have an impact and makes for a good payoff at the end.




The music feels like it was composed to go along with the dialogue, helping to tell the story and suggesting how we should respond to what a character has just said or done. This melodrama also helps to confirm our suspicions about the motives and incentives of certain characters as well as enhance emotions. My favorite part is the mood setter at the very beginning following a séance when the film’s main theme begins to boom in a melodic symphony over the exhausted individuals taking part. It’s like a grand aftermath of sorts and causes the following intro credits to feel like the end of the movie, instead.




Also, character interaction is placed at the helm, as there are a lot of talky scenes and drama that stems from the relationships and circumstances between characters. The occupants of the manor do possess all the character archetypes that one would expect from this type of film but nonetheless still have enough depth and quirks to keep things interesting. 

Elio Jotta is perfectly cast as the handicapped, unorthodox scientist Dr. John Hichcock, who epitomizes the regretful old man and his wheelchair, with an obsession with the past. Dr. Hichcock yearns for a time when he was happier with his wife, Margaret (Steele), and not in a wheelchair. Given his current state, he claims that his séances that are regularly conducted in his mansion are his only interest in life, exemplifying an obsession with spirits that, like his happiness, have long past.




An essential addition to the household for any kind of haunted real estate in the early twentieth century is the committed housekeeper that just sort of comes with the house. In this case it is Catherine (Harriet Medin), whose mysterious air makes one wonder if she really is just an honest hardworking maid or working under some other motive, creeping up from behind at times to startle the lady of the house or possibly spying for unthinkable reasons. 

Peter Baldwin plays Dr. Hichcock’s medical doctor, Charles Livingstone, as well as his personal assistant to some bizarre experimentation for curing paralyses. Margaret has an affair with Charles and pressures him, using his love for her, to go along with the deed of murdering her husband so they can do it together, like the cute murdering couple they are. After he is murdered, the rest of the film concerns the apparent haunting by Dr. Hichcock and complications that arise from Margaret collecting her inheritance. Helping make the supposed haunting creepier is the large portrait of Dr. Hichcock that looms over the main living quarters, causing his presence to still be felt despite being dead and entombed.


"I always feel him just over my shoulder; sometimes I turn to try to catch him face to face, and he's not there, no one is."--Charles/ Peter Baldwin

THE GHOST is actually part of a Dr. HICHCOCK mini-franchise consisting of two films, which also includes THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK, also directed by Riccardo Freda, made shortly before. Even though it also stars Barbara Steele in another toxic marriage with a different Dr. Hichcock, I’m still very hesitant to think of THE GHOST as a sequel since the connection between these two films is merely superficial.

Fans of Ms. Steele that just so happen to have not seen THE GHOST yet are seriously missing out, and anyone curious about her otherworldly, doughy eyed, thick lower lip, dark, and scene-owning charm wouldn’t be taking a risk by viewing this or BLACK SUNDAY or AN ANGEL FOR SATAN. Ooh, and not to forget NIGHTMARE CASTE or CASTLE OF BLOOD, too. What’s your favorite Barbara Steele?






9 comments:

  1. I love Barbara Steele movies mostly so I can gaze at her! The Ghost is a great movie, which I should own a real copy of instead of the 50 pack bare bones version I have. I also like Black Sunday and even the cheesy 80s slasher The Silent Scream.

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    1. The Silent Scream was cool. It was strange for me to see Barbara around 20 years older than what I'm used to seeing, but she was still marvelous to look at, and, from what I saw in an interview I watched, she still is even nowadays. I have a DVD of THE GHOST that is an ugly VHS transfer, but there's a nice version on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kPJu1aS-MLU&feature=related), of which I got these screen grabs from. Aside from looking much better, the only other difference I noticed was that the seance scenes at the beginning were edited around differently.

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  2. I personally think The Ghost is Riccardo Freda's best movie. The script, acting, twist - everything work so damn fine. And the cinematography is splendid.

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    1. I agree with you on all counts. I think that it's an improvement over The Horrible Dr. Hichcock. I love Murder Obsession and Tragic Ceremony, too, but The Ghost is simply the better movie, especially considering all of the strengths that you've mentioned.

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  3. Well I obviously need to watch this. And with Erin's comment above I rechecked my sets and realized this one is in Chilling Classics. So why the hell haven't I watched it? Who knows.

    I love Black Sunday and the ever-so-cheesy She Beast. I also enjoy her appearance in They Came From Within.

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    1. Black Sunday was my first. For some reason I had a hard time with She Beast; maybe it was due to Steele's limited appearance in that one. I have been meaning to see They Came From Within or as I have known it, Shivers. For some reason I only went through a short lived Cronenberg phase (I enjoyed the Hell out of The Brood) though I really need to return, especially given you and Blake's awesome coverage of his films on Blood Sucking Geek.

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  4. Alas, I still have yet to see a Barbara Steele movie. I'm quite interested in seeing "Curse of the Crimson Altar" because it has Steele in a wicked costume. This and Nightmare Castle look very interesting as well. And of course, I have to see Black Sunday. But I DID just see "Demons 5: The Devil's Veil" Lamberto Bava's half-remake half-tribute of it recently which was not as bad as I had expected!

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    1. I still haven't seen CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTER though it's become easy to watch online now. When I first became interested my only option was an overpriced VHS being sold on Amazon, and I passed on it of course. Thinking strongly about it, I think that BLACK SUNDAY is the best place to start to get a nice wholesome dose of Barbara Steele's appeal. I'd recommend checking out all of her other Italian Gothics, too, there's a lot of fun in store there, and you won't be disappointed.

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  5. jervaise brooke hamsterSeptember 13, 2012 at 7:31 PM

    I want to bugger Barbara Steele (as the bird was in 1955 when the bird was 18, not as the bird is now obviously).

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