Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Ghost (1963): or, Gin and Sin Up Cripple Creek

Let's see what we've got here: Dr. Hichcock [sic], a brilliant but and pathologically unpleasant physician studying the efficacy of toxins in treating paralysis. Crippled by his own experiments, Hichcock is married to cold-hearted, beautiful bitch Margaret (Barbara Steele, doe-eyed and deadly as ever) and under the care of young and handsome but similarly niceness-challenged Dr. Charles Livingstone. Figuring he's not long for this world due to his quadriplegia, Dr. Hichcock is conducting nightly seances with the help of live-in medium-cum-housekeeper Harriet. Further, Hichcock is convinced that nightly doses of the deadly paralyzing poison curare quickly followed the the antidote will shock his system into recovery, and Livingstone is the only physician crazy or unscrupulous enough to administer the regimen. What he's not aware of is that Margaret and Charles are having a torrid, fully-ambulatory affair, and before you can say "Move that glass of antidote a little closer!" she's convinced her boy-toy to cure Hichcock PERMANENTLY so that they can split the estate and live dastardly ever after. But a last-minute change in the old man's will strands them at the estate after his funeral, looking for hundreds of thousands of pounds sterling in cash and jewelry before the solicitors can claim it for the orphan's home. And of course it's not long before Dr. Hichcock starts making things hard on the lovers, seemingly FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE...

With me so far?

About fifteen minutes into 1963's The Ghost (aka Lo Spettro), I thought I had nothing in front of me but 75 more minutes of boredom. There's melodrama and then there's melodrama, and then there's the acting in Lo Spettro. While part of the overblown delivery of each and every line is perhaps a natural consequence of the film being post-dubbed in English--and none too well--still, the dialog and writing were so far over the top as to be annoying, but not quite far enough to be amusing. Hichcock gloating with his evil grin, reminiscing about the olden days before his accident ("I was a MAN then!"), while Barbara Steele absolutely drips disgust and bullies the young Dr. Livingstone around like a schoolboy. A group of unpleasant people being unpleasant to each other, and not even in particularly entertaining ways. Who wants to watch that?

But then something happened--Babs and Chuck finally get around to murdering the old man--and director Riccardo Freda finally seemed to find his groove and started hitting it, HARD. While the old housekeeper looks on disapprovingly (her continued employment is a condition of Dr. Hichcock's will), Margaret and Charles look for the missing loot, their passion and patience with each other wearing thin. And then--THEN--the haunting starts.

And what a well-done haunting it is! Sitting in the parlor one night after the funeral, wondering where all the money could be, Margaret and Charles are surprised by the sound of squeaking wheels from the doctor's study! They rush out to the stairway in time to see the door to the study open, and in a wonderful low-angle shot we see the shadow of the doctor's wheelchair creeping inexorably toward the stairs. Then in a scene that presages the pantaloons-filling sequence from The Changeling by 17 years, the chair comes out, empty, squeaking incessantly, and barrels toward them down the stairs! It's a wonderfully creepy scene, and gave me the goosebumps, I don't mind telling you.

Apparently agreeing never to speak of the incident again, Babs and Charlie continue their search. (Really, it never even comes up in conversation. If it were me, I'd be all, "Holy shit! Remember the other night when that squeaky chair came out and freaked up ALL our shit? What the fuck are we still doing here?") After a helpful tip from the housekeeper leads them to believe that the key to the doctor's safe might have been buried with him, the lovers go to the old man's crypt and disinter him in the name of filthy lucre. It's another moody, chilling set piece, and by this point I was totally into the flick, anxious to see what would happen next.

"You want me to do WHAT? Hell no, not for scale I won't."

Well, a LOT happens next. Finding the safe empty, the lovers get increasingly irritated with each other. Not enough to stop rolling in the linen together, though, and Lo Spettro de Hichcock makes his displeasure known by dripping blood on their bedsheets from the ceiling and manifesting himself in the attic as a hanged corpse. Yikes! But when the maid puts a bug in Barb's ear that she found some of the Doctor's jewelry in amongst Livingstone's things, Ms. Steele starts to wonder whether Chuck is playing her for a chump. Her nerves, already on edge, snap, and we get an amazing razor-blade murder scene that literally has the blood flowing down the lens, in glorious Technicolor. WOW.

The ending might disappoint some viewers, both from its clichéd trappings and its implausibility:

>>>SPOILERS>>> (swipe with mouse to read)

Having noticed he was getting better thanks to the curare treatment, the doctor has faked his own death in order to torture Margaret and Charles for having deceived him. He's been behind it all along, bwahahahaha! With the help of Harriet! And now his wife, poisoned by a nail in the coffin and on the brink of paralysis herself, will be put away for the murder of her young lover! Isn't that a hoot?

Unfortunately for the doctor he hasn't counted on his wife's post-murder suicidal thoughts, and his nostalgic taste for Dutch gin will be the death of him...


It's not all great, of course. The print on the 50 Chilling Classics set is in terrible shape, and the acting and dialog never rise above the level of melodrama alluded to earlier, but some truly chilling images and wild scenes (other standouts include a bleeding snuff box and the most amazing use of that famous sampled wolf-howl evar) lift this one above the rest. Barbara Steele is striking to look at as always, and the twists and turns of the plot, while not exactly believable, are nonetheless a hell of a lot of fun.

So I give The Ghost a 2.25 thumb rating, and would recommend it for at least one viewing. It does some things badly but a lot of things well, and what more do you want from a 60s Italian chiller, anyway?


BC said...

According to my records, I have now watched 35 of the Chilling Classics (one - HAUNTS, was watched pre Horror Movie A Day so there's no review :(). I'd say another 5 aren't even horror movies, so that leaves around 10... I should finish that sucker up by Halloween. And a joyous day it shall be. I may have a parade.

Anonymous said...

This is my favorite Steele movie. I would have made the exhumation scene a bit gruesomer.

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