Scotland in the early 20th Century, the famous scientist Dr. John Hichcock is now condemned to life in a wheelchair, despite his best efforts to find a cure for his degenerative condition. He is looked after by his wife Margaret (Barbara Steele) but she is having an affair with his physician Charles Livingstone. The pair plot to kill Hichcock so they can be married and Livingstone administers a fatal overdose of Hichcock's medication. However after his death a series of strange events begin and when the Doctor's wealth disappears from his safe, Margaret starts to wonder if he has come back from the dead...
A nominal sequel to Freda's earlier L'orribile segreto del Dr. Hichcock (1962), Lo Spettro has no direct links with the earlier film and its notorious necrophilic theme, instead it is a rather more conventional horror plot, highly remniscent of the classic Victorian era ghost stories (as distinct from the earlier formative gothic tales). What makes the script (co-written by Oreste Biancoli who also worked with Freda on two of his Peplum titles) so unusual however is the amount of time invested in the background storyline - the haunting plot itself is quite brief and could have readily been covered in a twenty minute Amicus Anthology segment.
However the melodrama scenes are not mere padding and as well as fleshing out the characters somewhat, they help to really accentuate the impact of the haunting scenes as being something out of the ordinary. The script avoids overloading the film with scares where in some films they can almost become routine and it avoids the overuse of the 'fake scare' (that is, when a tense moment is built up only for it to be revealed as something mundane) that can destroy a lot of the atmosphere (cf. La frusta e il corpo (1963)). Despite the very slow pacing, the storyline never drags and in a wonderful exercise in minimalism the script avoids even diverting into subplots, moving steadily towards an effective climax and a wonderfully fitting conclusion.
Taking to the director's chair under his Anglicised nom de plume of Robert Hampton, Riccardo Freda does not invest his film with the elaborate camerawork and lighting that would become the trademark of his pupil Mario Bava, but he certainly exhibits a solid hand, keeping the film moving even during the drama scenes and certainly helping to build tension in the horror scenes, in which he is aided immeasurably by a perfectly fitting soundtrack. One sequence that really stands out for a film of this period is an incredibly gory stabbing sequence, largely shot from the point-of-view of the victim with blood running down the camera lens - the sequence comes as a particular shock in what had before been a relatively stately shoot and is highly effective in emphasising the brutality of the death.
Barbara Steele returns as (a presumably different) Mrs Hichcock and her haunted appearance is well suited to the part - although it is probably her most celebrated role, her portrayal of blossoming love in Bava's La Maschera del Demonio (1960) was never convincing, but here she seems ideally cast as first the reluctant lover of Dr. Hichcock and subsequently as the conflicted lover of Dr. Livingstone. Unfortunately, British actor Robert Flemyng does not reprise his role as Dr Hichcock, but his replacement, the otherwise unknown Elio Jotta, is good in the part. American actor Peter Baldwin has suitable gravitas to play Livingstone but enough youth to be convincing as a source of desire, while countrywoman Harriet Medin returns from the first film as another house maid. It is also worth noting here that despite the Scottish setting, there is only one solitary (but well done) Scottish accent on the English dubbing, perhaps a relief as the Roman voice-artist's takes on British accents were rarely successful.
Visually, Lo Spettro is most remniscent of a British Tigon Film with its period (rather than gothic) setting and minimalist production (and interestingly enough, the film was actually distributed in the UK as The Spectre by Tony Tenser's Compton Films) although it is hard to imagine that the Soho film-maker would have allowed such a slow paced film. Thanks to Freda's solid direction, along with a literate storyline, some good set design and music, the slow pace works in the film's favour making the tense scenes genuinely scary and making this a must-see for all classic horror fans, particularly fans of the early Bava productions.
|Anyone famous in it?||Barbara Steele - British born actress who also starred in the effective Amanti d'oltretomba (1965)|
|Directed by anyone interesting?||Riccardo Freda - a veteran director of Italian films in the 1950s, he made the country's first real horror film with I Vampiri (1957) and later worked on a few Giallo films including L'iguana dalla lingua di fuoco (1971)|
|Any gore or violence ?||One very bloody scene.|
|Any sex or nudity?||None|
|Who is it for?||A must see for fans of Freda and Bava films and recommended to all classic horror fans.
|Visuals||Original Aspect Ratio - 1.66:1 non-anamorphic widescreen. Colour.
The print is not in good condition, colours are faded and there is occasional damage, but the digital transfer seems more problematic with noticable artefacting throughout and a real lack of depth particularly to the blacks. Always watchable.
|Audio||English mono - usually fine with good dialogue and music, but a few short sequences do sound rather muffled.|
|Extras||The disc includes:
|Region||Region 0 (ALL) - NTSC|
|Availability||Only available in a two-film set along with the Edgar Wallace thriller Dead Eyes on London.|
|Other regions?||Also available on several PD horror collections in the USA, at best ports of this release.|
|Cuts?||Believed to be fully uncut, although films were frequently edited for US export at the time and the print may vary from the original Italian release. Print language is English.|