The Spectre (1963) poster

The Spectre (1963)


aka The Ghost
(Lo Spettro)

Italy. 1963.


Director – Robert Hampton [Riccardo Freda], Screenplay – Robert Davidson [Oreste Biancoli] & Robert Hampton, Story – Robert Davidson, Producer – Louis Mann [Luigi Carpentieri], Photography – Donald Green [Raffaele Masciocchi], Music – Franck Wallace [Franco Mannino], Art Direction – Sammy Fields [Mario Chiari]. Production Company – Panda.


Barbara Steele (Margaret Hichcock), Peter Baldwin (Dr Charles Livingstone), Leonard G. Elliot [Elio Jotta], (Dr John Hichcock), Harriet White [Harriet Medin] (Catherine), Raoul H. Newman [Umberto Raho] (Canon Owens), Charles Kechler [Carlo Kechler] (Police Superintendent), Reginald Price Anderson (Albert Fisher)


Scotland, 1910. Margaret Hichcock lives with her ailing, wheelchair-ridden husband John. John’s doctor Charles Livingstone comes to administer experimental treatments that may be able to rejuvenate him. Unknown to John, Margaret and Charles are conducting a secret love affair. They contrive to poison John so that they can be together. In the aftermath of John’s death, the will is read, which leaves two-thirds of his fortune to the church. However, the key to the safe cannot be found. Charles and Margaret realise that the key was in John’s pocket and was buried with him. They break into the coffin to get the key – only to then find that the safe is empty. At the same time, they are haunted by the figure of John, seemingly returned from the grave.

Continental Gothic is a term applied by this site to a group of films that emerged principally from Italy during the 1960s. The genre was sparked by Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960), which was the most influential (although was not the first) work and set the style. The Continental Gothic drew its undeniable influence from the enormous popularity of UK’s Hammer Films and Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations around this same time. On top of this, the Italians created their own unique style shot in moody black-and-white, featuring supernatural retributions, ghosts and resurrected witches in beautiful decaying castles and old houses. Many of the films also featured British actress Barbara Steele whose haunting wide-eyed beauty became an indispensable fixture of the genre.

Riccardo Freda (1909-99) was one of the influential directors of this period of Italian Cinema. Freda began as a scriptwriter and began directing in the 1940s, churning out a good many historical adventure films. He made I Vampiri (1957), the film that began the Italian horror cycle. He made several other genre films during this period with Caltiki the Immortal Monster (1959), Maciste in Hell/The Witch’s Curse (1960) and Murder Obsession/Delirium (1982). He also placed his feet in other genres of the Italian film industry, including directing several peplum adventures and spy films, putting out 45 films between 1944 and 1994.

The Spectre is a sort of sequel to Riccardo Freda’s earlier The Terror of Dr Hichcock (1962), one of the key films of the Italian Gothic. In that film, Robert Flemyng was an obsessed doctor whose second wife (Barbara Steele) suspects he may have killed his first wife and that she is now haunting them. Even though this was sold as a sequel, there is no real connection between The Terror of Dr Hichcock and The Spectre beyond Riccardo Freda and a return performance from Barbara Steele. In both films, she plays a character named Hichcock, although there is no indication they are related. (According to Barbara Steele in an interview (Filmfax #51), Freda made The Spectre on a bet that he could not write a film from scratch and shoot it within a week).

Peter Baldwin and Barbara Steele in The Spectre (1963)
Illicit lovers Peter Baldwin and Barbara Steele

As he did in The Terror of Dr Hichcock, Riccardo Freda piles on the Gothic atmosphere. I do have to admit that what I watched was a grainy quality YouTube copy as at current writing there is no dvd quality restoration of the film available. So as far as one can tell, there is all the same brooding atmosphere there was in Dr Hichcock. Particularly standout is the scene where Paul Baldwin and Barbara Steele break into the crypt to retrieve a key in the pocket of the husband’s corpse, all shot in dark surrounding shadow. The middle of the film is filled with assorted hauntings – a cadaverous figure appearing to Steele, the shadow of a hanged body seen on a wall. As always, Steele radiates her haunting pre-Raphaelite beauty, seeming to dominate the screen with her eyes (even when she is being dubbed by an American voice in the print seen here).

Whereas Dr Hichcock was a Gothic work about a doctor obsessed with a dead wife, this has at its centre a plot where Barbara Steele and her lover Peter Baldwin conspire to kill her husband Leonard G. Elliot/Elio Jotta. In both films there is a plot where the dead spouse comes back to haunt the still living, although here that is given a Rationalised Fantasy twist.

[PLOT SPOILERS] The Spectre eventually becomes a Psycho-Thriller that borrows much from the French classic Les Diaboliques (1955) and copied by the Hammer psycho-thrillers of this period in which a series of hauntings would be given an end revelation where everything has been elaborately contrived in order to punish/expose the guilty parties. It arrives at an ending that shows everyone is as bad as each other and all have just desserts fates visited on them.

Trailer here

Full film available here

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