Monday, October 18, 2010

THE HUNCHBACK OF THE MORGUE (El jorobado de la Morgue, 1973)

There's a timeless quality to the work of horror auteur Jacinto Molina and his onscreen alter ego Paul Naschy that transcends the often dated fashions and music of his films. He consciously continued the traditions of classic horror into a more explicit era, and few of his movies are as steeped in tradition as this one, co-written by Molina and directed by Javier Aguirre. If many Naschy vehicles hearken back to the archetypes of Universal Studios, El jorobado de la Morgue reaches even further back into the past. If Naschy often appeared to be Europe's answer to Lon Chaney Jr., he ventured into Chaney Sr.'s territory this time in a story that could well have been a silent film, only with bare breasts and more blood.

Set in a German town, The Hunchback of the Morgue chronicles the misfortunes of Wolfgang Gotho (pronounced "go-toe," not "goth-o"), a shaggy-haired misfit who is "retarded mentally," as the English language dubbing puts it. Gotho (everyone calls him by his last name) has a crush on a terminally ill girl with a love for flowers and an affection for the man who brings them every day. A random fight with some obnoxious orderlies makes him just a minute late for the poor girl's death. Enraged by the cavalier attitude others take toward her corpse, Gotho chops an orderly's head off, disembowels another, and steals the body, storing it in an underground crypt. He still brings flowers regularly, but is chagrined to discover rats gnawing on the untreated cadaver one terrible day. After fending off their feral leaping attacks on his own person, the outraged hunchback puts the vermin to the torch.

Wolfgang Gotho (Paul Naschy) mourns a lost love, and rages at those rats who dare mock his mourning.

Gotho manages to dodge a police manhunt, but a couple of maddened scientists are quite aware of his hiding place. It strikes them as a perfect place, and Gotho as a perfect assistant, for their own experiments in creating life by "alimenting" corpse matter. As one of the doctors says, the hunchback is "a person who, apart from his insignificance might be of extraordinary value." On the other hand, "Dealing with a killer is not only repugnant, but might also cause complications." But these are small worries when science is at stake, and Gotho is soon put to work with a promise that his girl can be brought back to life. He's tasked with collecting body parts that appear to be destined for a blender, or else are meant to ferment somehow. It's all part of the all-important alimentation process, but once the doctors discover that their evolving creature "repels dead cells" (and loudly, too), they determine that "we must aliment it with material that is alive."

By this point all hope of restoring Gotho's girl is gone, since some lackeys, sick of the stench from the still-untreated stiff, have thrown her into an acid pit. Gotho tosses one of them in after her and is about to give his notice when he's assured that the scientists can make another girl for him from scratch. That keeps him in the killing business, even as he befriends a more benevolent, more beautiful doctor (Rosanna Yanni) who longs for a love as pure as that Gotho had for the dead girl. Soon our hunchbacked hero is moving up from kissing her feet to bedding her. Inspired by his new love, he resolves to put an end to the scientists' experiments, just as "the Primordial" is roused by insatiable hunger to violent life.

To love a hunchback as Rosanna Yanni does is to put oneself in harm's way, or at least in front of harm's way.

How to describe the Primordial? He's been grown through alimentation, and the alimentary canal is the channel that food travels from mouth to anus. What comes out of the anus? Suffice it to say it's pretty primordial, as in "primordial ooze" or something along those lines.

While the concluding battle of monsters is straight out of 1940s Universal, the prevailing sensibility is more archaic. Naschy's Gotho is a variation of Chaney's Quasimodo, a pitiable wretch longing for love and companionship yet driven constantly to violence. He milks the role for as much pathos as he can, but Naschy always seems to miss the point of pathos. You're supposed to pity a character who can't have or has even renounced what we all long for, but Naschy wants your pity and to score with chicks on screen at the same time. Even with a hump on and a fright wig, he has a hot number stripping and throwing herself at him. That guileless egoism is actually part of Naschy's special charm, and I'd never begrudge him his moments of gratification, since he usually knows better than to have a happy ending afterward.

If the story feels like something out of the Twenties, the direction is nearly as primitive. Like most Euro horrors, Hunchback benefits from picturesque locations, but it's no exercise in directorial style. With the dumb dubbing thrown in, the film has a Poverty Row feel that actually feels right in the circumstances. In any event, style is secondary for a star vehicle like this; a director may as well plant his camera and let Naschy do his thing. You'll usually be entertained, if you have a taste for such stuff in the first place as I do, and as a Naschy vehicle El jorobado did not disappoint. It actually does earn some pathos for its protagonist in spite of itself.

Here's an American trailer, uploaded to YouTube by bgart13.


The Vicar of VHS said...

I've long since given up trying to pic a favorite Naschy movie, as even the "worst" of them never fails to make my blood-muscle tingle with glee. That said, HUNCHBACK would definitely be right up there. Your comparisons to NOTRE DAME are apt and well argued as usual, and I love the way Naschy mixes the pathos of Quasimode with the depravity of the standard-issue Mad Scientist's Hunchbacked Assistant (can we say Dwight Frye's Fritz is the archetype of that role?) in somewhat equal parts. Making the kill-crazy hunchbacked assistant the protagonist of the film is another feather in the movie's cap for me, to say nothing of allowing the hunchback to actually score with his Esmerelda, for a change--and Disney wouldn't even allow him some minor petting! ;)

FWIW, informs us that Paul won the Georges Meliés Best Actor Award for his portrayal of Gotho at the International Festival of Fantastic and Science-Fiction Cinema of Paris in 1973. He also won an award best screenplay at the International Festival of Film at Amberes in 1976 for this typically wild and crazy script.

I enjoyed the write-up very much! Hope you'll leave a little in the tank for the Naschy Blogathon I'm planning! I'm thinking the last 2 weeks of November, maybe. Great stuff.

Samuel Wilson said...

Vicar, I'd be honored to contribute to a Naschy blogathon, since it'll give me an excuse to check out another of his many films. Keep us posted on your plans.

You're also right to emphasize the extent to which Gotho is a synthesis of hunchback archetypes and a highpoint of Naschy's creativity as both a writer and a performer. I have no idea who he was up against for those awards, but I'll venture to say he earned them.