Monday, June 18, 2018

Hunchback of the Morgue

HUNCHBACK OF THE MORGUE Directed By Javier Aguirre, Starring Paul Naschy (1973).

Reviewed By Troy Guinn.
       Don’t be fooled by the impossibly catchy “oompah” German polka theme that plays behind the opening credits of HUNCHBACK OF THE MORGUE; it might be the last cheerful moments of the film but it damn sure won’t be the only thing that lingers in your mind after you experience this, the peak of Spanish horror icon Paul Naschy’s career as an actor and storyteller, and one of the very best Eurohorror films of the 1970’s.

            In a small German village (actually a Spanish town in Catalonia serving as a stand-in), the inhabitants pass their time by chugging beer and abusing the deformed hunchback, Gotho (Paul Naschy). Even the children and the students of the local medical college get in on the cruel fun of tormenting Gotho, whose only solace is his friendship with the sickly Ilse (Maria Elena Arpon), whom he visits in the hospital, where he also serves as a morgue attendant. When Ilse dies, the hunchback, already driven half-mad by a lifetime as an outcast, is truly sent over the edge, stealing Ilse’s body while dealing murderous justice to those who disrespected her in life or who would dispose of her corpse. Yes, Gotho might be a lover but he ain’t no dancer, and while Ilse’s remains turn a queasy shade of green and the flies start a-buzzin’, Gotho cleaves heads from bodies, battles a horde of hungry rats, and introduces various thugs to the acid bath in his underground lair if they get too close to his departed, decomposing pal.

All I gotta do is slice off some nice bacon for the Arby's meat delivery.

            Enter Dr. Orla (Alberto Dalbes), a prominent professor at the medical college who is having trouble getting funding, let alone consent, to continue his controversial scientific endeavors at the university. In Gotho, the manipulative doctor sees a gullible tool he can use to his own ends. Dr. Orla promises to bring Ilse back to life if Gotho will build a secret lab in the catacombs for Orla’s experiments. Even when Ilse’s physical form is destroyed and Gotho thinks all hope is lost, Orla tells him not to worry, for the professor’s discoveries in growing new cell tissue will enable him to create an entirely new Ilse from scratch. There’s just one catch, though: the newly growing tissue must be fed living human flesh! Luckily, there’s an entire women’s prison in this quaint little village, which provides the prowling hunchback with many potential victims to kidnap and serve as dinner to Orla’s rapidly-growing “Ilse”.

when will supper be ready, I can't fucking wait anymore!

            Along the way, Gotho draws the attention of Elke (Rosanna Yanni), a compassionate doctor who not only takes the hunchback into her heart, but also into her boudoir (this IS a Paul Naschy film, after all). Still undeterred in his determination to see Ilse reborn, Gotho continues to procure live, kicking and screaming victims for Orla’s pet; however, it becomes apparent that what Orla is actually cultivating is not a fresh, sweet, flower-loving Ilse but an ancient “Old One” from the primordial beginnings of time. This kick-in-the-teeth, combined with Orla’s plan to feed not only Elke but two other kind doctors (played by Vic Winner and Maria Perschy) to the “Primordial” finally convinces Gotho he’s been had and it’s time to shut down Orla for good. It’s at this moment the Primordial, who’s grown into a humanoid, slimy shambling thing, decides it’s tired of dining in and breaks loose from his cell. Gotho must do battle with the Primordial and save his new friends from Dr. Orla’s evil machinations.
            If the above synopsis is any indication, anyone popping HUNCHBACK into the DVD player and expecting another take on Victor Hugo’s classic HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, a familiar tale about a lonely and pathetic figure who suffers cruelty from his fellow man except for the kindness of one girl, whom he then sacrifices all to protect, might not be prepared for the sick, wonderfully unsavory and nutty catacombs full of surprises lying in wait for them in Naschy and director Javier Aguirre’s twisted cinematic concoction. However, those well-versed in the quirky realms of Eurohorror and also Naschy’s fertile mind know full well he not only loved reviving the classic monsters, he also specialized in subverting expectations and creating rich stews that mixed ingredients from his well-read library, his love of cinema and art, and his own personal experiences. From moment to moment, scene to scene, HUNCHBACK OF THE MORGUE is science-fiction, gothic horror, Lovecraft-inspired celestial mythos, pulpy 70’s horror comic magazine, grand guignol gore, and Universal films monster mash.

Shhh! Be quiet, I'm trying to masturbate!
            So, yes, a lot to absorb, but at the film’s heart is our hunchback, Gotho, and Paul Naschy’s effective portrayal, one for which he would receive prestigious international accolades and awards. Naschy gives a physically skillful and psychologically compelling performance, adding complexity and layers to what could have simply been the “village idiot” as most of Gotho’s community see him. Gotho is a sympathetic yet volatile character, childlike but certainly not an innocent nor a total idiot; an obviously deranged individual capable of unconditional, bordering-on-religious devotion to those who show him kindness, but also able to return the brutality he receives twofold, with decisive violence and, yes, a hint of gleeful sadism. While it’s somewhat amusing, in light of the fact that Naschy’s scripts usually provided plenty of intimate scenes with lovely actresses for his protagonists, to note that Gotho might be horror cinema’s only hunchback to enjoy consensual sex with a film’s loveliest starlet (in this case, the stunning Rosanna Yanni), it does lend a unique degree of tragedy to Gotho’s story: unlike his bell-ringing Parisian counterpart, Gotho actually CAN “get the girl” and find earthly happiness, but he’s simply too far gone in his own self-hatred and disdain for the world of the living, and his desire for the company of Ilse’s remains, animated or no, to take this rope to redemption that has been thrown to him.

Huh? The Hunchback's got game? I'm flabbergasted! 

            Even those who haven’t seen HUNCHBACK OF THE MORGUE might be aware of its most justifiably infamous sequence, in which Gotho returns to his lair to find that rats are feasting on Ilse’ corpse. The rats fling themselves on the hunchback (Naschy was covered in horse grease and yes, the rats are really biting him), who drives them away by putting them to the torch. The rats used in the production had been rounded up by the city and were scheduled to be destroyed, but that doesn’t make it any easier to watch the roasting rodent fireballs run screeching to and fro…unless you get off on that kind of thing. As unpleasant as this scene is to watch and certainly to film (as it was for Naschy and must have been for Maria Elena Arpon, who as Ilse earns a real Eurohorror merit badge for maintaining corpse-like stillness while being swarmed by the rats), the sleeze-and-quease factor might have been ramped up even further if a certain other opportunity for real-life gore had been carried through: The HUNCHBACK production received permission to use a real cadaver in the morgue anyway they wished. The plan was for Gotho to actually behead the corpse, but even though Naschy fortified himself with liquor before filming the decapitation, he was unable to bring himself to do it. Thus, it’s merely a fake head that Dr. Orla feeds to the growing “Primordial”, and I think I speak for most viewers when I say that’s probably for the best…unless you get off on that kind of thing.

Alchohol, solves all problems, lowers inhibitions, Ahh skip it and bring in the fake severed head.

            Visually, HUNCHBACK is a marvel for lovers of gothic horror, making use of vast catacombs under Madrid to evoke a dank, clammily noxious atmosphere. The cinematography of Raul Perez Cubero lends the film the brown earthy tones of Brueghel, a painter Naschy admired greatly, and the history of cruelty and suffering that occurred in these underground tunnels (in the film, still littered with discarded skeletons and torture devices) underscores the casual inhumanity directed towards Gotho by the “normal” denizens of the village above. One can almost smell the cold decay of Gotho’s world because of the visual power and the imaginativeness of the set design.
            HUNCHBACK OF THE MORGUE belongs in the upper echelon of touchstone works in Eurohorror history. Even some of those that praise the film have deemed the story to be “muddled” or a “mess” but that unjustly penalizes the film for having a wealth of ideas and mixing several genres, while ignoring that these ingredients nearly all unfold without derailing the pace or failing to pay off in the story. What’s perhaps most impressive is that HUNCHBACK was made when Naschy and director Aguirre were forced to shut down production on COUNT DRACULA’S GREAT LOVE due to an accident suffered by some of the cast. While COUNT DRACULA, as atmospheric and endlessly watchable as it is, is truly a work that can be called muddled, HUNCHBACK stands as the superior achievement of the two films.

BUY THE BLU-RAY OF NASCHY COLLECTION II, (which has exclusive commentary from Troy and Rod Barnett of the Naschycast).

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