One of the things that fans of Spanish horror actor Paul Naschy respond to with great affection is the fact that Naschy approaches the genre from the standpoint of a superfan. Much as I get enthusiastic about filmmakers who use horror tropes to explore avante garde artistic concepts or greater cultural themes, there’s something to be said for the joys of movies that embrace Horror For Horror’s Sake. While Naschy’s films aren’t the slickest efforts with the most sophisticated content, there’s a passion that suffuses his work and the man has some moments that border on–dare I say it–very good acting, underneath all that crepe hair and grease paint.
Let’s get this out of the way right quick–“Hunchback of the Morgue” is one of the more insane Naschyflicks I’ve had the pleasure of viewing. “Vengeance of the Zombies” was nutty, but ultimately was propelled by its own flavor of occult logic; and while “Night of the Howling Beast” featured a yeti fighting a werewolf, it was at its heart an exotic monster mash. “Hunchback,” on the other hand, is a tragic romance that centers around a mentally retarded hunchback being exploited by an ambitious mad scientist.
No, interpals–there are no typos or transposed words in that plot summary.
Imagine every mad scientist movie you’ve ever seen: there’s an amoral man compelled to tamper in God’s domain, aided by a leering cripple who steals body parts for his hideous experiments. A good scientist and his lovely fiancee are initially intrigued by the Bad Doctor’s works but come to realize he’s gone off the deep end. There’s a lot of tubes and smoke and light-up buttons and maybe a fiery cataclysm, and at the end of the day everybody learns a lesson about not screwing with nature. So, take that, subtract the fiery cataclysm and substitute a love triangle with the hunchback, a dead girl, and a health professional of some sort who works at a women’s reformatory, and you’ve got “Hunchback of the Morgue.” It’s a gruesome, kinky, and sometimes genuinely eerie flick that’s really without peer from where I’m sitting! If “Flesh for Frankenstein” was a completely earnest film with no intent towards satire, it might–might–be a little like “Hunchback,” but it would still lack the hunchback POV that drives this flick.
In spite of a kinky flavor and emphasis on gruesomeness that are surprisingly strong for a Naschy monster mash, there’s no mistaking this as being ANYTHING BUT one of the Mighty Molina’s** efforts. Predictably, the actor is also a scriptwriter and story developer on this film! Shit gets Tyrolean as fuck in a hurry, beginning with a jaunty polka tune playing over scenes of what are presumably the Alps, and then BAM! We’re in a beer hall at the height of be-dirndl-ed happy hour. Oh Naschy, how I adore your sense of subtlety. Local asshole Udo is engaged in a drinking competition with local other asshole Hans. Udo’s drinking triump is dampened by his untimely death in the vague proximity of hunchback Gotho (the NASCHINATOR himself), who seizes the strapping lad’s body for use at the local medical school. Turns out Gotho has a crush on Udo’s ladyfriend Ilse, who is dying of consumption (as you do, amidst such overwhelming gothickry). It’s no spoiler to say that Ilse meets her end, sending Gotho off the rails and on a KILL CRAZY RAMPAGE.
**Props to Tenebrous Pal the Vicar of VHS
for coining THAT particular phrase–and also for turning me on to this movie!
Now, make no mistake–this would be quite enough to make a raaawwther incredible film–hunchback loves girl, loses girl, goes bonkers in a violent manner, is eventually caught and killed. But “Hunchback of the Morgue” is like the Ginsu Knife Set of movies, because you better believe there’s more where that came from. After a five minute span, during which Gotho beheads one doc, disembowels another, steals Ilse’s body and provides us with an alarming up-skirt shot or a corpse, I was left thinking the movie had peaked. Boy was I wrong–shit was just getting rolling! Gotho enlists the aid of Dr. Orla, a scientist obsessed with creating life from dead cells, to bring his beloved Ilse back to life. No slouch, Dr. Orla immediately hatches a plan by which he co-opts Gotho’s cavernous lair (originally used by the Inquisition as a dungeon and handily stocked with such necessities as an iron maiden and a rack) as his secret lab.
Unclear on the concept of “secrecy,” Orla shares his facility’s existence with upstanding Dr. Tauchner (played by Vic Winner, the best nom de guerre since Homer Simpson adopted Max Power) and his fiancee Eva, as well as a group of local thugs. By the end of the movie, it seems like half of the town probably knows all about the lab and Orla’s blob-like Primordial that he’s grown out of a vat.
Meanwhile, Gotho’s still on the run from the authorities, who right-away realize he’s responsible for the KILL CRAZY RAMPAGE they’re investigating. He’d probably have been caught, too, were it not for Elke, an employee at the local women’s reformatory. No doubt as a result of her workplace environment, Elke is no stranger to oddball couplings and takes pity on Gotho. Sexy, sexy pity. Maybe she’s into hunchback foot worship, and Gotho’s repeated groveling and toe-kissing by way of thanks for her help (no really) works for her. It’s a big internet–I’ve heard of stranger things. Needless to say, Paul Naschy added in extra lines to his traditional boob-touching rider in order to pull of this particular cinematic coup. Better yet–Elke is so het up by our disfigured lead that she has to convince him that Ilse would be a-ok with their carnal activities. Seriously–they must have a real shallow dating pool in that burg.
It’d be unpossible for me to recommend this film enough. It’s got freaky aspects, silly aspects, eerie aspects, and gory aspects. If you don’t like where the movie is going, just wait a minute–it’ll come round to your particular brand of horror fandom. It’s really a perfect Halloween week watch, friends!