At about the 16 minute mark of The Hunchback of the Morgue (1973, directed by Jose Aguirre and written again by Paul Naschy's screenwriting alter ego, Jacinto Molina), there's a scene transition of such passing strangeness that it hurt my head. Setting the scene: Gotho the Hunchback is tending to his dying friend, the tubercular Ilse, in the garden at the hospital where he works. He's deeply in love with her, and he's promised to give her flowers every day during the last extremity of her illness. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, the scene shifts to the local women's prison where one of the inmates is enthusiastically flogging her cellmate, who seems to be totally into it. This is a film of non-sequiturs.
After Ilse dies, Gotho comes across two medical students bickering over her gold cross. This so infuriates him that he dismembers them both with an ax. A little later, we meet Gotho's kindly mentor, who turns out to be a mad scientist. I guess the logic here is that where there's a hunchback, mad science cannot be far away, and Dr. Orla (Alberto Dalbés) does not disappoint as a mad labs proprietor.
This is a film that is basically in three acts. In the first act, we get the love story of Gotho and Ilse. In the second, we get Gotho's rage and grief as he flees from the law. In the third, we get a Frankensteinian denouement that shades into the purview of Lovecraftiana. Dr. Orlo, it seems, is building a shoggoth. The movie follows all of this down the rabbit hole with nary a hesitation. Hell, it revels in its own absurdity. Of all the Naschy films I've watched for the blogathon, this is the most singularly deranged. It's also the only one where the filmmakers seem to have exercised some structural planning for the overall design of the film (though it breaks down from scene to scene).
The tonal shifts from scene to scene are jarring. The movie is good at evoking pathos, which it ladles on with a heavy hand. All the better to contrast the various horrors that interrupt the passion of Gotho. This movie is creative with its gore. It's not content to merely chop up corpses and living people with an ax. That's for the bourgeois slasher film audience. No, this film has acid baths and all-devouring creatures. It doesn't spare the ax, either. This has more "what the fuck?" moments than any film I can recall. Perhaps the biggest "what the fuck?" moment doesn't even involve any gore: when Rosanna Yanni's character comes on to Gotho, we're provided with one of the weirdest vanity scenes ever in a career of vanity projects. Though this scene vies with the scene where the filmmakers have set a bunch of live rats on fire for sheer weirdness.
As an aside: The scene with the rats kind of sours me on the movie, actually, for the same reason that the animal cruelty in some Eye-talian films bothers me. Plus, I've had rats for pets; they are curious, intelligent, and affectionate pets and, for me, watching them harmed is a bit like watching a dog or a cat harmed.
Some thoughts on some of the film's other elements:
- The score for this movie is pretty good. I haven't been impressed with the scores on Naschy's other movies, but this one reminds me a little bit of Maurice Jarre's score for Eyes Without a Face. The carnivalesque liet motif that runs through it is a nice contrast with the film's horrors.
- The locations/sets for the subterranean scenes provide the movie with a LOT of texture, as do the hospital settings. The location shooting is unusually fine.
- Naschy throws himself into the part as Gotho, but it seems to me that he's too good-looking for the role. The fright wig he wears doesn't help things. Gotho could have used a more grotesque make-up design. Though, on second thought, maybe more make-up would have hindered Naschy's performances. While I like Naschy and I think he's a perfectly fine actor, I somehow doubt that he could match Charles Laughton or Anthony Hopkins as hunchbacks go. He's just not in that league.
- The print I watched seemed to have inconsistent elements, with the town scenes showing significantly more damage than the interiors.
- The film takes a chance when it shows Gotho mutilating the body of one of his tormentors early in the film. This tends to undermine the audience's sympathy for Gotho.
In any event, this seems like a good summary of what a Paul Naschy film usually is. There are moments of poetry and long stretches of schlock. There's a total commitment to even the most absurd ideas. And there's a sense that the filmmakers are kids at heart, making the kinds of monster showdowns they wanted to see at the matinee. That gets to be infectious after a while.
And so, the Paul Naschy blogathon comes to an end. Many, many thanks to The Vicar of VHS over at Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Movies for inviting me to participate. This has been a blast.