Friday, July 6, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Hunchback of the Morgue (1973)

Original title: El jorobado de la morgue

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts presented with only  basic re-writes and improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

The picturesque Bavarian mountain town of Feldkirch has everything a movie town needs: a surprisingly big hospital, a system of catacombs that has been used by the Templars and the Inquisition, and a reform school for young women. It would probably be a fantastic place to live in, watching shower scenes and listening to Wagner all day, if not for the fact that basically everyone in town is a mean, mad bastard in one way or another.

Hard-working, not particularly clever, hunchbacked, ugly (at least that's what everyone says: Naschy isn't wearing any "ugly" make-up, looking just like he does in other movies where he's supposed to be a handsome lady killer) morgue assistant Gotho (Paul Naschy) is the favourite victim of everyone in town. His daily routine seems to consist of being insulted, slapped around, and made fun of, his only recourse being a mad expression when he cuts corpses into little pieces  - which is something you do in this particular hospital morgue. The only one treating Gotho like an actual human being is Ilse (María Elena Arpón), but the girl is on her death bed suffering from a lung disease (must be consumption), and all the flowers the really rather sweet Gotho can bring her won't keep her alive.

When Ilse dies, Gotho cracks. The mild-mannered man turns a bit murderous, first killing two other morgue assistants who are trying to rob his dead sweetheart with a conveniently placed hatchet, then dragging Ilse's corpse down into the catacombs hoping she'll awaken one day. Afterwards, it's off to another revenge murder.

And that's how things could continue for Gotho, if not for the resident mad scientist, a certain Dr. Orla (Alberto Dalbés). With the help of his assistant Dr. Tauchner (Victor Alcázar), and Tauchner's girlfriend the reform school headmistress (I think) Dr. Meyer (Maria Perschy) Orla is trying to create artificial life. Orla's total lack of scruples and his need for fresh body parts cost him the co-operation of the hospital, however.

So it's pretty much like Christmas and his birthday falling on the same day for Orla once he realizes where Gotho is hiding. The catacombs will make a fine laboratory for the secret continuation of his experiments, and Gotho is easily swayed to help with acquiring body parts once Orla has promised him to revive Ilse. Soon enough, Gotho's new duties will involve grave robbery, murder and the kidnapping of fresh girls from the reform school (for Orla's experiment turns from a mass of cells into a hungry monster); the only hobby they leave room for is kissing the feet of reform school co-head Elke (Rossanna Yanni) and getting romanced by her in return.

Of course, things can't stay this paradisiac forever, and Gotho will have a violent discussion with Orla's monster (which just happens to look like the Oily Maniac) soon enough.

Even for something taking place on Planet Naschy (the great man of Spanish horror cinema is of course co-responsible for the film's script as well as playing the male lead), where the bizarre is actually the quotidian, El Jorobado is a pretty wild concoction. Where else, after all, would a story about a mistreated hunchback with certain necrophiliac tendencies taking vengeance on his tormentors be just too normal not to need an infusion of a gorier variation of the classic mad scientist story at about the half-way mark? I am, of course, not complaining about this broadening of the narrative (such as it is) for it's exactly things like this that give most of Naschy's films their charm and their weird energy.

That energy comes especially to the fore here, in a film that eschews the usually languid pacing of many of Naschy's scripts for something much snappier. Which isn't to say the script doesn't have many of the usual flaws in a Naschy film, namely, that most characters act like complete idiots (would you believe it's a bad idea to tell the mad scientist your plan to out him to the police?), and that some of the connective tissue one is used to from a professionally written movie is missing, so it's always a possibility the film's not going to show an important development at all but prefer to just talk through it later on; possibly for budgetary reasons, possibly because Naschy hated proper transitions. If one wants to enjoy El Jorobado - or most of Naschy's other movies - one has to accept that things don't work in quite the same ways on Planet Naschy as they do in our world or in the movies of our world.

On the other hand, it's difficult to imagine a more "normally" structured film having the time for all the small digressions and suggestions of various kinks El Jorobado has - some torture, a random whipping, the quite clearly suggested necrophilia, the fem dom whiff of Gotho's feet kissing or just the suspicion that Elke falls in love with Gotho because she's into men with physical disabilities for the disabilities' sake and not the men's, or else really has a thing for guys who kiss her feet for little reason; it'd probably make for an awesome porno.

It being a horror movie instead of pornography, though, the film is much more interested in crude yet entertaining gore effects, most of which ooze a classic carnival charm I found myself unable to resist. The only problematic scene in this regard is when Naschy fights some rats who are nibbling on Ilse's corpse. At first, they "jump" (that is, are thrown at him with great force) our hero - the sort of thing that's always good for a laugh, but then, we're attacked by pictures of actual rats being burned alive with a torch. Like all real animal violence in the movies, that's just completely out of ethical bounds for me, and makes it difficult to still call the film's fake violence "good-natured" and "silly" as I else would have had.

Nearly a thousand words in, I still haven't mentioned El Jorobado's director Javier Aguirre. That's because there really isn't much to his direction. Despite the moody assistance of an awesome mountain village, a spooky ruin, and some fine catacombs, Aguirre's direction just doesn't do anything memorable at all, certainly nothing even vaguely comparable to the weirdness of the script. On the other hand, Aguirre is also not doing anything that's actively bad, so it's difficult to criticize him for anything but being not as crazy as the script he's working with and shooting it like a straight little horror movie.

If you're willing to ignore the fate of those poor rats, El Jorobado De La Morgue is a perfectly entertaining piece of Naschy craziness, containing everything I love and hate about the man's work, plus (at least in the Spanish language version) a small nod towards the Necronomicon that will make all co-Lovecraftians happy, too.

No comments: