Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Hunchback Of The Morgue (1973)

I went to a local Oktoberfest event exactly one time, and I can honestly tell you that I have no burning desire to go to another one.  It was held at a casino, with the tents and concessions set up on a racetrack outside.  Parking was insanely horrible.  Everything was exceptionally expensive.  Everything had to be purchased with tickets, like it was any day but Dorr-Oliver Day at Angela Park (if you were never there the joke is lost, but it’s my introduction, so…), and they were a pain in the ass to get.  Then there were the beer tents.  The wait in line was thirty minutes minimum (maybe I just blocked out anything after thirty).  The lines weren’t actually lines so much as gaggles, which of course lend themselves to assholes cutting in front of you.  The serving wenches were nice, I’ll grant you, and the beer was good (the one pitcher I bought), but the wild inconvenience of the whole thing put me off in a big way.

Don’t misread my frustration as surprise.  I half-expected this to suck but held out hope it wouldn’t (part the hopeless romantic in me, part confirmation bias, perhaps?).  Anyone who knows me knows I’m not a man who craves instant gratification, and I have no problems waiting my turn for anything.  But some things are simply more trouble than they’re worth, and this was one of them.  Now, if they had serving wenches floating around the place with giant steins like in Javier Aguirre’s The Hunchback Of The Morgue (aka El Jorobado De La Morgue), maybe this little affair wouldn’t have been such a cluster fuck the first go round.  It’s possible things have improved in subsequent years.  I know I won’t be finding out one way or the other.

Wolfgang Gotho (Paul Naschy) is the titular character who hangs around his small German town at night watching students get plastered in the local pub before returning to the hospital.  There he dotes on the lovely Ilse (Maria Elena Arpon), the only person to ever show him kindness (everyone is exceedingly cruel to our protagonist, with even a group of children hurling rocks at the poor bastard while they taunt him).  But Ilse is a terminal case (tuberculosis?  Dr. Tauchner [Victor Alcazar] mentions her lungs being destroyed, but that’s all we get), and once she goes, life for Gotho doesn’t just go off the track; it sticks its tongue on the proverbial third rail.

Out of all the classic “monsters” made famous primarily in Universal’s golden years, the hunchback occupies a special place.  Normally relegated to assistant status for the requisite mad scientist, this knotted up little man (or woman; let us not dismiss Jane Adams as Nina in 1945’s House Of Dracula) is inherently sympathetic.  This is not to say that they can’t be evil.  Dwight Frye’s Fritz was a sadistic little fellow.  Bela Lugosi’s Ygor was bent on vengeance.  Still, audiences are predisposed to gravitate toward those who are tortured and lonely, the most famous of these being Quasimodo from Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, perfectly embodied (for me, at least) by Charles Laughton in William Dieterle’s 1939 adaptation.  We, most of us, cannot truly fathom what going through life with a deformity such as that is like, and even though the person with the humpback may think nothing of it, it makes us uncomfortable, and so we feel bad for them.  We pity them for them.  It reinforces our sense of kindness and makes us feel better about ourselves in the most selfish of ways.  I think it could be safely argued that no one plays on that sympathy more than Naschy and company here.  Not only is Gotho reviled by every single person he comes across (with two exceptions) for his physical malformation, but he is also mentally handicapped on top of it all.  It’s a one-two punch for plucking at the viewer’s compassion.  

Yes, Gotho is unjustly hated, but he is earnest, and it is his simplicity which leads to much of the film’s violence and its more grotesque aspects.  While picking flowers for Ilse, Gotho is teased by some med students, and this leads to an altercation where the hunchback whoops ass on all of them (or just most of them).  After Ilse’s boyfriend Udo (Fernando Sotuela) dies in a drunken stupor, Gotho delights in hacking pieces off his body in the morgue.  When two attendants try to steal the necklace from Ilse’s corpse, Gotho reaches for a handy axe.  Dr. Orla (Alberto Dalbes) has convinced Gotho that he can create a new Ilse if Gotho will bring fresh corpses and victims for his experiments.  It’s this twisting of a simple mind which should prompt our deepest emotions, and to some degree it does.  Nevertheless, it also marks Gotho as a character who must be punished.  His actions are not accidental (though it could be argued that they are born of emotional outbursts more than anything), and even while he does not fully understand what he is doing or why, he does it all the same.  Gotho’s story was never going to be a happy one.  If you’ve ever seen a Naschy film, you knew that already.  But here you get the feeling that he is being punished not only for the evil he commits but also for simply being born the way he was, physically, mentally, and emotionally.  There’s little room for monsters of any stripe in the cinematic world of Paul Naschy.

The film also deals to some extent with aspects of manhood.  The students who mistreat Gotho are always getting drunk and carousing in pubs.  In fact, the film opens with Udo and a couple of friends seeing who can drink the most beer fastest.  Naturally, Udo wins.  Not only is he cock of the walk in the pub, but he has the heart of Ilse, thus making him top of the heap in the masculinity department to Gotho’s mind.  Even after Udo is gone, Gotho can’t measure up (he is, after all, intimidated by children).  After running into Dr. Elke (Rosanna Yanni), the hunchback grovels at her feet, hardly cutting the most dashing of figures.  And yet Elke loves Gotho, no matter how improbable this pairing may seem to audiences (and how little screen time is devoted to it, but (again) that’s a Naschy film for you.  She explains the attraction with the line, “once in a while, faithfulness and love surpass beauty.”  And if you believe that one, I have a bridge I’d like to sell you.  Of course, once Gotho does stand up and do what’s right, the damage has already been done and is irreversible.  Ultimately, this hunchback never quite discovers his inner man.  He just discovers his inner human (and the difference between the two could arguably be the film’s central theme).  That it had been there from the beginning makes it all the more tragic.

MVT:  If all you heard of this film was its title, you would likely think it was a pretty tame affair.  It is anything but.  There is a perverse, sadistic streak a mile wide running through every frame of the movie, and the filmmakers never shy away from the gore.  Juicy.

Make Or Break:  The Make is the scene where Gotho takes a couple bits off Udo’s corpse.  The glee he shows sawing away at his rival’s extremities tells us all we need to know, if not about Gotho’s character then certainly about the screws loose or missing from the heads of this movie’s creators.  And I haven’t even detailed the more outré portions of this gem.

Score:  6.75/10         

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