The Hunchback of the Morgue (1973)


If I was bad-mouthing director Javier Aguirre for my dislike of Count Dracula’s Great Love, he has redeemed himself with The Hunchback of the Morgue (1973.) We’re back to bat-shit crazy Paul Naschy films and this one is another monster mashup between the hunchback, Gotho (Naschy) and a mad scientist, Dr. Orla (Alberto Dalbes) who has created a creature straight out of Lovecraft.

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This is another Naschy film that didn’t impress me when I first saw it a few years ago, but I’ve reversed my opinion when I recently re-watched it. The only reason it’s not at the top of my list is its schizophrenic nature. It begins as a sad drama about Gotho, who’s mocked and ridiculed by the townspeople, then transforms into a horrifically gory monster movie. You can almost pinpoint the shift, but thankfully the two tones don’t alternate.

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In the first third or so, Gotho is in love with Ilse (Maria Elena Arpon), a young woman who’s kind to him. The problem is that she’s residing in the hospital where he works in the morgue because… she’s dying. In fact, Gotho misses giving her one final bouquet of flowers because of the school children who are throwing rocks at him in the street. Up to this moment, the fury has been building inside Gotho.

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When two orderlies steal the necklace from her body, he’s had enough. He grabs an axe and uses it to chop off the head of one and cut out the intestines of the other. From here until the end, The Hunchback of the Morgue is no-holds barred and every crazy plot development shocked and surprised me. We’re introduced to Gotho’s underground world, a series of tunnels and torture chambers used during the Spanish Inquisition.

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We also meet Dr. Orla, who’s been conveniently released from the hospital because of the nature of his experiments. When he promises Gotho he can bring Ilse back to life, the hunchback lets him set up shop, which includes some very large equipment that I’m not sure how they got down there. Orla is growing synthetic life in a jar, keeping it alive by feeding it human organs, and he’s tricked Gotho into helping him do the grocery shopping, as it were.

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There’s one scene that almost got the best of me. When Gotho takes Ilse’s body underground and leaves it on a stone slab, he later discovers it covered with rats… real, live rats that can leap onto a hunchback trying to get rid of them with a torch. If cutting the head off a chicken in Vengeance of the Zombies was too much for you, you probably can’t handle burning rats running madly as if they’re on fire… because, well, they are.

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We’re only scratching the surface here. There are twice as many other characters than I’ve mentioned so far. For example, Tauchner (Victor Barrera) is Orla’s assistant who’s getting cold feet about the project. He’s involved with Frieda (Maria Perschy), the hospital administrator and Orla’s boss. Then there’s Elke (Rosanna Yanni), another doctor who is kind to Gotho and seems to have a fetish for men carrying a little extra weight on their shoulder.

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As Orla’s creation grows, it’s soon going to be bigger than the jar containing it, so he locks it in a cell. The sound of this “primordial” moaning and wailing for food triggers the imagination and I expected to see a big, blob-like monster eventually burst from its prison. I temporarily forgot the movie was made on a low budget. We get instead a humanoid form that looks like a regular man covered in shiny tar. It looks good, but it’s a let-down.

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I failed to mention the vat of acid that comes with the dungeon laboratory kit. It’s convenient for disposing of people interfering with a good day’s work, although while some of them completely dissolve, others live to wander the tunnels and scare pretty women that come snooping. (By the way, you know when there’s a vat of acid, it’s going to be involved in the climax of a film.)

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With all the insanity, I don’t want to forget that Naschy does a great job playing a sympathetic character (and only one of them) for the entirety of a movie. At times, he’s secondary to the horrors unfolding, but he remains the heart of The Hunchback of the Morgue. It’s a movie that does have a heart, believe it or not. It’s just one that’s likely to have been ripped from someone’s chest and beating in the palm of a monster's hand.

Written by Javier Aguirre, Alberto S. Insua, Paul Naschy

Directed by Javier Aguirre

Starring Paul Naschy, Rosanna Yanni, Victor Barrera, Maria Elena Arpon

RT 87 min.

Released 7-13-1973 (Spain)

Home Video Blu-ray (The Paul Naschy Collection II, Shout Factory)

Rating 6 Waldemar Daninskys (out of 10)


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