Monday, November 22, 2010
Hunchback of the Morgue
I thought I would kick off the Paul Naschy Blog-a-Thon with one of my favorite testaments to Naschy's talent as an actor - HUNCHBACK OF THE MORGUE. The film opens as revelers (if they were modern day, they'd be your quintessential douche bags) within a pub challenge each other to a drinking contest with the biggest beers I have ever seen. I'm talking at least eighty ounces here. Our sweet hunchback, Gotho (Naschy), looms outside, watching the party unfold. The winner of the drinking contest leaves the pub, sees Gotho and insults him, based solely on his hunchbackery. So we have the set up of poor, old downtrodden and abused Gotho.
Gotho keeps himself busy by sawing up cadavers in the local morgue while thunderstorms rage and pining after a lovely, terminally ill woman, Ilse, who he has been friends with since childhood. Ilse likes that Gotho visits her in the hospital and brings her flowers, but she's clearly just the nice, pretty girl who just wants to be friends. In the first true pathos of the film, it's obvious how much Gotho loves Ilse. It's a real tearjerker. The first time around I thought how peculiar of a role this is for Naschy. Usually he's the robust, strong one, having the ladies fall at his feet, not the other way around. At times he's so sympathetic you want to weep for him; others he's kinda sorta evil.
After a visit with Ilse, Gotho leaves to resume work at the morgue, when some rowdy youths taunt him and throw rocks at him in the street. He runs into a beautiful doctor, Dr. Elke, who saves him from the kids and bandages his cuts. He repays her by kissing her feet, but not before he tells her about his love for Ilse. You know, so he doesn't feel guilty about the foot fetish thing he's about to do.
But such is Gotho's life, not only kids make fun of him, but medical students, too. They're such total assholes as all Gotho is doing is going about his business, so it's not his fault that he winds up strangling one of them and fighting all the others in true Naschy fashion. Go, Gotho, go!
But after this triumph, there is defeat, because Ilse shuffles off this mortal coil soon after Gotho's beatdown. He places roses on her body (another tear-jerker of a scene) and then retires to his morgue. In a severely cruel moment, orderlies bring Ilse's corpse to the morgue for Gotho to prepare for the dissection room - so those same assholes that beat him up can watch in the name of their medical degrees! Gotho responds by beating the shit out of the orderlies and escapes with Ilse's body to an underground dungeon, riddled with skeletons, gaslights, and chains.
He promises Ilse's body he'll be back after he delivers some roses to one who doubted her beauty, one Hans, another medical student. He winds up suffocating Hans to death with the bouquet, because, you know, that's kind of what he deserves. Gotho returns to the crypt and rats have infested the joint, covering Ilse's body for the meal of their lifetimes. It's Naschy vs. the Flying Rats for a few moments, and woudn't you know some of then are aflame? In interviews regarding this scene, which had a large impact on the audience when the film was screened, Naschy maintains the rats used in this sequence were as terrifying as they were real. The studio had apparently captured the rats in the sewer and then starved them for a time. When they let them loose on the set, they were able to jump super high while biting and thrashing, searching for anything to eat. It, obviously, wasn't one of his favorite scenes to shoot, as he got bit several times.
Gotho has a 'friend' in Dr. Orla, a mad scientist type back at the hospital. He hopes to have Orla help him bring Ilse back to life, but of course, the good doctor wants something in return. There's a particularly creepy scene where Gotho is hiding on a gurney under a sheet behind the doctor at the hospital while he works. He rises slowly, and you're not sure who is hiding there. Then we know it's Gotho, but the doctor is hardly startled. It's weird but chilling and I'm sure something Naschy put there purposefully.
So Gotho explains the situation and the doc agrees, but only if Gotho moves the entire laboratory into the subterranean cave/crypt, which we come to find out in a moment of foreshadowing, was used during the Inquisition. You see, Orla has come under a bit of scrutiny for his strange experiments involving the creation of artificial life and his funds have been cut, so he has no real problem moving his work to an underground lair and continuing his experiments outside the framework of the law. (I love a damn lab in a secret location, as well as doc's science talk - analyzing amino acids and unaltered protein structures! Woo!) The deal is set.
Gotho sets up a pretty amazing and impressive lab down below, complete with a pit of boiling acid. One of the assistants fucks up and puts Ilse into the acid bath, at which point, Gotho returns the favor and has the assistant take a dip. He takes the liberty of putting another one into an Iron Maiden and has another one's face get really acquainted with the floor. Hey, in these kinds of movies, assistants should expect this kind of treatment.
Some more of my much beloved science talk takes place - 'science is unpredictable!' - 'one giant plasmoidal cell is beginning to differentiate the organs!' and we get a glimpse of what Orla's been working on - a giant pulsating organ thing in a big glass jar! It's pretty fantastic, but Gotho decides he wants to stop working for the doc because Ilse's body is no more. Gotho's feeling guilty for what has transpired but Orla says he can build a new Ilse for Gotho, but first things first, he needs a fresh head. So Gotho decides to comply, severs a head, elludes police, and brings the head back to Orla in a bag.
Another interesting anecdote from Naschy himself, is that the head they were going to use was actually real! There was a cadaver brought in that was due to be dissected shortly and the people in charge intimated the cast and crew could do what they liked with it. Naschy knocked back a couple whiskies, picked up the knife, then panicked. He couldn't get past the first cut so a wax duplicate was brought in and that's what we actually see in the film. Could you imagine! Real rats AND a real decapitation! Overload!
Apparently, the morgue where they were shooting had a supervisor who had been repeatedly accused of necrophilia and corpse defilement and had severe sulfuric acid burns on his hands. They should have cast him the movie! He insisted on showing Paul the new 'guests' every morning. 'The dead are wonderful,' he would say. 'They never complain!' This guy wound up as the inspiration for the macabre butler in HOWL OF THE DEVIL, portrayed by the great Howard Vernon.
Gotho's pretty stressed so he goes to see the pretty lady doctor, Elke. He kisses on her feet a little bit more to get things started and then she makes out with him. It's a quick cut and I'm wondering what might have been cut here. A sex scene? We know Naschy and even in hunchback form, he's going to get some. While it's implied here that he and Elke are up to some sexy stuff, we don't get to see it. Yet. I know you are chomping at the bit to see some hunchback sex! Perverts!
Orla's making some progress back at the lab-or-a-tory and this is evidenced by him shoving the severed head Gotho brought him elbow deep into the jar full of artificially grown organs. It's so awesome! I could watch a mad scientist shove a severed head into a giant jar of artificially grown organs all day every day and not get bored! That, and I love how mad scientists all think they're above the law.
The guts and things are nearing transformation, so the doc has to lock it all in a cell because it breaks out of the jar. This is what he labels 'a success.' Gotho has been assigned the task of care and feeding of the 'success' so he has to kidnap a woman and feed her to it. It's around about this point where I really want to know if Gotho does what he does out of his love for Ilse, a woman he deep down knows would never really go for him or if he's got a sub-level IQ, something that is implied early on, or is it something else? What is Gotho's motivation? He's not simply the stock character 'Hunchback,' assisting the mad doctor for a paycheck. He's the protagonist; Orla we could really care less about. He's not even all that great as a mad scientist, in that his delivery is kind of ho-hum, and his madness restrained and weak, at best. Orla just doesn't have enough of the crazy, he's not sweaty enough, and he doesn't grapple with morals. As far as mad scientists go, he's kind of forgettable, which is fine, because this is really more Gotho's story anyway. It kinda flips the whole mad scientist/hunchback thing on it's hump (forgive), and it's because this is the Naschy show and it's all about the Naschy (which is more than fine by me!).
Gotho, feeling guilty and down, goes to visit Elke and confesses he still loves Ilse. Elke doesn't really care and kisses Gotho again. And here comes the hunchback sex! No cuts this time! But then it's back to the grind, as the doc wants to get some girls from the local reformatory ('they're garbage anyway!') to feed to the humanoid. There's some business with the police and some other doctor couple from the hospital who find themselves Orla's prisoners, but what I really want to see is the finished humanoid, because the doc has kept him hidden for far too long now and it sure does bellow a lot! We aren't kept waiting long and the slimy primordial thing lumbers out from its cell! It's like a swampy mess but still pretty impressive, although I don't really know why you would need human flesh to create such a thing. It just seems to ooze all over the place, but hey, I'm no mad scientist so what the fuck do I know?
Dr. Elke happens to wander into the cave at the point where the creature has been let out and Orla wants to feed her to the thing. Gotho won't let him have her, he's lost too much already and Orla and Gotho get into a fight! Orla shoot Gotho and the doc passes out, although I would have rather seen him go into the acid pit. Gotho releases all the prisoners and wrestles with the creature, culminating in his demise, as well as the creature's, but falling into the acid. FIN (and it really does say FIN, which I appreciated).
So, there we have it! HUNCHBACK OF THE MORGUE. Good times, no? I had uproarious fun watching this for what I think was the third or fourth time. Everything that makes up literary Gothicism is at play in this wonderful film! I can't help thinking of the films of James Whale, the short stories of Poe and Lovecraft, even the tightly woven narratives of Maupassant when I watch Naschy in action here. This movie is Paul in all his glory, stripped away from the pretenses of prior machismo characters. He's a sad hunchback, a new man of a thousand faces, and truly repulsive, yet endearing. At times sinister and defying the laws of what is morally upstanding, Naschy exhibits a love undying, an exaggerated romantic nature, and a loyalty among anything else, handled expertly, with flair and panache.
Gotho, although physically deformed, is a gentle, trustworthy, and kind soul whose acts of selflessness go unrewarded and punished with acts of severe cruelty. Ostracized and maligned, yet sensitive and sweet, this is truly one of Naschy's zeniths! He's at his absolute finest here and this is the film that should put him right up there with Chaney, Sr., Karloff, and Lee. At times you want to cry for him and others chide him for his graveyard crimes, but never do you stop feeling for him. If anyone needs a true testament to this great actor's talent, tell them to watch this. It's a bit more linear than some of the Daninsky efforts, in that it is a bit more restrained (if that's the right word for a hunchback movie involving mad scientists, slimy humaniods, and acid pits), but wholly entertaining nonetheless.
I love you, Paul. Thank you for your amazing legacy. You are truly missed.