The Hunchback of the Morgue

As much as I love the original portrayals of the classic monsters of the silver screen, every once in a while someone will come along and do an interpretation that is so outlandish and uncharacteristic that it cannot be ignored. Such is the case with Spanish Horror actor/screenwriter/director Paul Naschy (nee Jacinto Molina) and his reinterpretations of the classic Universal Monsters, his most famous incarnation of course being the werewolf Waldemar Daninsky, whom he has brought to audiences twelve times over the last forty-odd years.
He has also, however, brought his unusual mixture of Exploitation and Gothic Fantasy to the time honored characters of Dracula, Dr Jekyll & Mister Hyde, the Frankenstein Monster and, as in this case, the Hunchback. The hunchback of this story is known as Gotho, and works as a sort of servile lackey (a la Igor of the Universal Frankenstein films) of the unorthodox Dr Orla at the morgue of the Feldkirch hospital in western Austria, prepping bodies for dissection. Here he is pushed around a lot by the other morgue attendants who look down on him because of his disfigurement and simple-mindedness.

Spanish poster

Like Quasimodo of the Notre Dame story, he falls in love with a pretty girl, Ilse, whom he grew up with and has always been nice to him but unlike the sympathetic creature of the Victor Hugo tale, whenever he is teased or mistreated he lashes out violently. Where this really comes out is when his beloved Ilse succumbs to some malady of the lungs and the other morgue attendants try to steal a gold cross necklace from her cadaver. Gotho goes ballistic and kills them both, even decapitating one with a single swing of a hatchet, which just happened to be handy in the prep room.
Realizing what he has done, he then takes Ilse’s corpse and goes into hiding in a secret chamber below the hospital which apparently is a leftover torture room from the Inquisition, replete with an acid pit, which comes into use later on in the film. As police go around questioning hospital employees about the whereabouts of Gotho, who is their prime suspect in the murders, the hunchback attempts to enlist the help of Dr Orla to revive her. Orla, who definitely falls within the “mad doctor” category, agrees to help Gotho if he will let him use his hideout as a lab to work on his unconventional experiments, which the hospital board members have barred him from continuing on site. Gotho agrees to allow this and to help him as a gofer if it will mean the re-animation of his beloved Ilse.

Dr Orla feeds his creation body parts (El Jorobado de la Morgue_1973_lobbycard_German).

Orla, however, is not as concerned with reviving Ilse as he is creating his own life form which requires the sacrifice of living organisms to aliment the creature growing in his enormous glass beaker. Eventually the creature will grow big enough where it breaks the beaker and needs to be kept in a cell behind a large wooden door with a slot for the doctor to occasionally peep through to check on its progress or when he feeds it live human beings. On these occasions nothing is shown but a nasty gnarring is heard which causes the doctor to wince, insinuating that whatever lies behind the door must be nasty indeed. Orla believes that the creature is an example of primordial man and sites references to such beings in alchemical and other occult treatises and even name drops the Necronomicon of H.P. Lovecraft’s mythos. Gotho struggles with wanting to please the doctor, so he will bring back his Ilse, but not wanting to hurt anyone else if they don’t deserve it. The rest of the movie deals with the police investigation, the race to reanimate Ilse before her cadaver completely rots away and the unexpected addition of an attractive female doctor who develops a crush on Gotho because of his kindness and devotion to his departed sweetheart. Her crush at first is rebuffed by Gotho, but he eventually gives in to her advances and they make love in a scene which was heavily censured back in the day. Even though this scene was filmed in alternate nude and non-nude versions, the censors ordered the nude scene to be destroyed because of its offensiveness. Basically, the censors must have gotten bugged out by seeing a shirtless hunchback getting it on, and so only a fragment of that scene survives to this day.
Another scene which I find much more disconcerting but which was apparently okay with said censors involves what appears to be a slew of rats actually being set on fire. Basically, the rodents swarm Ilse’s body while Gotho is away and when he sees them gnawing on Ilse’s face upon his return he takes a torch to the lot as they leap at him and scurry frantically about the dungeon squealing in agony—the things one could get away with in the days before PETA.

Gotho takes a torch to the rats (El Jorobado de la Morgue_1973_German lobby card).

The movie is full of such shocking scenes and charnel shenanigans and that is what makes this such a ghoulish treat for Horror fans who like a little exploitation thrown in the mix. If you are curious, and have a strong stomach, the DVD by Mya is a decent print with the unedited scenes spliced in. Although these scenes are obviously from a different source, I didn’t find the difference in quality as distracting as other reviewers have. The photo gallery seems to be comprised of random screen-caps, but the gallery of original promotional materials is interesting to look at.

Mya DVD

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