Tuesday, August 25, 2009
In Praise of Hunchbacks
For admirers of the humble hunchback, and those who believe in the potential of the deformed to enrich dramatic conflict, Paul Naschy's Hunchback of the Morgue ('72) is a revelation.
At the age of seven, I watched Charles Laughton in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and became giddy with fresh ambition.
"I don't want to be a policeman anymore," I told my mother as she pushed an iron across my father's white business shirt. "I want to be a hunchback."
"You want to be what?"
My mother shot the shirt with a burst of spray and shook her head in despair, already convinced that she'd had lost me to fantasy. "I don't want to hear stories about humpbacks or dwarfs or vampires anymore. Your sister's already scared enough."
I nodded. "But I can still be a hunchback, can't I?"
"I don't think so. Humpbacks are born that way. Be lucky you're not one of them."
That was the problem. I wasn't one of them. Although I wore a butt-ugly eye patch, my back was straight and my shoulders didn't lean. There was no sign of a hump, either. I'd have to find out how to grow one.
The years went by. I didn't learn how to grow a hump. I didn't grow one naturally, either.
What a fuckin failure I was.
I did, however, take my mother to task over her use of the word humpback.
We were riding in her Austin, a car close to vintage, when I re-opened the worm can: "Mum, you know how you say humpback?"
"What are you talking about?"
"You call a hunchback a humpback."
She kept her eyes on the road, even though she wanted to shoot daggers at me from them.
"Who do I call a humpback?"
"The Hunchback of Notre Dame."
"That's a movie."
"I know. But, you call him a humpback when he's really a hunchback."
My mother wasn't picking up my train of thought.
"Is this important? You'll be at school in a minute. Start thinking about that."
I nodded. "I just want you to call them hunchbacks. That's what their real names are."
I smiled. Victory.
We pulled up at the school.
As I got out, mum leaned across to kiss me and said: "You wouldn't call what's on their backs a hunch, would you? So humpback is the right word."
Damn! And she always got the last word.
I have always loved hunchbacks and their humps.
Laughton's bell ringing hunchback brought tears to my ears. I couldn't watch it without turning into a snotty mess. I ached for that poor, unfortunate soul. I'd never been so moved to tears by anything.
I was seven. I was yet to experience the death of my grandparents.
A kid at school did get hit by a car and died. I didn't care about that bastard because he'd been stealing my lunch money for the entire duration of first grade.
When I was thirteen, I met a real hunchback. He was our class teacher, and he was a great guy. To save him any possible embarrassment, I'll call him Mr. H.
His hump was a beauty. It sat below his right shoulder and pulled his sweaters tight. It was often pointed at and indicated, but nobody ever spoke of it in Mr. H's presence. He was one of the greatest, most liked (by me) teachers at the school, a Catholic school for boys. More a gulag than a place of learning, it was inhabited by dozens of priests and brothers. On a daily basis, boys were beaten, slapped, kicked, and thrown across rooms into lockers and walls by these fine men of the cloth.
Mr. H was a lay teacher. He had no obvious religious affiliations and leaned not towards violence but slightly right when he walked the playground.
I was sure that his hump was the source of his kindness. I wasn't much for credibility in those days.
Mr. H had a strange habit. When he spoke, he would scratch his chest. When he stopped speaking, his hand would return to its side. When you asked him a question, the hand would wait. When he answered, the hand would go to work.
For reasons now unfathomable to me, I connected his hump to his hand. I theorized that speaking was difficult and stressful for a hunchback. Therefore, in order to alleviate the stress of speaking, his hump would command his hand to scratch his chest. That's how he kept his hump happy, and his body in balance.
Of course, none of this was ever proven.
But big, important stuff like God and Creation haven't been proven, either.
Mr. H got sick towards the end of the school year. The official story was he had heart problems. My story was his hump was playing up, and he had to get it fixed. What fixing a hump entailed I didn't know, but when Mr. H returned two days before school was out, I could have sworn his hump had shifted slightly left towards his spine.
I am not an undying fan of Paul Naschy's work in the way I am undying for Jean Rollin. Many of Naschy's films leave me wanting or bored.
His Hunchback of the Morgue ('72) , however, leaves me wanting for nothing.
More than virtually any other Spanish horror film, it lives up to the grizzled, lurid promise of its poster art.
Naschy plays a hunchback who seems to orbit the local morgue. He's employed by a mad doctor...
... to do simple jobs like shelve corpses and clean the place. He makes himself even more useful when the doctor goes underground in order to carry out Frankenstein-like experiments on the recently deceased (murdered).
Naschy's 'Goto' character is in love with a young woman who spends most of her time on a slab. When the woman is tipped into a pool of acid, Naschy feels betrayed by the doctor.
Gradually, the feelings of betrayal boil into vendetta, and Naschy is instrumental in bringing on the doctor's destruction.
The plot is functional, but the film's tone and style are pure Gothic EuroPulp.
The subterranean chamber in which experiments are carried out on extinct humans is a stunning piece of art direction -- if not a great, marginally embellished actual location.
Scenes of Naschy carrying corpses through the foggy courtyard of a crumbling castle are to die for.
As is the score. There is a repeated romantic motif that may bring tears to your eyes, if not your soul.
Naschy's 'Goto' is a strange creation, part innocent, part willing accomplice of a misguided purpose.
Although he wears his hump proudly...
... and effects a winning gait, the decision to not sport facial deformity is a flawed one.
In one scene, he actually complains about his "ugly face". The scene doesn't work at all because he is not ugly at all.
What kept Naschy from going ugly? What prevented him from taking a route more hideous? A scar or ten would have helped immeasurably.
Still ,this is a wonderful but flawed Spanish horror classic.
Although it is rarely technically believable -- the day-for-night shooting is very iffy -- it harbors a power and exerts a stench of death and decay that would tickle a dead man's nasal hairs.
A stand-out scene involves Naschy almost bumping into a walking horror with two heads comprised of two locals who spent time in the mad doc's acid bath.
A bizarre scene in which real rodents race around the set on fire is later echoed in TF Mous' wonderful Men Behind The Sun.
The climax, which features a terrific monster, cements this as a masterwork.
The only edition to get of this is the Anolis special edition...
... which pays tribute to its greatness in a package that is part hardcover book, part DVD container.
It is stunning.
Almost half a dozen posters and fascinating text (in German and English) surround the enclosed DVD, which features a more than acceptable transfer from obviously rare, not so pristine film elements.
Call him a hunchback or call him a humpback. There's no debate to be had about the special place he holds in the world of fantastique cinema.