Plot: disabled morgue worker will stop at nothing to resurrect his lost love.
The Spanish Lon Chaney, Paul Naschy, is rightly associated with horror and the macabre as that was his genre of choice. Through out his long career he played most, if not all, of the Universal Classic Monsters. His most famous and enduring is, of course, El Hombre Lobo (the Wolf Man) but he also played Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and the Mummy. At earliest this happened in the second El Hombre Lobo episode Assignment Terror (1969). While that was unarguably his bread and butter Naschy frequently utilized the conventions and trappings of the genre as vehicles for other, more ambitious ideas. El jorobado de la Morgue (or The Hunchback Of the Morgue) was one such vehicles and probably the earliest one at that. It put a macabre spin on a beloved fairytale and did so much with so very little. In other words, never underestimate the little guy. For one reason or another The Hunchback Of the Morgue is often mistakingly overlooked in favor of his popular El Hombre Lobo series.
Besides his El Hombre Lobo Naschy played an array of different roles, either historical or fictional, Paul Naschy had a penchant for recognizing which trend or was worth capitalizing upon. Whether it was history, superstition, religion, or a certain cinematic innovation catching his eye Naschy always had a screenplay ready to be filmed. As such he assembled a respectable host of worthwhile secondary features and lesser known memorable characters. These include, among others, his Gilles de Rais (1404-1440) inspired nobleman/alchemist Alaric de Marnac from Horror Rises From the Tomb (1973) and Panic Beats (1983) as well as the similarly inspired Barón Gilles de Lancré from The Devil's Possessed (1974), and the The Mummy (1932) inspired The Mummy's Revenge (1973). During the giallo boom he contributed The Killer Is One of Thirteen (1973) and Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll (1974). Then there are The Exorcist (1973) ripoff Exorcism (1974), the Liane, Jungle Goddess (1956) imitation The Jungle Goddess (1974), the Witchfinder General (1968) and Mark Of the Devil (1970) knockoff Inquisition (1977), the Biblical parable The Traveller (1979) (or his liberal reworking of the Old Testament theodicy scripture of the Book of Job) and his own deranged take on Andrzej Żuławski's The Devil (1972), or the late peplum The Cantabrians (1980) that chronicled the Cantabrian Wars. As things tends to go, these secondary features didn’t always generate the same kind of interest or debate.
In the banner year for erotic gothic horror that was 1973 Count Dracula’s Great Love was his response not to the psychotronic-pop art excesses of Jesús Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos (1971) but the Karnstein trilogy from Britain’s house of Hammer. He envisioned it as a bodice-ripping, bosom baring period horror and a celebration of the (preferably disrobed) female form with a selection of the hottest starlets of the day. However, nothing is ever simple and production was anything but smooth sailing. French New Wave star Haydée Politoff (briefly a muse for Éric Rohmer) suffered a head injury when she was involved in an accident on a winding mountain road and crew sustained injuries when sets collapsed on them. To make matters worse Ingrid Garbo and Mirta Miller fell seriously ill when a chemical compound used for the special effects turned out to be toxic and had an adverse effect on both. Faced with no other option but to temporarily halt principal photography so that Politoff could properly recover Paul Naschy proposed to producer Francisco Lara Polop and director Javier Aguirre that they retain director of photography Raúl Pérez Cubero and special effects man Pablo Pérez and the cast and crew they had in place and film The Hunchback Of the Morgue instead. It only required minimal location shooting in Feldkirch in Vorarlberg, Austria for some exteriors and the rest could be filmed back at home in Madrid. The ruins of Monasterio de Santa Maria la Real de Valdeiglesias - or the monastery that had featured prominently in Amando de Ossorio’s Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972) - was a key location. With the main cast and crew at the ready, all Naschy had to do was invite some marketable guest stars. As fate would have it, by the time cameras stopped rolling Politoff, Garbo, and Miller all were recuperated and filming on Count Dracula’s Great Love could resume. In the end, everything worked out.
In Feldkirch, Austria on the border with Switzerland and Liechtenstein med students Udo (Fernando Sotuela), Hans Burgher (Kino Pueyo, as Joaquin Rodriguez 'Kinito') and his friend (Antonio Mayans) are engaged in a drinking contest and the boys are enjoying the beer as much as their female company Eva (Sofía Casares, as Sofia Casares) and her friend (Iris André, as Iris Andre). Everything seems well until one of the waitresses (Susana Latour, as Susana Latur) scares herself half to death when she lays eyes upon an ominous stranger. Drunkenly Udo staggers outside dropping a photograph. Kindhearted Wolfgang Gotho (Jacinto Molina Álvarez, as Paul Naschy) tries to help the drunken student but is scolded for his charity. You see, Gotho was born a hunchback and his deformity has him ostracized, scorned, and shunned by pretty much all townspeople. When Udo collapses from acute alcohol poisoning his body is brought to the morgue of the municipal hospital. Gotho takes great pleasure in dismantling the boy’s body for the way he treated him when he was alive. Saturated in dejection the only ray of light in his lovelorn miserable existence is Ilse (María Elena Arpón, as Maria Elena Arpon – not using her international market alias, Helen Harp) who stays at the hospital. Alleviating his suffering is Ilse’s genuine kindness and attention. However, their romance is irrevocably doomed as Ilse is stricken with tubercolosis and terminally ill. One day on the streets he’s ridiculed and pelted with rocks by children because of his birth defect. When medical intern Elke (Rosanna Yanni, as Rossana Yanny) sees this she takes Gotho to her home and tends to his wounds. In awe of such humanity in gratitude he lowly kisses her feet.
Wolfgang enjoys nothing more than bringing Ilse a bouquet of flowers every day and pushing her around on the hospital grounds in her wheelchair. One afternoon their relaxing stroll is interrupted when the four med students from the pub insult and accost her. He takes to defending her honor but the opposition poses too great. Dr. Frederick Tauchner (Víctor Barrera, as Vic Winner) and dean of the hospital Dr. Maria Meyer (Maria Perschy, as Maria Pershy) are friendly to his plight and chastise the students. They help Gotho and as soon as he’s able he rushes to see Ilse again. Unfortunately the assault aggravated her already dire condition and she dies before he can get to her. Dismayed at the passing of his only friend Gotho is enraged when the doctors see her as a vessel for organ harvest. When two morgue workers (José Luis Chinchilla and Ingrid Rabel) try to steal Ilse’s golden necklace he kills them both with a hatchet in a fit of blind rage. He absconds with her body and takes it to his catacomb lair. Dr. Orla (Alberto Dalbés, as Alberto Dalbes) has lost his tenure, funding, and reputation as he was ousted from the medical community over ethical violations and the dubious nature of his research. When he learns of Gotho’s homicidal proclivities he promises to revive his beloved Ilse if he brings him the bodies he requires. Meanwhile, Elke the ginger intern has taken something of a shine to the generous and virtuous hunchback. As the bodies start to mount the commissioner (Ángel Menéndez, as Angel Menendez) dispatches two police inspectors (Manuel de Blas and Antonio Pica) to investigate the sudden spate of violent homicides in the area. Is Dr. Orla really trying to help Gotho or is he just exploiting his desperation for his own selfish interests?
While this might not look like much upon closer inspection Naschy’s script (that he co-wrote with Javier Aguirre, and Alberto S. Insúa) reveals quite some hidden depth. It places the iconic character of Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame in the plot of Robert Wise’s The Body Snatcher (1945) (produced by Val Lewton and based upon the 1884 Robert Louis Stevenson short story of the same name) that starred both Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. The Stevenson story was inspired by the 1828 Burke and Hare murders in 19th-century Edinburgh, Scotland and there are faint echoes of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s 1818 Frankenstein. Much less prevalent, but present all the same, are light shades of the classic fairytale Beauty and the Beast. At heart The Hunchback Of the Morgue is a romance, albeit it a very morbid one. Whereas Count Dracula’s Great Love (1973) was filled to the brim with beautiful girls in period costumes and a dizzying amount of heaving bosoms The Hunchback Of the Morgue is a contemporary gothic romance with splashes of blood and gore. The opening scene at the alm could have come from a German sex comedy (Tiroler or otherwise) if the deeply-cut dirndls and large pints of beer are anything to go by. The scenes at the hospital feel more like a women in prison flick than anything else. They’re never exactly as sleazy as the Brazilian examples of the genre but it’s the idea that counts. For one reason or another Naschy had something of a predilection towards playing tragic heroes in doomed romances around this time. Dracula (and his human alter ego Dr. Wendell Marlow), Wolfgang Gotho, and Waldemar Daninsky are all but slight variations of the same character that Naschy played in all these things. Italy got to cannibalism with Man From Deep River (1972) and Spain got there a year later with Amando de Ossorio’s jungle safari adventure Night of the Sorcerers (1973). In a break from convention Spain got to necrophilia earlier with this as Riccardo Freda’s The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (1962) (with Barbara Steele) was a gothic horror and Joe D’Amato would only delve into the subject with Beyond the Darkness (1979) some six years later.
And once again Naschy was able to assemble a cast of domestic monuments, some of the hottest starlets of the day, and notable supporting actors. First there’s Ángel Menéndez from The Loreleys Grasp (1974), Rosanna Yanni from The Mark Of the Wolfman (1968) (that also starred Menéndez), Malenka, the Vampire’s Niece (1969), and the soccer comedy Las Ibéricas F.C. (1971). Then there are María Elena Arpón from Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972) and Maria Perschy from the third (and last) Blind Dead episode The Ghost Galleon (1974), Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll (1974), Exorcism (1975), and The People Who Own the Dark (1976). Also present are Alberto Dalbés and Víctor Barrera from Count Dracula’s Great Love (1973), Horror Rises From the Tomb (1973), and Vengeance of the Zombies (1973) as well as José Luis Chinchilla from The Devil's Possessed (1974), The Werewolf and the Yeti (1975), and Return Of the Wolfman (1980). In a supporting role there’s Antonio Mayans from Nightmare City (1980) and Vampyres (2015) as well as a whole lot of Jesús Franco and Eurociné bilge including, but not limited to, Night of the Assassins (1974), Oasis Of the Zombies (1982), and Golden Temple Amazons (1986). Finally there are reliable second-stringers Manuel de Blas from Assignment Terror (1969) and The Vampires Night Orgy (1973). De Blas continues to act to this day and he even was in the recent (and much delayed) Uncharted (2022) movie! Then there are Susana Latour from A Bell From Hell (1973) (with Christina von Blanc and Maribel Martín) and Count Dracula’s Great Love (1973) as well as professional warm body Ingrid Rabel from The Dracula Saga (1973). Compared to other Naschy productions, before and after, this one isn’t as star-studded. Argentine import Rosanna Yanni is worth seeing in anything and María Elena Arpón is one of the unsung stars of Spanish exploitation (along with notable almost-stars as Carmen Yazalde, Cristina Suriani, and Montserrat Prous). For Arpón this was probably her biggest starring role this side of Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972). Screen monuments Maria Perschy and Ángel Menéndez both had seen better days.
No Naschy feature is complete without its share of behind-the-scenes anecdotes and The Hunchback Of the Morgue has at least two. For starters, real rats were used in the catacomb lair when María Elena Arpón is laying upon the medical slab and Naschy is fully engulfed by a ravenous wave. Second, and perhaps more disturbingly, as in Thriller – A Cruel Picture (1973) (with Christina Lindberg) a real corpse was used for the beheading scene. That is until Naschy became sickened during the throat slitting on the first take and it had to be replaced with a dummy head afterwards. The Hunchback Of the Morgue did well on the festival circuit and won several awards. Paul Naschy won a Georges Méliès Award for Best Actor on the Festival international de Paris du film fantastique et de science-fiction (International Festival of Fantastic and Science-Fiction Cinema of Paris) at the Théatre Le Palace in Paris. It also collected a grand total of 5 awards (including one for best script) distributed between this and Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll (1974) at the International Fantasy and Horror Film Festival Antwerp (a precursor to the present-day International Film Festival Antwerpen – IFFA) in 1976. Not bad for a Spanish fantaterror that remains underestimated to this day.