Which Spanish horror star of the 1970s do you think would be the obvious choice to play the Hunchback of the Morgue?
If you answered Paul Naschy / Jacinto Molina, the one-man horror factory who seems to have made it his mission to play each and every monster he could, you would be right - although the question may also be a somewhat easy one in that there really aren't any other Spanish male horror icons of that time.
Naschy imbues his character, named Gotho in apparent reference to the Gothic, with all the familiar traits: He is monstrous, but in a tortured, suffering, Romantic way. His enemies, the normal people who conceal their evil crimes and schemes beneath a virtuous and attractive veneer, are the real monsters.
If Gotho is in the first instance derived from Victor Hugo and Lon Chaney - it is always difficult to say when we are dealing with films that remain far better known than their literary sources - the film as a whole has a distinctly Frankenstein feel to it.
And, while the character of the hunchbacked assistant first appeared in James Whale's Frankenstein via Dwight Frye, the film's immediate models seem more Terence Fisher's Frankenstein films, with elements of The Revenge of Frankenstein and Frankenstein Created Woman particularly evident, along with that same general structural opposition between the good and the ugly on the one hand and the evil and the attractive on the other.
Spanish poster for The Hunchback of the Morgue, with obvious classical horror allusions
Though there are also affinities with Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell these may be taken as coincidental rather than deliberate seeing as both films were released in the same year; the same may also be said of the world-weary Dracula of Naschy and director Xavier Aguirre's Count Dracula's Great Love and his namesake in Hammer's The Satanic Rites of Dracula.
The Revenge of Frankenstein also featured a none-too intelligent hunchbacked assistant, Karl, a hospital worker who was promised a new body by Frankenstein in return for his help. Gotho, who works at the Feldkirch Hospital, is made a similar promise by his mad scientist Dr Orla, involving bringing Gotha's terminally ill and now recently deceased loved one, Ilse, back to him. Yet this also foregrounds a romantic subplot more aligned with Frankenstein Created Woman's Christina and Hans - the two young lovers who together eventually constitute that film's severely troubled monster through Frankenstein's intercessions in the natural order of things.
But for all these intertexts - to which we might also add Joe D'Amato's delirious Buio Omega, as another necro-philiac/mantic entry - The Hunchback of the Morgue is also unmistakably a Paul Naschy film.
In Frankenstein Created Woman the unimaginative authorities went after the ill-fated Hans for a crime he did not commit. Here, by contrast, Gotho is guilty of at least some of the crimes he is accused of. Moreover, those defending him do so not out of a sense of justice, as Peter Cushing's progressive Baron Frankenstein did, but rather because of their own self-interest, in Dr Orla, or liberal naïvete, as in the case of Elke, who is in charge of the Feldkirch Women's Reformatory. (Yes, there's even a bit of WIP thrown into the mix.)
As played by Rosanna Yanni, Elke is also your classic Naschy love interest figure, impossibly beautiful and inexplicably drawn to his doomed character like a moth to a flame.
Were it not for the fact that Naschy was already happily married by the time he made most of his films you could almost believe he was operating some sort of casting couch system through them as a means of obtaining the otherwise unobtainable / unattainable.
The presence of the reformatory also serves to remind us that Gotho's crimes might be excused on grounds of his simple-mindedness, and that the film takes place not in some ambiguous 19th century mittel-European Erehwon but in contemporary 1970s Germany.
This location also affords a hint of political commentary via the caverns where Gotho hides out and Dr Orla establishes his secret laboratory. We are told they once used by the Knights Templar in the Middle Ages and more recently saw service during the Second World War.
But, as with Naschy's other non-Spanish set films, it's difficult to determine the extent to which there is an anti-Francoist point to this or whether it was simply taking advantage of the ambiguities that a more distanced foreign setting afforded.
As it is, the most problematic aspects of the film as far as today's audiences and censors are concerned are surely the rumours that a real corpse was used in some of the morgue scenes, along with some real life animal cruelty as some rats get burned alive. In fairness, the scene with the rats also demonstrates Naschy's commitment to his art, inasmuch as he also let himself be attacked by them for the sake of authenticity - De Niro eat your heart out!
[See also The Mark of Naschy's review at http://www.naschy.com/jorobado.html]