Saturday, 7 October 2017
THE TOWER OF THE SEVEN HUNCHBACKS (1944)
While Hollywood was making hybrid genre films during World War Two that mixed horror with mystery and crime elements, Spain produced one of its own with the strange and at times whimsical La Torre de los Siete Jorobados (‘The Tower of the Seven Hunchbacks’ in 1944. The director was Edgar Neville, a Spaniard but English on his father’s side, who began his career in the arts in Madrid as part of ‘Generation of ‘27’, a radical loose collection of Twenties avant-garde poets (including Federico Garcia Lorca) who wanted to bridge the gap between traditional poetry and New Wave art movements like Cubism and Surrealism before dissolving post-WWII.
Neville lived in Hollywood through the 1930s, benefitting from their pursuit of European audiences in the 1930s, a period where Spanish language versions of home-grown hits were translated and re-shot by a night shift crew concurrently with the English sets as they went along (e.g. Universal’s 1931 Dracula). He was MGM’s dialogue writer for their Spanish export iterations.
After over a decade of making his own documentary shorts and screenplays back home, Tower was to be Neville’s first feature film and certainly bears the imprint of an experimental sensibility. It is not a horror film and yet weaves some dark fantasy imagery into what is essentially a 19th-century supernatural mystery story based on the 1920 Gothic period novel by Emilio Carrere.
Antonio Casal plays Basilio Beltrán, a timid, good-hearted chap whose looks if not his poverty attract the ladies. One night, he enjoys the nightclub act of his girlfriend ‘La Bella Medusa’ (Manolita Morán) who teases the punters with her song about a hyper-superstitious girl. Basilio recklessly decides to gamble his last chip on a roulette table since he can’t afford to treat his lady friend anyway nor her greedy mother. Suddenly a spectral figure appears and transforms his luckless life.
Félix de Pomés makes a striking entrance as Dr Robinson de Mantua, a character of macabre intrigue whose appearance could easily have graced an Expressionist horror film. Dressed as if for the opera in cloak, top hat and cane, he sports a splendidly menacing black monocle. Basilio is apparently the only one to see him, which is fortuitous as the enigmatic spirit points his cane at a sequence of roulette numbers gradually turning the young man’s famine to feast. De Pomés would go on to transfer his commanding presence to a number of American historical epics such as The Pride and the Passion (1957) and King of Kings in 1961.
Introducing himself, Dr Mantua belies his initially disturbing arrival, complementing Basilio on his remarkable psychic imagination, a rare gift that enables him to see beings from the astral plane that no-one else can. He is no random ghostly benefactor though; the doctor needs a man of Basilio’s open-minded goodness to protect his daughter Inés (played by his possible real-life daughter Isabel de Pomés). It emerges that Mantua was a renowned archaeologist rendered ectoplasmic due to murder rather than the assumed suicide, and his niece may fall victim to hovering evil forces involved with a mysterious tablet that refers to ‘the Tower of the Seven Hunchbacks’.
From here, the story enters fanciful worlds that exists alongside and indeed under our own. When Dr Mantua visits Basilio during a disturbed night’s sleep, he isn’t alone as a visitor from the spirit realm. There is a fun surreal cameo from José Franco who blithely wanders in as the spectre of Napoleon; he is used to regular night summons especially when groups of five or more get together with an Ouija board!
Basilio and policeman Martinez find themselves drawn into a bizarre subterranean city built by Jewish citizens of centuries past, a community that the sinister balding Dr Sabatino (Guillermo Marín) and his hunchbacked cronies will do anything to keep secret, even abducting Inés. Aside from the ornately-furnished moulded cave walls that comprise the tunnel network, the set design team of Francisco Escriñá, Pierre Schild and Antonio Simont realise a brilliant spiral staircase seen twice in impressive master shots.
Basilio manages to rescue the imprisoned Inés who at one point is hypnotised by Sabatino into an attempted bedroom stabbing of him for which he is thankfully prepared. It is the scenes within the secret lair that hold the viewer’s interest more than the mystery on offer; a strange visionary kingdom of indeterminate scale and such perverse attraction that Mantua’s dotty former associate Dr Zachariah (Antonio Riquelme) stumbled upon it and opted never to surface again, esconcing himself cosily within its library instead.
Once his daughter is saved from the underground domain, Dr Mantua floats in to give his blessing to Basilio and Inés, completing the otherworldly feel of the film with an almost fairy-tale ending, leaving us to wonder if we may have dreamt the whole thing…