The Hunchback of Notre Dame is an unusual film. Often included amongst the Universal Horror umbrella, thanks in part to the heavily made-up performance of leading man Lon Chaney, who would go on to play the titular role in The Phantom of the Opera (the first real entry in the series).
But is it a horror? I’d say no, it’s more of a historical drama. As such, if you’ve come to this film expecting horror, you’re probably going to be a bit disappointed, but if you’re picking up a copy of this new Eureka Entertainment Blu-ray to check out a piece of cinematic history, you’re sure to have a good time.
The film tells the story of several inhabitants of Paris in the 1480s, but mainly focuses on the deaf, half-blind, hunchback bell-ringer Quasimodo, who lives within the cathedral. Quasimodo is convinced to help kidnap a young dancing girl named Esmeralda, but when the plan goes wrong, he ends up being abandoned, and publicly lashed.
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When Esmerelda comes to his aid he begins to develop feelings for her. As such, when Esmerelda is accused of witchcraft and attempted murder, and is sentenced to death. Quasimodo comes to her aid and takes her into the cathedral as the city descends into violence as the poor and downtrodden rise up against their masters.
Based upon the Victor Hugo novel Notre-Dame de Paris, re-titled The Hunchback of Notre Dame in its English translation, the film was a huge undertaking by Universal. Originally brought to the studio by Chaney, who had purchased the rights to make the film himself, the movie was eventually given the go ahead after it was pitched as a love story epic. Thanks to the passion that Chaney brought to the production the film became one of the most lavishly produced movies from Universal to date.
Production staff were sent to Paris in order to study Notre Dame, take photographs, make drawings, and gain as many measurements as they could. Over the next six months the cathedral was recreated on a huge plot of land, with the surrounding streets built to period specifications. And the result is a startling sight to behold. As soon as the film begins you’re thrust into the bustling streets of 15th century Paris, and it honestly looks real. The cathedral itself is so wonderfully reproduced, with tiny details present in the carvings and statues that make up the exterior, and old, weathered-looking halls inside, that you could have told me the film was made in Notre Dame itself and I’d probably believe you.
The level of attention to detail is something that took me quite by surprise, and was something of a shock. Having watched a number of Universal horrors, I’ve seen films that vary in quality from decently made to productions where you can see the walls shaking whenever the cast move. But this film, a film that’s almost 100 years old, looks better than some of Universal’s later offerings. There’s a huge sense of scale throughout, especially towards the end of the film when the riot breaks out, in scenes in which the studio employed more than 2000 extras.
Perhaps the one thing that will possibly keep people away from the film is the fact that it’s a silent movie, and a pretty long one at that. Clocking in at close to two hours, it’s a big film for the time. Silent movies aren’t an easy watch, and for those with attention issues the lack of dialogue certainly makes it a harder watch. But if you’re able to keep your attention fixed on the movie it’s a pretty decent experience.
Something that might help those that struggle with silent films, and certainly made my viewing experience better, is the audio commentary that comes on this new Blu-ray. The commentary, with author Stephen Jones, and author/critic Kim Newman, adds a lot of extra details and insight into the film, its production, its impact, and the other adaptations that have been made over the years. Thanks to the fact that most of the film puts its story across in action and the odd piece of text on the screen it’s actually possible to watch the film for the first time with the commentary and still get a lot out of it.
Also on the new release are a couple of interviews with Kim Newman, and film historian Jonathan Rigby, who both go into the film in a lot more detail, with both interviews clocking in at just under an hour between them. There’s also a collector’s booklet filled with essays and archival photos.
Whether or not this film falls into the category of Universal Horror, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is an interesting piece of film history that is worthy of attention. Thanks to lavish production values and strong performances, presented in newly restored quality, it’s a film that has lasted for a century for a reason.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is out on Blu-ray on 17th October from Eureka Entertainment.