Saturday, June 26, 2010

100 years, 100 films 14: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

I'm not really a Lon Chaney Senior fan. I always feel like saying to him, "yeah, okay, I get it, you can make your face look horrible. Now do something interesting." The films always seem to be presenting the audience with the technical skill of Lon Chaney's makeup, and forgetting the fact that one guy's ugly face cannot sustain audience interest for two hours. This movie wasn't really an exception.

There are some good moments - Chaney's Hunchback flinging himself around the belltower, ringing the bells; or his tongue darting in and out of that vile mouth, like some sort of deformed lizard man. But it's not really enough to make up for the general tedious gutlessness of the rest of the film.

Case in point - in the novel, the villain is the Archdeacon Frollo. This is because the entire point of the book was that the church was a corrupt and corruptable organisation - it was run by man, and therefore susceptible to man's flaws. Here, the film makes the frankly bizarre choice to have the Archdeacon Frollo be a good guy, and his evil brother be the villain. His evil brother, who FOR NO GODDAMN REASON, lives in the church.

Now, I know the reason in the context of the film - he needs to live in the church in order to make Quasimodo do his evil bidding. But this plot necessity doesn't excuse the fact that this just simply makes no sense. In the novel it made sense - when the villain is a man of the church, it makes sense for him to, you know, live there. But when they wussed out and made the villain a man with no connection to the church, they probably should have gone the whole hog and made him not live there! This giant plot whole is like a huge reminder to the audience that the filmmakers were wimps who refused to criticise the church. If they hadn't changed from the book, there wouldn't be this bizarre problem, but if they were going to deviate from the book, they should have at least deviated in a way that made some semblence of sense! But no, they were just too goddamn lazy to think up some other plot, so they just forcefully removed all the bits they didn't like, replaced them with nothing but garbage, and presented it to the audience, hoping nobody would wake up and realise that it just defies explanation.

If they didn't want to criticise the church in its entirety, they could have had the Archdeacon be a good guy, but a lower down priest be the villain. Or, if they were to chickenshit to criticise the church at all, then they could have had the Archdeacon as a good guy, and the villain as someone who visits the church a lot, maybe with the specific goal of abusing Quasimodo, or maybe for other reasons, like they were the Archdeacon's friend, or something. Or, yeah, they could have kept the villain as the brother, and just not had him live in the fucking church. It was just, "oh, hello, brother, just popped round to see how you were going. Now where is that crazy hunchback at?" Did they really need to have him live in the church?

I probably wouldn't have minded this insane plot point so much if the film had been interesting in other ways, but it was just so... flacid. Except for a few moments of Lon Chaney (who I think is pretty overrated anyway), there wasn't all that much going on. It was basically just a big, bloated, stupid, epic. And I don't like big, bloated, stupid epics. They bore me shitless. What, I'm supposed to think that because you have more extras on screen, that makes your film more entertaining? Fuck that. I thought Avatar was stupid and boring, I'm supposed to be amazed because you've got two hundred extras wandering around? Sorry, movie, but you're going to have to offer me something actually interesting, if you want to hold my interest.

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