Ghost of the Hunchback (Japan, 1965)
Although most of Hajime Sato’s other films are widely available, Ghost of the Hunchback has been little seen, being primarily viewable in a dubbed Italian print. Like Michio Yamamoto’s vampire films of the early 1970s, Ghost of the Hunchback is heavily indebted to western horror films, including the contemporary Italian gothic horrors and classic haunted house movies like Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963). While it isn’t really an undiscovered gem, the over-the-top performances, bizarre characters and freewheeling plot developments ensure it’s never less than entertaining.
When her husband dies in mysterious circumstances, Yoshie Munakata (Yuko Kusunoki, later in 1968’s Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell) discovers that he secretly owned a western-style mansion hidden in the countryside. Accompanied her lecherous father-in-law Dr Munakata (who has unsavoury designs on his son’s widow) and his assistant (Shinjiro Ehara), as well as her niece (Yukiko Kawahara), Yoshie travels to the mansion to track down her late husband’s will. They are greeted by a hunchbacked servant (Ko Nishimura) who shows them into a hallway dominated by an enormous statue of Satan, and a house full of doors that open and close on their own. Before long, they are joined by the deceased’s lawyer (Kazuo Kato, also in Goke), a woman who claims to be the late husband’s lover (Masumi Harukawa), and the assistant’s perky girlfriend (Yoko Hayama), who has hidden schemes of her own. It isn’t long before the group are at each other’s throats, and then the first body appears.
It’s not difficult to see where Ghost of the Hunchback gets its ideas from – the isolated and cobweb-shrouded mansion with its hunchbacked retainer and its terrible past could be drawn from one of many Italian gothics from Mario Bava or Antonio Margheriti, with the ghastly pallor of Ko Nishimura even resembling Christopher Lee, the star of several such films. The family gathering in a creepy old mansion for the reading of a will was a staple scenario of mystery theatre in the 1920s and ’30s (especially the ‘old dark house’ genre) appearing in a string of subsequent films, beginning with Paul Leni’s 1927 silent comedy-horror classic, The Cat and the Canary. Certain other parts are reminiscent of well-known ghost stories, including the famous ‘rubber door’ scene from The Haunting, although Sato makes absolutely no attempt at capturing that film’s ambiguity.
This lack of originality is not necessarily a problem, because there is always something going on to keep the viewer’s attention. The characters are an odd bunch, with plenty of subplots taking up the film’s 80-minute running time. Some of the revelations are unusual, to say the least. Dr Munakata is being blackmailed into resigning by his assistant, who wants to take over his hospital and is threatening to tell the world that the good doctor experimented on Chinese prisoners during the war! Things get even weirder when a passing medium (!) appears and begins channelling the spirit of the dead husband, which triggers off a flashback about the mansion’s original owner (Ko Nishimura again).
Of course, very little of this makes any sense, and Ghost of the Hunchback flip-flops between supernatural and non-supernatural explanations like a dying fish. It doesn’t help that throughout the film characters resolutely refuse to do the obvious or sensible thing (one individual in particular should have been restrained as soon as the weird stuff started happening). Multiple aspects of the ‘story’ (I use the word in its loosest possible sense) are left unresolved, and scriptwriter Hajime Takaira, a jidai-geki or period drama specialist that worked on iconic franchises like Zatoichi and Sleepy Eyes of Death, is clearly in no hurry to provide answers. Similar problems affect Nobuo Nakagawa’s The Woman Vampire (1959), primarily because in both cases the writers were largely unfamiliar with the traditions they were trying to emulate, resulting in a mishmash of different styles and elements.
In light of these flaws, it’s difficult to recommend Ghost of the Hunchback as a successful or scary horror film, but it is undeniably entertaining. It does possess a decent score by Shunsuke Kikuchi, who also scored Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell and Nobuo Nakagawa’s Snake Woman’s Curse (1968). As a point of trivia, Ghost of the Hunchback features several Shohei Imamura regulars, including four people who were also in Intentions of Murder (1964).