The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) – Film Review
Director: Wallace Worsley
Cast: Lon Chaney, Patsy Ruth Miller, Norman Kerry
By Sarah Morgan
Although often billed as a horror film, does The Hunchback of Notre Dame really fit into that category?
I’d say no. Although there are horrifying elements in the story, it’s not something that’s going to give you sleepless nights for days after seeing it, there’s no supernatural element and love is the driving force, not sadism or scares.
It seems, at least in the 1923 silent film version, to have been categorised thus due to the appearance of Quasimodo, who’s really the hero of the piece. It’s doubtful in this age of political correctness that someone with a crooked back and facial disfigurements would be allowed to be regarded as a horrific figure.
But whatever genre it falls into, the film itself was a groundbreaker – it cost a whopping $1.25million, an incredible amount in the 1920s. What’s more, it’s one of the few productions running more than an hour from this period, and features amazing sets that were later seen by hundreds of schoolchildren to give them a taste of Paris at a time when foreign travel was rare.
But much of the film’s success lies in the casting of Lon Chaney – the actor dubbed The Man of a Thousand Faces – as Quasimodo. As he did so often in his career, Chaney completely changed his appearance, using early and potentially dangerous prosthetics on his face and leg braces to give the character an awkward, stumbling walk.
Although not a particularly close adaptation of Victor Hugo’s source material, the plot carries enough of it to give viewers an essence of the famed author’s 15th-century-set work.
The titular deaf, half-blind bellringer has been vilified his entire life, so it’s easy to see why he becomes smitten by Esmeralda, the daughter of the self-proclaimed King of the Beggars, after she shows him kindness.
He then rescues her from being hanged after she’s wrongly accused of murdering her lover, famously giving her sanctuary in the Parisian cathedral.
“Stunning technical achievement”
But there’s further trouble brewing, and Quasimodo must put his own life on the line to save the woman he loves.
Chaney is now best known for his horror roles, thanks in no small part to his appearance in The Phantom of the Opera, made two years later. Meanwhile, Universal, the studio behind the Hunchback and the Phantom, went on to produce a string of genre classics, including adaptations of Dracula and Frankenstein, in the 1930s and beyond.
Some claim that The Hunchback of Notre Dame is the first of this cycle, but I’m not convinced. But what it is, is a stunning technical achievement that still looks amazing almost 100 years since it was produced.
I’m now hoping to grab a copy of the famed 1939 version starring Scarborough’s own Charles Laughton to see how they contrast and compare.
● Limited Edition O-Card Slipcase (First print-run of 2000 copies only)
● 1080p presentation on Blu-ray from a 4K restoration conducted by Universal Pictures
● Music by Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum & Laura Karpman (presented in uncompressed LPCM stereo)
● Brand new audio commentary with author Stephen Jones and author / critic Kim Newman
● Brand new interview with author / critic Kim Newman on the many adaptations of Victor Hugo’s novel
● Brand new interview with film historian Jonathan Rigby
● A collector’s booklet featuring a new essay by journalist Philip Kemp, illustrated with archival imagery
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is released on Blu-ray by Eureka, £22.99