Directed by William Dieterle [Other horror films: 6 Hours to Live (1932)]
Whether this one is horror is someone’s personal decision. I think there’s a decent amount of dark sequences and the like to throw this in, allowing that it’s included with the caveat that it’s primarily a drama.
And what a damn good drama it is. The story is overly engaging (I’ve not actually read the original novel, but I do own it, so perhaps that’s something I’ll endeavor to do within the next fifteen years), and it gets somewhat involved toward the end (both groups at the church, the Beggars and the Craftsmen, basically wanted the same thing, yet utilized different methods), and the characters here are really complex, especially for a time that many might consider more simple in terms of plot.
Obviously, without a doubt, Charles Laughton’s performance as Quasimodo is the stand-out here, and it’s an emotional roller-coaster of a flick, watching Quasimodo get whipped for reasons beyond his comprehension, to see him save another in a most heroic fashion, only to end with a great line, ‘Oh why could I not be made of stone as thee,’ when speaking to a gargoyle. Laughton is no stranger to horror films, appearing in classics such as The Old Dark House, Island of Lost Souls, and The Strange Door (1951), and his dramatic performance here is just amazing.
There’s a lot of great actors and actresses here aside from Laughton, though. Cedric Hardwicke was amazing as the rather devious and horrid Frollo. Blaming and allowing another person to be tortured because he’s too weak to admit his culpability in a crime, Hardwicke definitely was a worthy antagonist in the film. Playing King Louis XI, Harry Davenport played his character with such ambiguity. At times, he was a progressive, forward-thinking monarch, at others, latching onto archaic, meaningless tradition (that courtroom sequence killed me a little).
I can’t say much about Maureen O’Hara, but she did a great job too. Her character was appropriately sympathetic, and during the latter half of the film, your heart really goes out to her. Admittedly, I didn’t love Edmond O’Brien here, as his character was a bit too flighty for me, but he did make some strong points toward the conclusion of the film. Lastly, both Thomas Mitchell and Walter Hampden were both greatly enjoyable, and Hampden in particular was a character worth remembering.
Near the end of the film, there’s a somewhat large battle that breaks out, culminating in the Hunchback not only tossing heavy rocks and large pillars from atop the cathedral, but also dumping quite a bit of molten metal onto the crowd below. I’ve seen this film before, to be sure, but I’m pretty sure I audibly gasped during that act, as I forgot just how brutal the Hunchback was during that sequence (and unnecessarily so, if you realize that pretty much everyone’s on the same side). There were scenes earlier of the Hunchback being whipped (him crying out for water, only to be ignored and jeered at, was exceedingly haunting), and some brief torture of O’Hara’s character. All of this, along with a sequence reminiscence of Freaks, in which beggars pop out of nowhere in a dark and seemingly-deserted alleyway, all lead me to understand the horror label some people throw onto this one.