Saturday, January 15, 2011

MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932)

It's difficult for me to imagine how any SHOCK! fan who tuned in to watch MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE on television in 1957-58 could not have been swept up by this movie. How could SHOCK! watchers who had fallen for FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA, and THE MUMMY not take to MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE? Yet, oddly enough, it is a film that not a lot of people mention as among their favorites of Uni's golden age of horror. "Though flawed and creaky, MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE is very likely the most underrated of Universal Horrors," Tom Weaver, Michael Brunas, and John Brunas write in the 2007 edition of their Universal Horrors: The Studio's Classic Films, 1931-1946. "Beyond its vulgar excesses and insipid theatrics lurks a daring, full-throttled, Poe-inspired thriller couched in a darkly sinister aesthetic all its own."

To my eyes, MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE is a darkly twisted and wildly subversive horror film. Although occasionally it does get bogged down in what seems to be some of the old-fashioned visual grammar of silent film-making, I think that, in terms of radiating a sense of out-and-out pre-Code unclean weirdness, this movie is second only to THE BLACK CAT. Anyone unsuspectingly stumbling upon it on TV in the late '50s just had to have been unnerved by it.

Salina [KS] Journal, April 25, 1958

For my part, I had never seen MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE on TV back when I was a kid. I knew the Poe tale very well, but I had seen only Warner Bros.'s 1954 PHANTOM OF THE RUE MORGUE, which I had seen multiple times on WOR-Channel 9's outstanding "Fright Night" showcase in the 1970s ("Fright Night" also showed Universal's MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE four times, but somehow I always missed it). To further confuse things, scenes from Hammer's THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962) which I saw on "Chiller Theatre" on WPIX-Channel 11 during that same period were tied into my memories of PHANTOM OF THE RUE MORGUE. But I never saw MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE until it was available on home video in 1992 or 1993, and never as a television broadcast, so I can't even imagine how the film works broken up by commercials.

I mention these commercial interruptions because on of the most notorious things about MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (and maybe one of the things that keeps fans from liking it more) is that the narrative is a little choppy in the telling because of some out-of-sequence editing that took place in post-production. This scrambled the continuity of the film-- it would seem that a block of TV commercials every 25 minutes or so would add to the confusion, and maybe that would turn off some people to this tale.

Another aggravation for many is the dispelling of Erik the Ape's monstrousness through the use of actual chimpanzee close-ups (some of which reminded me of shots in THE UNHOLY THREE [1925]). Erik is hailed as the "gorilla with a human brain," and there's something missing-link-y about him as he is presented in the sideshow by Dr. Mirakle (I really enjoy Lugosi's lecture in this movie). Charles Gemora was the guy in the shaggy gorilla suit; Gemora is legendary for his performances, yet someone on the film's production staff decided to toss out his very expressive facial close-ups as Erik in favor of chimpanzee footage which really breaks the spell, I think.

And what in the name of the Hays Production Code is Mirakle up to? The movie description that I posted above suggests that Mirakle wants to create "an ape-woman," but what Mirakle actually says is that he wants to prove to his pre-Darwinian Parisian audience that human beings evolved from apes by "mixing blood" between a human and Erik. His "great experiment" (carried out in a fantastically Caligarian old deserted house in the Rue Morgue) so far has involved injecting Erik's blood into at least three women (presumably sex-workers whose syphilitic "dirty blood" compromises his experiment).

Finally, Mirakle hits upon the idea of kidnapping a virgin in order to avoid contamination by venereal disease, but he doesn't count on the fact that Erik has fallen in love with Camille; Erik attacks Mirakle during the course of the experiment because he has already seen what happens to the women subjected to Mirakle's transfusions and he doesn't want this happening to her. So Erik kills Mirakle and makes off with her across the rooftops of Paris like a mid-nineteenth century Kong. What is Erik's plan for Camille if he ever eludes the crowd that is chasing him? Is this-- like so many apesploitation movies like INGAGI (1931)--suggesting the threat of bestial rape?

detail from Emmanuel Frémiet's 1887 sculpture; an earlier version was displayed in Paris in 1859

I'm not sure what the hell is going on in all this or what a TV-viewing audience some thirty years after the Scopes Monkey Trial would've made of the thing, but I do think that MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE is a kind of delirious, bizarre horror movie that would've made excellent late-night viewing.


One last point about this film as it relates to SHOCK! requires us to look at the cover art of the Screen Gems promotional book. The painting used for the cover illustration is not a terribly good work, but it is certainly evocative of the horror film programming that Screen Gems was selling. Uni-holics will have no trouble matching the figures here with the movies despite the sometimes just-off caricatures. One of the things that surprises me about the rogues' gallery here on the cover is the inclusion of the troglodytic Janos the Black One (Noble Johnson in whiteface, of all things) and Erik from MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE.

I don't know if there was a source for Erik's image, but it would appear that Janos' simian-like posture is lifted directly from this production still.




NEXT: "A fire at sea maroons a strange group on a savage-infested island. See this thrilling adventure in THE MAD DOCTOR OF MARKET STREET. It's another Shock feature film presentation on this channel. Lionel Atwill stars as a crazed scientist who believes he holds the secret of life."

3 comments:

prof. grewbeard said...

thanx for standing up for this film, Lugosi's performance is great! ("You are ...dead!") as you say, this film IS unnerving...

Mirek said...

One of my favorite Universal horror films. A thrilling Lugosi performance, too.

kochillt said...

Definitely a film that couldn't have been made just two years later, with a fine vintage Lugosi and debut performance from Leon Ames. Rumor has it that sickeningly sweet ingenue Sidney Fox received undeserved top billing for her small heroine part because she was sleeping with producer Carl Laemmle Jr, who never married (her unspectacular career was over after 3 or 4 years, and she was dead at age 31). Also unfortunate is that midway into the film, Bela's character takes a back seat to the appalling antics of the Parisienne lovers, with disastrous results. The lengthy squabble between Dupin, the police, and the neighbors keeps the focus away from Lugosi, who exults at Sidney's virgin blood (how ironic!) and thus is not likely to harm her, making his death a pointless disappointment. Director Robert Florey's style fails to overcome the lack of substance, aided by cinematographer Karl Freund, who would make his directorial debut later that year with THE MUMMY, better scripted than either DRACULA or RUE MORGUE. Pierre Dupin is a medical student here, an early detective creation of Edgar Allan Poe, who would return for MYSTERY OF MARIE ROGET (1942), in the person of Patric Knowles. MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE aired 10 times on Pittsburgh's CHILLER THEATER (MYSTERY OF MARIE ROGET never appeared).