Sunday, October 15, 2023

Classic Films in Focus: MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932)

On paper, Universal's 1932 Murders in the Rue Morgue sounds terrific; it adapts a chilling story from Edgar Allan Poe, stars Bela Lugosi, and offers Expressionist cinematography by Karl Freund, complete with all the lurid sensibility that Pre-Code horror can provide. Unfortunately, the movie doesn't work as well in practice, especially for viewers who know and appreciate Poe's original tale. While Lugosi is truly terrifying as the menacing Dr. Mirakle, the picture suffers from a weak leading man, creaky monster effects, and too much deviation from its source material that also leads it into some extremely thorny issues regarding racist tropes. Fans of Pre-Code horror and/or Edgar Allan Poe might be willing to forgive some of its failings for Lugosi's sake, but overall this is a far less successful picture than stand-out classics like The Black Cat (1934) and Roger Corman's Poe cycle.

Lugosi plays a character who doesn't exist in the original tale, a mad scientist obsessed with proving evolution by injecting the blood of his captive gorilla into beautiful young women. His experiments have inevitably proved fatal to the women, but Dr. Mirakle blames the failure on the women's "impure" blood instead of his own mad theory. When the gorilla takes a particular shine to lovely Camille L'Espanaye (Sidney Fox), Dr. Mirakle plans to kidnap her as his next test subject, but Camille's suitor, Pierre Dupin (Leon Ames), rightly suspects the doctor of having sinister motives.  

Deviations from the source create more problems than opportunities here. Poe's tale focuses on the murders of two women and the clever detective, C. Auguste Dupin, an important forerunner of and inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. Weirdly, the Universal picture isn't a detective mystery at all, even though Poe's story is widely considered the original example of the genre. Instead, Leon Ames plays a medical student named Pierre Dupin, who already knows who did it when his sweetheart, Camille, disappears and her mother's corpse is found stuffed up a chimney. Ames is not particularly effective in this role, and the problems are all the more noticeable because Pierre is such a ho-hum hero compared to Poe's brilliant detective. The locked room mystery of the short story gives way to a bizarre mad scientist plot that draws on deeply racist imagery about gorillas as substitutes for Black men and their supposed desire for White women. Mirakle's experiment is a thinly veiled take on miscegenation that results in the deaths of the women whose blood has been "contaminated" by that of the gorilla. None of this comes from Poe's story, in which a pet orangutan gets loose from its owner and cannot really be held responsible for its actions. On a more practical level, the gorilla who replaces Poe's orangutan is very obviously a guy in a bad gorilla suit, except during closeups, when he transforms into an actual chimpanzee. It's a jarring and absurd switch every time it happens, but the movie does it repeatedly, even recycling the same shot of the chimp pressing against the bars of its cage.

All of these problems detract from a fine performance by Lugosi, who certainly knows how to leer menacingly at an audience and deliver a chilling monologue. His face is by far the scariest thing in the movie; its signature feature is an impressive monobrow that sprouts over his trademark burning gaze. The Expressionist influence reaches it high point during the experiment scene with Lugosi's only onscreen victim, a kidnapped streetwalker played by Arlene Francis. Tied to a huge wooden X like a martyr or a witch at the stake, Mirakle's victim exposes a lot of pretty flesh and casts a striking shadow on the laboratory wall. When she dies as a result of his injections, he seems surprised, even though he has her positioned over a convenient trapdoor that drops her body directly into the river. These effective scenes connect Murders in the Rue Morgue to German Expressionist classics like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922) as well as better Universal horrors like Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), and The Mummy (1932), reflecting the influence of cinematographer and occasional director Karl Freund after his relocation from Germany to Hollywood.

Robert Florey, who directed Murders in the Rue Morgue, eventually moved to television work, but before that he directed the 1946 horror, The Beast with Five Fingers, starring Peter Lorre. Karl Freund also directed Lorre in another Expressionist horror feature, Mad Love (1935), and I would recommend either Lorre picture over Murders in the Rue Morgue. Leon Ames is much more in his element in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), A Date with Judy (1948), and Little Women (1949); Murders in the Rue Morgue was one of his first screen appearances, and it's not really his fault that he's miscast. Poe adaptations and loose retellings abound, with the most recent being the 2023 Netflix miniseries, The Fall of the House of Usher. Roger Corman, however, still reigns as the king of Poe on film, with Vincent Price as his star of choice. Start with Corman's House of Usher (1960) and proceed to Tales of Terror (1962) and The Tomb of Ligeia (1964) for a sample of their best efforts.