Robert Florey, 1932
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Sidney Fox, Leon Ames, Arlene Francis
Loosely based on Edgar Allen Poe’s short story of the same name, Lugosi stars as Dr. Mirakle, a crazed scientist determined to find the perfect mate for his ape friend Erik. They perform in a carnival together and Mirakle is attempting to find a pure, virginal woman to turn into an ape hybrid for the murderous Erik. Mirakle and Erik meet the lovely young Camille and her fiancé Pierre Dupin, a medical student and amateur detective. Mirakle becomes obsessed with acquiring Camille for Erik, while Dupin notices that a number of female bodies that appeared to be drowned have been injected with something suspicious. Camille is kidnapped and though the police won’t believe Dupin, he knows Mirakle is responsible and rushes to find her before it’s too late.
Though first ignored at the box office, this has become a cult classic over the years and represents an interesting example of pre-Code horror. There are some excellent moments in the film, namely Lugosi’s scenes, the opening sequence at the carnival, and the horrific scene where Mirakle brings a prostitute home and ties her to a cross in his dingy laboratory, torturing her when he discovers she does not have “pure” or virgin blood. (I imagine happening across a virginal prostitute has a statistic of something like one in a million, at least in Britain or the U.S.) This is Lugosi’s immediate follow up to Dracula (1931) and he essentially plays the opposite role. Instead of the smooth, slow-paced, aristocratic count, Dr. Mirakle looks and acts utterly insane with wild hair, crazed laughter, and a disturbing sexual desperation that would prefigure some of his next films with Boris Karloff, such as The Black Cat (1934) and The Raven (1935).
Other than Lugosi, the performances are average at best. Sidney Fox only acted for five years until her death from a sleeping pill overdose, but she is beautiful here. It’s a shame Universal films from this period had little in the way of variety for leading ladies. Camille is essentially the squealing, shrieking, needing-to-be-rescued variety you would expect. Leon Ames is very likable as Pierre Dupin, as long as you take his character at face value and don’t expect the literary Dupin, Poe’s reoccurring detective.
For the excellent cinematography, director Robert Florey with with Karl Freund, director of The Mummy and cinematographer of Dracula, among many other films. Freund, who got his start in Germany before emigrating to the U.S. and being hired by Universal, gives this a German expressionist feel that is excellent in many scenes, but seems like a sort of budget version of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari at times. The concluding rooftop scenes look particularly cheap. While Florey's Paris is generally impressive and atmospheric, it’s a little baffling that none of the supporting cast (detectives, soldiers, townspeople) even attempt to have French accents. This occasionally lends itself to comedy, particularly in a scene taken right from Poe where a few murder witnesses argue about what language they heard. Though this scene is quite funny (probably not what Poe intended), the rest of the comedy often feels lazy or forced.
I really hate apes. I hate men in ape suits. With the single exception of King Kong, it’s really difficult for me to get through a horror movie where one of the main antagonists is a monkey. There is no exception here and Erik the Ape is often unintentionally funny and always ridiculous looking. The film slows down in the second half, when Mirakle becomes less of a presence and Erik takes over, because to no one's great surprise his violent, murderous ape strangles him to death. The conclusion, where Dupin chases Erik across the rooftops of Paris, is outright laughable.
If you enjoy early horror with silly dialogue, nonsensical scripts, and elements bordering on the surreal, Murders in the Rue Morgue is for you. Don’t expect the serious mystery elements of Poe’s story, which is essentially a one trick pony. A body is found in a locked room several stories off the ground and after lots of deduction, Detective Dupin figures out that the guilty party was an orangutan. What probably seemed exciting at the time is now just ridiculous and I can see how Florey was forced to go with the wacky script for Murders in the Rue Morgue rather than something more serious. There is still a surprising amount of violence and even though the film was pre-Code, Universal allegedly cut almost 20 minutes from the original print. The film is available as part of the Bela Lugosi Collection along with The Black Cat (1934), The Raven, The Invisible Ray, and Black Friday.