Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Murders in the Rue Morgue seems like an obvious choice to follow Dracula and Frankenstein. After you’ve done Stoker and Shelley it seems natural to move onto Poe. If you’re going to do Poe, then “Murders in the Rue Morgue” would be the one to film. It’s one of the few famous Poe stories that follows something other than his patented “misanthrope goes mad and kills wife/pet/roommate/enemy etc.” storyline. It also seems natural that you would give the project to Robert Florey who had helped develop Frankenstein--your biggest horror hit. While you’re at it, make it a vehicle for the star whose eerie presence helped make Dracula a pop culture phenomenon. Considering all these factors, one wonders why Murders in the Rue Morgue is not a landmark film like the movies that preceded and proceeded it. (Note: for a detailed look at the film’s production and plot look at this piece I wrote for the excellent way back in 2001. Be kind; I was only 18.)

I think there are two main reasons for this film’s failure to captivate audiences in 1932 and it’s failure to become a classic. One of the reasons is that the film has no iconic Monster in it. Erik is the film’s monster but he’s no Monster. A gorilla suit just isn’t iconic as Karloff and Pierce’s Frankenstein monster or any Pierce creation for that matter. There are dozens of films with shoddy gorillas that look just like Erik the ape (who is also played by footage of a real chimpanzee), which makes Erik a pretty dull beast. Plus, Erik has the misfortune of coming out one year before Hollywood truly fell in love with the subject of damsel grabbing gorillas.

Reason number two: the film has a sadistic and perverse side that none of the other Universal horror films (save The Black Cat) possess. The film's inclusion of prostitution, bestiality, and sexual abuse may make horror fans raised on giallo and gore take special note of this clunky old film but it’s kept Dr. Mirakle costumes from becoming Halloween traditions.

I think there might be more than 3 steps between salamander and human. I've seen judgement houses that are more scientifically accurate.

Left turn Erik!

Lugosi's scheme is to mate women with Erik the ape and therefore prove the theory of evolution. He's the rare mad scientist whose main idea is actually true but he's the very common kind of mad scientist whose experiments are a little dodgy.

Lugosi did this instead of Frankenstein. He could have been one of the most iconic characters in modern history. Instead he was evil-unibrow-Garfunkel.

Erik has killed Dr. Mirakle before grabbing a new mate. Like that old lady in Connecticut, Bela learned the hard way that apes make rotten pets.

Universal Appeal: Medium and Low. For fans of the genre who are unfamiliar with moldy oldies, Lugosi’s “2 girls 1 gorilla” experiments may hold interest. The film’s visuals are also of note. Robert Florey would become one of the most interesting directors of low budget thrillers. German Expressionism influenced all of the Universals but its influence is strongest in Murders in the Rue Morgue. Florey and cinematographer Karl Freud created some wonderfully crazed compositions for the film. Also, Lugosi is at his best here. He’s not just chewing the scenery. He’s gnawing and slobbering. He’s got pieces of it stuck in his wig. It’s a lot of fun to watch. What makes the movie less appealing are the terribly dated comic relief and romance scenes. These bring the horror to a halt. Whenever Lugosi is not on screen mugging and screaming about ape love, the film is dreadfully dull. You have to like old movies for being old movies to really enjoy this one despite it’s strengths.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Jake: (Let me try again. too many typos in the last one).

    Good Post. I have always loved this movie (and loved the magnificent poster that goes with it). Interesting thoughts on Robert Florey. I never thought of Robert Florey as one of the greatest directors of film noir. I think of him mostly as a child of German Expressionism; dealing in themes of straight thriller or horror, rather than noir. I also think of him as one of the directors who worked well with Anna May Wong.

    I know what you mean about Lugosi being a scene eater-upper. While I can see you might think of his style as "mugging,” I have to disagree on the “screaming” part. Lugosi never screamed. Mel Gibson and Kiefer Sutherland are screamers (hell, Sutherland has barked himself hoarse). Bela, no.

    I also know what you mean by the comic relief and romance dating the movie some. I guess it’s an acquired taste.

    Thanks for discussing this wonderful movie! -- Mykal

  3. Mykal: You're so right about the film noir bit! I actually went an changed because after i read your post I agreed with you.

    Bela doesn't "Scream" per se but he's so over the top that it still feels like he's screaming. It's a bit of an exaggeration.

    I think that old timey "talkie" comedy can sometimes be a tough pill to swallow. We still understand the visceral fun of the slapstick comedians but the verbal humor is so different than what we're used to it's hard for us to recognize it as being funny.

  4. jake: For sure Lugosi was an actor searching for home runs with every swing. I know what you mean about him screaming without volume! -- Mykal

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