In 19th century Paris, France, a sadistic scientist and circus performer, Dr. Mirakle (Bela Lugosi, Dracula), is determined to prove that humans and apes share the same ancestors. In order to corroborate his theory, Mirakle abducts young women and submits them to brutal tests. The disappearance of the women piques the police’s interest.
Reaction & Thoughts
“I tell you I will prove your kinship with the ape.”
If you like your horror cooked medium-rare instead of well done, you’ll probably enjoy this bizarre Pre-Code hair-raiser. Universal’s Murders in the Rue Morgue has a freaky atmosphere that suggests perversion and obscenity, even going as far as to impart a wicked new twist to Charles Darwin’s controversial theories of evolution.
Murders in the Rue Morgue is based on Edgar Allan Poe’s 1841 short story of the same name. I read the story a long time ago and if memory serves well Poe’s tale is about a detective investigating a series of unexplained murders. The screenplay, credited to by Tom Reed (Bride of Frankenstein) and Dale Van Every (Captains Courageous), takes elements from Poe’s story, but this is mostly an original piece of work.
The film’s ambivalence towards science is interesting to say the least. For example, Murders in the Rue Morgue suggests that an unproven scientific theory is often perceived as nothing but fantasy. The idea of fantasy and science co-exiting in the same plane field, albeit temporarily, is reinforced by Dr. Mirakle’s double life; he’s a carny huckster during the day, a medical researcher at night — it’s implied that the difference between a scientist and a snake oil salesman is success.
There is also a fascinating subtext regarding the ethics of science. How much should a scientist interfere with nature? Like Universal’s classics Frankenstein (1931) and Invisible Man (1933), Murders in the Rue Morgue insists that God and science are mutually exclusive, a strangely persistent theme in horror movies.
Robert Florey (Ex-Lady) directed the movie in a highly imaginative manner. Florey constantly reminds viewers that they are watching a most unusual story. It’s one of the most energetic early Hollywood sound films I’ve seen. The odd camera angles and terrific sets help create a vividly eerie, almost surreal atmosphere. Celebrated cameraman Karl Freund (Dracula) gives the film touches of German Expressionism.
The film contains one of Bela Lugosi’s very best performances. Lugosi’s wonderfully theatrical villainy has the right touch of overstated madness that makes these kinds of movies so much fun to watch. The actor hovers over the material with great enthusiasm: Lugosi is authoritative as he addresses the crowd of spectators, and he is strangely moving as he laments the inevitable suffering of one of his victims.
Sidney Fox (The Bad Sister and Midnight) is lovely as the film’s “damsel-in-distress.” Leon Armes’s (Meet Me in St. Louis and The Postman Always Rings Twice) creaky performance as the nominal hero of the story is the only thing to hold against the film. The cast also includes Betty Ross Clarke (Too Hot to Handle), Bert Roach (The Crowd) and Brandon Hurst (White Zombie) as Prefect of Police.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
More than eight decades later, it is still surprising to see a movie that relishes its own wickedness in such a shameless manner. Murders in the Rue Morgue was, unfortunately, a box office failure, irrevocably damaging the careers of actor Bela Lugosi and director Robert Florey. Today, the movie has achieved true cult status. Highly recommended! B&W, 61 minutes, Not rated.