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 summit them to brutal tests. The disappearance of the women piques the police’s interest.
Reaction & Thoughts
If you like your horror cooked rare instead of well done, you will 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 Darwin’s theory of evolution.
The 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 script by Tom Reed and Dale Van Every takes elements from Poe’s story, but this is mostly an original piece of work — the film is a great if less celebrated example of Universal’s Classic Monsters Series.
Speaking of Universal’s Monsters, I’ve always found interesting how the studio presented science under a veil of mystery. The movie suggests, for example, that an unproven scientific theory is often perceived as nothing but fantasy. This idea of fantasy and science co-exiting in 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 an interesting subtext regarding the ethics of science. How much should a scientist interfere with nature? The Murders in the Rue Morgue insists that God and science are mutually exclusive, a strangely persistent theme in horror movies.
Robert Florey (Ex-Lady and The Crooked Way) 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 the terrific sets help create a vividly eerie, almost surreal atmosphere. Celebrated cameraman Karl Freund (Metropolis and Dracula) gives the film touches of German Expressionism.
The film contains one of Bela Lugosi’s best performances. Lugosi’s wonderfully theatrical villainy has the right touch of overstated madness that makes this kind of movie fun to watch. He hovers over the material with great enthusiasm. Lugosi is authoritative as he addresses the crowd of spectators during his first scenes and he is strangely moving as he laments the inevitable suffering of one of his victims; these are priceless moments that prove Lugosi could be a thespian of the highest order.
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. With Bert Roach (The Crowd), Betty Ross Clarke (Too Hot to Handle) and Brandon Hurst (White Zombie).
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
The Murders in the Rue Morgue really shows the ugly side of scientific research. The film takes Darwin’s ideas of evolution, chew them up, then spit them out again. More than eight decades later, it is still surprising to see a movie that relishes its own wickedness in such a shameless manner — humor is inserted into the oddest moments. The ending and the bestiality subtext anticipate the future classic King Kong. The film was a box office failure, irrevocably damaging the careers of actor Lugosi and director Florey. Today, the movie has achieved true cult status. It’s one of my all-time favorite Universal horror films! B&W, 61 minutes, Not rated.