Dr. Mirakle: My life is consecrated to great experiment. I tell you I will prove your kinship with the ape. Eric’s blood will be mixed with the blood of man!
Murders in the Rue Morgue: A Neglected Horror Gem
A scabrous little pre-Code gem. Based on Edgar Allan Poe’s 1841 short story of the same name, though not technically similar to the literary work, they only vaguely share similarities; better said, it is not a verbatim adaptation, much less a film that seeks to fathom the macabre obscurities of the short story, but rather just takes the peculiar atmosphere of its narrative composition to adapt it to the ghoulish histrionics that an actor like Bela Lugosi is capable of delivering with wicked relish when he is instrumentalized with hierarchical dominance for most of a film’s running time. Hilarious as it is goofy, and audacious as it is analogously creepy when one manages to detect this production’s acumen for infusing brio and sinister panache to its brisk expressionistic passages.
But before specifying its camp entertainment based on the abundant amusement that its synoptic plurality is capable of offering us, we must go into the context of its existence. The early 30’s, 1932 to be more precise, was the year in which Murders in the Rue Morgue saw the light of day in the celluloid world, and like many of its contemporaneous companions and the horror films of the years that followed, each one of them carries a titanic weight, they carry behind them the shadow of the unsurpassed and groundbreaking success of the two films that introduced the most poetic vampire and the most lunatic doctor of all time, the classics Frankenstein (1931) and Dracula (1931), to the world of talkies for the first time. It is somewhat logical and intuitive to know why in 1932 horror films were not so well received by audiences and critics, and consequently, that is precisely reflected in the box office; they were not necessarily economic fiascos but in comparison to the resounding success of Frankenstein and Dracula, these horror productions are dwarfed by the impact of these two influential films.
Murders in the Rue Morgue should be seen for what it is, a post-1931 Universal film, i.e. it is pulp, consciously silly and relies more on its shock values than its artistic merits. It performed dismally at the box office and it seems that simply the spooky mystique of Murders in the Rue Morgue has died out with the passage of time to the point that few discuss the succulent content of its liberties as a pre-Code film. However, I am of the opinion that not only should this tantalizing film be treasured for its thematic juiciness but also that it should rightly be considered as another of the prestigious horror films of the golden era created by the hegemonic production company of the genre at the time. Even an iconic film like The Mummy (1932) did not reach the lucrative peak of the other two monster movies released a year earlier, it was only moderately profitable.
Each of these historiographical points in the horror film spectrum should be seen as a series of circumstances that ultimately, I believe, cemented for films like Murders in the Rue Morgue a new space to explore the genre from more autonomous, experimental and dynamic angles, as most of the relatively modest productions in contrast to the overwhelming grandeur of the extravagant productions were not subject to such a rigid system and thus had the possibility to be unabashedly daft, more violent and provocative. Films like Murders in the Rue Morgue in the early 1930s are a seminal moment for the art of ‘exaggeration’ not as unintentional theatricality but as an effect of premeditated histrionics. And besides being a perfect sample of what Universal could produce in parallel to its big budget films, Murders in the Rue Morgue is the film that manifested the prolific potential that the first wave of Poe adaptations in cinema would have; after its release many more adaptations, with their respective literary liberties, Universal would produce.
Now that I’ve redeemed this film by examining its context and values as an underrated Universal Pictures production, we can now turn to the more savory details. A sadistic, shockingly evil Bela Lugosi plays the obsessive and persuasive Dr. Mirakle, a mad scientist who lives devotedly focused on proving one of his evolutionary theories with felonious experiments that basically rely on finding blood from virgin human females that are compatible with that of his smart ape Erik played by prolific suit-actor Charles Gemora. Dr. Mirakle’s tenacious fixation leads him to kidnap women in order to consummate his controversial theories in practice, proving that he can mate an ape with a human woman. During one of his lectures at a carnival show where he expounds his ideas while proudly showing off his intellectually evolved ape, Dr. Mirakle sets his sights on his new victim, his new ‘lab rat’ that he will use to pair her with the aggressive ape, the naive and virginal Camille played by Sidney Fox who instantly ignites the ape Erik’s passion. That’s when the malicious gaze of Dr. Mirakle watching his fascinated, infamously excited ape stimulated by Camille’s beauty, makes it clear that he will doggedly pursue his goals, no matter how insane and illegal they may be.
Sidney Fox’s candid loveliness playing the innocent Camille presents the archetypal underpinnings of 1930’s horror cinema, and of course the hormonal rampage she generates in the overbearing Dr. Mirakle’s ape quickly illustrates that we are in a film without the stern, moralistic strictures of the Hays Code. One of the defining aspects that make this film vilely dark, albeit a tantalizing darkness, is the ostentatious ability it has to engender so much lustfully deviant insinuations in just its slim but compact 60-minute running time. Murders in the Rue Morgue handles a visual language perhaps too sophisticated for its rudimentary narrative and exploitative proclivities, yet every time I find myself enveloped in its squalid artificial atmosphere of a geometrically deformed and expressionistic Paris, I realize that everything in this film, its flaws and virtues, constitute a hypotaxis; each serves a dependent function, whereby one cannot exist without the other. Analyzing it empirically by the results that most B-movies have given us, one could say that there is much reason for this. The charm of its immersive atmospheric horror fulfills a sine qua non condition with the hilarity of the exaggerated dramatic circumstances, indeed Murders in the Rue Morgue relies as much on its implausibility as on its aesthetic virtuosity.
Watching a film about a mad scientist wanting to mate his ape with a woman at the expense of the death of innocents is not only straightforwardly psychotic, it is a plot about bestiality. We sometimes forget how anarchic, carefree and transgressive many of the pre-1934 films were, where the glorification of immorality was both an assault on the conservative ethics of American society and an entertaining means of escape for those seeking to evade the gloom of the Great Depression; subversive films that today would be virtually impossible to see released in commercial theaters.
Speaking of “conservative ethics”, Murders in the Rue Morgue preserves in its expressionist genetics an eye-catching visual protocol that it strictly follows to evoke a symbolism even more provocative than the hyperbole of its vicious plot. Within its chiaroscuro lighting system, a scheme of religious innuendoes in grotesque and mocking tonalities is compositionally elaborated, which surely anyone who might have had the luminous joy of encountering this suggestiveness in the theaters of 1932 must have been scandalized by the infamous taunting triggered by these visual patterns. For example, the formal asymmetries that the low key lighting generates contribute to accentuate many of the counterparts and antagonistic confrontations of puritanical tenets or philosophy, not just once, but repeatedly in which the expressive cinematography by the perpetually skillful Karl Freund intensifies the contrasts to make prominent the crucifixes that ornament the surroundings in a scenario where theological philosophy is wryly confronted.
The villainous Dr. Mirakle is a proponent of the theories of evolution, as the plot points out in the first sequences of the film, this unhinged character desperately seeks to prove his theory, a thesis that exacerbates the ideals of his audience who, offended to hear his eloquent Darwinism, one of them brusquely shouts: “heresy!”. It seems as if the scientific, atheistic and modern figure of Dr. Mirakle arrives in the pious Paris of 1845 to attack the religious morality of the Parisians; for this reason I believe that intentionally the architecture focused on religious iconography such as the crucifix is part of this setting of passions, dread, ignorance and guilt, natural fears facing the unknown.
As in the role that would catapult him as the villain actor par excellence in Dracula (1931), Lugosi here is the madman that terrorizes these idyllic characters, who had the misfortune of having met this maniacal scientist on their way. With his trademark malignant grin and his evil joy externalized in theatrical mannerisms, Lugosi gives here a paradigmatic performance in his career, after being epitomized as the most celebrated vampire of all time, each role that followed him were more than new interpretations of other characters, they were performances that served to mold his acting persona. It’s not Lugosi playing Dr. Mirakle, it’s Dr. Mirakle playing Lugosi.
Beyond the intriguing dialectic, we naturally have the bluntness of its witticism, something very analogous to the tonalities of a James Whale film. Murders in the Rue Morgue is horror-comedy, and I conclude that much of its disproportionality stems from that, although objectively these imbalances, this melodramatic disparity of tone and narrative heterogeneity blend phenomenally well with the campy contrivances that derive from this fast-moving horror film. The French American director Robert Florey, leads the excesses with superlative fluidity, prior to this project, he was the one who was going to lead the directorial field in the production of Frankenstein (1931), coincidentally as Lugosi was going to play the monster of Frankenstein, yet both were removed from that mythical production, which no doubt caught them by surprise. Why do I mention this? Well, rumor has it that Murders in the Rue Morgue was Universal’s ‘compensation’ for its two stars after they were dropped from Frankenstein (1931). It is rare to think of a Frankenstein film directed by Florey and starring Lugosi, however it is not at all unusual to picture Murders in the Rue Morgue being directed by Florey and starring Lugosi, so as fate always puts us where we belong, I think Florey and Lugosi landed in the right territory for their eccentric qualities in this stylish horror classic.
Nowadays, watching Murders in the Rue Morgue can be a refreshing rediscovery or a film that is prone to be seen as a trite, outdated pre-code drivel that survives only because of Lugosi’s name. But if you can get past the layer of invasive implausibility and awkward humor, what this atmospheric horror film can offer you is fun and lurid pleasures that suggest more than what we see, it’s daringly subliminal, you just have to pay attention and examine its shadowy confines.
Irredeemably, the comedy is misplaced, the narrative lurches with incongruities and the themes can feel a bit forced, nonetheless the style is perennially present in all these cinematic irregularities sustaining jocularity and terror with the proficiency that a studio like Universal can materialize. Murders in the Rue Morgue overflows with aesthetic prowess, with some of the sharpest dissymmetrical compositions, bizarre shadow deformations you’ll ever see in a golden age horror film, just keep in mind that to fall in love with it all you must bring with you a good sense of humor, and one that is not dominated by religious morality!