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Murders in the Rue Morgue
Written by A.J. Hakari   

murderruemorgue-scene4-200.jpgWith the back-to-back successes of Frankenstein and Dracula, 1931 was the breakout year for Universal Studios as the studio established itself as a true genre heavyweight. That set the challenge to follow up this daunting double act. Enter 1932's Murders in the Rue Morgue, starring Bela Lugosi and Sidney Fox. Moving away from the "monster mash" formula that would soon prove to be its cash cow, Universal went for a more grounded approach to horror here, albeit retaining a few traces of the fantastic. But while it meshes gruesome thrills with a Gothic atmosphere, Murders in the Rue Morgue, also starring Leon Waycoff, Bert Roach, Noble Johnson and Arlene Francis, is far from the home run the studio was hoping for. It's more of a swing and a miss than anything else.

While enjoying a night out at the carnival with friends, medical student Pierre (Leon Waycoff) and lady love Camille (Fox) stumble upon a booth operated by the peculiar Dr. Mirakle (Lugosi). However, Mirakle is no ordinary sideshow barker, for he claims his pet ape Erik is none other than the missing link connecting man with his primitive ancestors.

murderruemorgue-letter-220.jpgSuch wild theories don't sit well with his customers, but that doesn't stop the mad doctor from kidnapping young women to use in his experiments to prove them. Thankfully, Pierre is hot on the case, having picked up on the trail of corpses Mirakle has been leaving in his wake. But when he discovers that Mirakle has designs on snatching Camille away, Pierre will have to work fast to connect him to the ghastly crimes and save his beloved from a fate worse than death.

If Frankenstein was the grandfather of mad scientist films, Murders in the Rue Morgue is like a third cousin, twice removed. The film follows in the same vein, doling out similar themes of fiddling around in God's domain, but they're a lot less clear this time around. Mirakle's scheme doesn't even make a whole lot of sense; it involves injecting women with Erik's blood in some sort of bizarre attempt to prove evolution.

The whole thing is a Darwinian nightmare, an ill-conceived attempt to parlay a taboo topic into a simple horror story. I know the movies aren't exactly a bastion of scientific integrity, but knowing what in the world was going would have been a big help. What also irked me was that even though it runs at a slim 61 minutes, you can hear Morgue's gears grind and pound as it tries chugging its way to the finish line. Too many sequences eat up too much time, especially an aimless interrogation scene near the end (which, ironically, is one of the few points at which the film is faithful to the Edgar Allan Poe story it's based upon).

murderruemorgue-lobbycard2-200.jpgOn the visual end of things, Morgue has it made and should considering it copies The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari almost to the letter. The encroaching sets are just a couple shades away from Caligari's expressionistic style, not to mention liberally borrowing story elements and even certain images. Just watch the climactic sequence, in which Erik carries Camille across the city's rooftops, and try to tell me it's any different than Conrad Veidt's Cesare doing the same thing.

murderruemorgue-blape2-220.jpgAt the very least, Morgue is still an incredibly atmospheric film, establishing an unearthly atmosphere that suits the harebrained but spooky story just fine. As far as the plot goes, it's standard fare (wimpy hero tries to save his girlfriend from the exotic villain), and aside from Lugosi, no one in the cast really helps matters. Lugosi was rarely as good as he was in Dracula, but here he emerges with a solid performance that tries to wring some menace out of his character's convoluted machinations.

Deservedly Murders in the Rue Morgue has always been one of the second-tier members of Universal's horror legacy. Its themes are nowhere near as interesting as those bandied about in its big brother Frankenstein, and as far as scares go, you're liable to find bigger shocks reading the phone book. Murders in the Rue Morgue is more misguided than bad, a decent idea that needed one more trip back to the drawing board to become an even better movie.

Director: Robert Florey

Writers: Tom Reed and Dale Van Every (adaptation by Robert Florey; based upon a story by Edgar Allan Poe)

Cast: Bela Lugosi, Sidney Fox, Leon Waycoff, Bert Roach, Noble Johnson, Arlene Francis

Rating: No MPAA Rating (minor violence)

Classic Movie Guide Rating: 2 stars out of 5

Run Time: 61 minutes

Studio: Universal Pictures

Format: Black-and-white, fullscreen

Photo credits: Universal Pictures

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