We can’t have a proper ‘Halloween Havoc!’ without inviting Bela Lugosi to the party, now can we? After all, his 1931 hit DRACULA practically invented the horror movie as far as ‘talking pictures’ go. Both Bela and director Robert Florey were slated to work on producer Carl Laemmle’s next horror opus FRANKENSTEIN, but Laemmle wasn’t satisfied with their version, handing it over to James Whale, who hired a bit player named Boris Karloff to portray the monster of science, and the rest is history. Lugosi and Florey were instead given MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, based on Edgar Allan Poe’s classic tale, to bring to screen life. This was the first of Bela’s “mad doctor” role, a part he would essay twelve more times in films of varying quality.
It’s Carnival Night in 1845 Paris, and med student Pierre Dupin takes his girlfriend Camille L’Espanaye to make merry watching exotic belly dancers, “wild” American Indians, and other ‘oddities’. Oddest of all is the grotesque Dr. Mirakle and his ape Erik, “the monster who walks upright… the beast with a human soul”. The sophisticated, imperious Mirakle espouses his theory that man is descended from apes, leading to cries of “Heresy!” from the gathered masses. Erik seems to take a shine to Camille, grabbing then caressing her bonnet, and gripping Pierre by the throat in a jealous pique. Mirakle apologizes to the mademoiselle, yet sends his henchman Janos to follow her.
Later, Mirakle’s carriage comes across a knife fight by two ruffians over the affections of a prostitute. Both men die on the fog-shrouded, dimly lit waterfront, and the frightened hooker is scurried away by Mirakle, taking her to his hidden lair, where he puts her in bondage on a makeshift tilted cross, determined to make her “the bride of science”, mingling Erik’s blood with her own to see if she’s worthy. Under the microscope, Mirakle screams the prostitute has “rotten blood” (what did he expect?), and she dies on the cross, a martyr to mad science, released through a trap door into the River Seine.
Pierre, besides being a med student, is also an amateur sleuth, and has been investigating the murder of the girl and two other “ladies of the evening”. He discovers a mysterious “foreign substance” in their blood samples, and learns it is ape’s blood. He tracks down Mirakle at the carnival, who answers curtly to Dupin’s questions, telling Pierre he’s about to leave for Munich. Pierre discovers this to be a lie, and follows Mirakle and Janos to an abandoned warehouse down by the docks.
Soon Mirakle comes calling on Camille, only to be rebuffed at the door. Never one to take no for an answer, he sends Erik to kidnap the girl, killing her mother in the process and stuffing her up the chimney. Pierre happens to be in the vicinity, and hearing the screams, he rushes upstairs. The police prefect conducts an inquiry, receiving three different answers from three different witnesses (and an excuse for some ethnic comedy relief). Pierre is exonerated when Madame L’Espanaye is found up the chimney, her hand clutching ape hair, and they race to Mirakle’s secret lair. He’s about to inject Erik’s blood into Camille when the simian escapes his cage and throttles his master to death, scooping up Camille and escaping via the rooftops of Paris, where brave Pierre finally shoots the beast and saves his lady-love from certain doom.
MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE has it’s good and bad points. The best is obviously watching Lugosi at the height of his acting prowess, his continental charm not quite masking his unibrowed, demonic countenance. Bela’s startling performance as Dr. Mirakle ranks among his finest film roles, and you’ll be mesmerized once again by his talent as an actor. Karl Freund’s cinematography is a marvel of nourish lighting, accentuating the eeriness of the expressionistic sets. A scene set with Camille on a swing pushed by Pierre, the camera positioned in her lap, is quite innovative, and that aforementioned scene involving the prostitute (who’s played by Arlene Francis, later of TV’s WHAT’S MY LINE? fame) is one of the darkest in early horror cinema, a scene that could only be made during the Pre-Code era, as is much of the material here.
Among the film’s bad points, holding it back from being a true horror classic, are the cloyingly sweet lovers Pierre and Camille. Their romancing is sickeningly sappy to behold, and Sidney Fox (Camille) has such a squeaky voice you wonder what Pierre sees in her. Leon Waycoff was just starting his film career, and quite frankly he isn’t all that good; the actor got better as time went on, after changing his name to Leon Ames . The rest of the cast is hit and miss; Noble Johnson and D’Arcy Corrigan among the hits, Bert Roach, Torbin Meyer, and Herman Bing the misses.
Charlie Gemora once again donned his “gorilla suit” to portray Erik, as he did in countless other films: SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN, BLONDE VENUS, ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, SWISS MISS, ROAD TO ZANZIBAR, WHITE WITCH DOCTOR. I’ve no complaints about Gemora; however, close-up stock footage of Erik features different species of apes at different times, negating the effect. MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE didn’t do well at the box office, as apparently audiences were turned off by all the talk of evolution and interspecies mating. Florey went on to an interesting career as a ‘B’ auteur, while Lugosi… well, we don’t have to rehash his descent into lower-case pictures again. We all know whatever script he was handed, Bela gave his all for his art. That’s why, 86 years after beguiling the world in DRACULA, Bela Lugosi still reigns supreme in Hollywood’s Horror Valhalla!