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31 Days of Halloween: Murders in the Rue Morgue

Published Monday, October 04, 2021 at 11:00am

I probably shouldn't admit it but I've never been a big fan of the classic Universal horror movies. I blame the fact that I started with The Mummy and The Wolf Man which are not among the more highly-regarded entries in the series. Sure, I enjoy the Universal classics, but the prospect of watching one didn't excite me until recently. These days I like the idea, because they're mostly pretty short; I have two young children and once they're in bed, about an hour and some change is all I can easily spare. I have come to appreciate that some of them are really excellent. On the other hand, there are plenty you've never heard of because they simply weren't especially good.

Murders in the Rue Morgue is one of the lesser entries, and I went into it knowing that. Sometimes I worry that my preconceptions prevent me from properly enjoying a movie, but I think I'd have rated this one as mediocre either way.

First of all, Murders in the Rue Morgue all but jettisons the original story by Edgar Allan Poe. In this version, Bela Lugosi plays Dr. Mirakle, a mad scientist who runs a sideshow exhibit centered around an ape named Erik. Mirakle has an ill-defined plan to create a mate for Erik by kidnapping a woman and injecting her with ape blood, but whatever results he expects keep elluding him, and he keeps having to dump the bodies.

Pierre Dupin is a student and amateur detective who lives with his chubby, affable friend Paul. The movie isn't a comedy, but they make a good enough comedic duo that I just know some producer was banking on a series of comedic mysteries starring Paul & Dupin.

Anyway, our heroes take their girlfriends to the local carnival and watch Mirakle's show. He takes a liking to Dupin's fiancee, Camille, and invites her for a closer look at Erik who steals her bonnet and generally scares the hell out of her. This gives Mirakle an excuse to ask for Camille's address (to send her a new bonnet, of course), which in turn is the information he needs in order to kidnap her.

I don't feel like going into details here, or more fully outlining the plot. As I said, I didn't care for it; movies this short tend to be pretty simple, and if you were to take a wild guess at how the rest of the story goes, you'd probably be right. It's not unworthy of discussion, though. First, it was released in 1932 but the always-infallible Internet (remember when we used to capitalize Internet? I miss the capitalization of the word Internet) says that Universal was considering it as early as 1930, a year before the one-two punch of Dracula and Frankenstein cemented them as a powerhouse of cinematic horror. So, clearly studio head Carl Laemmle Jr. saw the potential in adapting Poe's story. I think I understand why they chose not to be more faithful to the original story (it's not particularly cinematic in quality), but the plot they came up with isn't satisfying, either. The swiftness of the narrative (which still somehow manages to drag!) and the knowledge that the original version of Dupin is a more compelling character makes it feel more like a revue than a complete package.

So is it a total waste of time? Well, no. Bela Lugosi does some wonderful scenery chewing, and he chews a lot of it. Actually, I really enjoyed the scene where he is introduced, grabs the attention of his audience, and uses that moment to deliver a very layman's-terms description of the theory of evolution, much to the disgust of the puritanical crowd. It's a moment of brilliance in an otherwise tedious movie. Sometimes I forget how good Lugosi could be. Hollywood forgot, too; his career started strong and finished in the cheapest B-pictures.

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