Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)

I said of The Black Cat that it seemed to have never really entered the “canon” of 1930s horror cinema, and something similar could probably be said of this… albeit with one crucial distinction: the 1934 film was one of Universal’s big money spinners, this was, frankly, not. Plus, after eight decades, this doesn’t stand up as well today as what the 1934 film does either. From the standpoint of film history, Murders is interesting now as a possible insight into how Frankenstein may have turned out in 1931 had it not been given to James Whale and Boris Karloff rather than its original director/star team Robert Florey and Bela Lugosi; Universal gave them Poe to work on as a sort of consolation prize after taking Mary Shelley away from them. Certainly it bears about as much resemblance to its original source material as Frankenstein did, taking narrative liberties that Roger Corman might’ve learned from and turning what’s been called the world’s first detective story into, well, an early 30s horror film, inventing a completely new mad scientist character for Lugosi to play. Indeed, I’ve seen it said (by Bill Everson?) that Murders in the Rue Morgue owes far less to Poe than it does to The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, and now that I’ve seen the thing I realise just how true that claim really is… not just the “Caligaristic” architecture—if Frankenstein took some cues from The Golem, Murders wears its expressionist heart even more obviously on its sleeve—but right down to the scientist posing as a carnival showman, only with an ape rather than a somnambulist. On the whole, though, it’s kind of minor stuff; Lugosi is the only particularly memorable character and performer, and the comic relief (e.g. the three men arguing about language) is fairly feeble. Apparently Universal cut nearly 20 minutes from it before release, and I daresay that might not have been a bad idea; 60 minutes of this was already a bit much.

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