Retro Review: ‘Murders in Rue Morgue’

One of the great “what if’s” in horror movie history was the original plans for the 1931 masterpiece Frankenstein. During pre-production Bela Lugosi, fresh from his success in Dracula, was cast as the monster with French director Robert Florey at the helm.  Ultimately, they dropped out of the project; instead, they migrated to another Universal horror project. In 1932, they produced a very loose adaptation of the Edgar Allan Poe tale Murders in the Rue Morgue, which proved to be one of the strangest horror films of the Pre-Code time.

At a sideshow in Paris, Dr. Mirakle has a booth set up to exhibit his gorilla Erik, who supposedly proves his claims that apes and humans are genetically related. Erik takes a special liking to a young woman named Camille, much to the chagrin of her boyfriend Dupin who is a medical student rather than a detective.  When night falls, Dr. Mirakle tries to prove his claims about the connection between ape and human, by conducting horrific experiments on prostitutes he kidnaps. Each victim he tortures to death in the name of science only yields failures because as he says their “blood is tainted”. This means the only woman who can give the doctor the results he wants is Camille.

The pervading style during the early days of the horror genre, especially the Universal films, was German Expressionism. The experimental use of angles, shadows, and shapes to create something disorienting and nightmarish was perfect for scary films. Director Robert Florey proved to be the master of this visual style as he took us to a Parisian slum which looks all the more surreal thanks to the fantastical sets and costuming. This also provides an interesting juxtaposition between the world the evil Mirakle lives in and the bright naïve Victorian environment of Camille and her friends. It would also appear that Universal’s make-up legend Jack Pierce was allowed to be more low-key. His work in Rue Morgue was mainly used to exaggerate facial features and make the characters blend in with this stylistic world.

In the entire history of cinema, there have been no others like Bela Lugosi. He can portray characters who are disarming with their charm while also exuding a sinister aura of mystery and darkness. Needless to say, this made the Hungarian-born actor the perfect choice to play Dr. Mirakle. The moment he appears onstage you can not help but be captivated by him. While this not on the same level as other horror icons he brought to life like Count Dracula and Murder Legendre, it is still a fan favorite role of his. Despite being at the height of his popularity he did not get top billing in Murders in Rue Morgue. That honor went to the wide-eyed ingenue, Sidney Fox as Camille. At the time Universal was pushing her to be a big star, which sadly never came to pass, and a few years later her life would come to a tragic end.

While horror films of the Pre-Code era all carried a an aura of strange gothic melodrama, Murder in the Rue Morgue put emphasis on the strange. While this is oddly not the only film where Bela Lugosi’s co-star was a man in a gorilla suit it is still not something that happened regularly. For director Robert Florey, this may be the work he is best known for and it proves to be a perfect showcase for his unique style as a filmmaker.