Friday, July 5, 2024

American Gothic Week: They have failed to procure the slightest clew


Directed by Gordon Hessler
Written by Christopher Wicking and Henry Slesar (based on the story "The Murders In the Rue Morgue" by Edgar Allan Poe)

Spoilers: moderate

Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders In the Rue Morgue" is, if obviously not impossible to adapt to cinema, then at least pretty darned difficult.  For one, I would venture it's not even particularly good in the first place, despite its literary historical importancein fact, it's probably because of its literary historical importance, as it and its Dupin sequels amount to the genesis of the detective story.  This may explain why "Rue Morgue" spends a long, extraordinarily-turgid opening explaining (almost parodically) what genre it's in, holding forth on ratiocination with such almightily-boring enthusiasm that your face will melt off from Poe demonstrating how a writer can arrange his character's stupid, borderline-telepathic guesses to be proven correct, before it ever starts getting to any story.  Then once it gets to the story it spends what feels like nearly as much time going through what feels like the entire family tree of Indo-European languages in order to deliver precisely one clue about its culprit's identity, whose speech is so primal, I suppose, that it sounds like all languages, just not yours.  It exists, of course, almost exclusively to provide its startlingly improbable solution to its mystery as the only possible one.  So the real problem of adapting "Rue Morgue" is its very influence: everybody already fucking knows the orangutan did it.  Hence the definitive 1932 adaptation, which barely bothers with any detective work, and revamps the material for pure horror, a wallow in the most squalid possibilities of the Pre-Code Era, specifically ape rape.

Give Gordon Hessler this, then: when tapped by American International Pictures to direct one more Poe adaptation for their decrepit series of Poe movies, he understood the challenge before him.  He understood also that the most naturally-unnatural avenue for horrorizing "Rue Morgue" had already been taken, and it would be hackish to just do that again (not to mention that, if he did, he'd have to top it somehow, and even in 1971, trying to do so would've been mired in controversy).  It does mean we have an outlier here, amongst AIP's other late stage Poes.  The series hadn't bothered with the text at all since Roger Corman's legendary octology had concluded back in 1964, but this iteration of Murders In the Rue Morgue, like many of Corman's Poes, was at least a conscious departure from Poe.  Using Poe's story as a jumping off point, this was nonetheless distinct from what had long-since become the standard practice at AIPincluding for Hessler's own pair of pseudo-Poes, The Oblong Box and Cry of the Bansheewhich was slapping some minimal Poevian gloss (in the case of Cry of the Banshee, not even an actual Poe title) onto a film that, otherwise, had nothing whatsoever to do with him.  That's swell, but it doesn't really make much of a difference for Rue Morgue '71, which still has nothing whatsoever to do with Poe and is, furthermore, pretty terrible, in almost all the ways I've by now come to expect from Hessler and his usual screenwriter, Christopher Wicking.

The swerve that Hessler and Wicking (along with co-writer Henry Slesar) settled on was to just turn "Rue Morgue" into The Phantom of the Opera, which I sppose makes intuitive sense if you conceive of "the 19th century" as a completely undifferentiated period of time ("Rue Morgue" is set roughly in the year of its publication, 1841; Philippe Leroux's Phantom was published in 1909 and set in the 1880s).  But both stories do involve weird killers in Paris, even if it's likelier still that Hessler was prompted by the title of 1954's adaptation, The Phantom of the Rue Morgue.  (Which was, incidentally, still a "Rue Morgue" adaptationas well as a Rue Morgue adaptation!and, quite remarkably, it finds a different way to do gross sexual violence via an ape and a mad scientist.)  While the provenance of the "phantom" of its name is unclear, if you squint, I guess both Phantom of the Rue Morgue and Phantom of the Opera involve a murderous sexual jealousy.

The connection to Poe here, meanwhile, is just that in Hessler's Rue Morgue, there is a theater company in the 1900s that puts on Grand Guignol-style shows, and these shows seem to include, for no special reason besides the title of the movie we're in now, a very, very loose adaptation of "The Murders In the Rue Morgue."  Or, rather, The Murders In the Rue Morgue, the 1932 film, insofar as the chimpanzee (it's a chimpanzee now, or possibly a gorilla, but the precise non-human ape species is an ever-shifting thing in Rue Morgues) is likewise named "Erik."  This is almost the totality of its connection to any Rue Morgue, and in my churlishness I want to say that it's a more significant fraction of its connection to The Phantom of the Opera than is good for it.  (So maybe it's not Phantom of the Rue Morgue at all, and Hessler was simply prompted by the presumably-coincidental similarity of their killers' names.)  Oh, right: the theater company also presently operates out of the Rue Morgue Theater, which is situated on Poe's (fictional) Rue Morgue in Paris.  "The title is extremely accurate, and fuck you," is what I reckon Hessler was going for here.

I have made clear, no doubt, how I feel about a "Rue Morgue" without a monkey murderer, but anyway, the movie.  So: we begin in the midst of what vaguely resembles the third act of the 1932 film, in a clever play-within-a-play gambit from Hessler, where things are desperately unclear in a cool way, although you figure them out quickly enough.  (Hence we're three-for-four with Hessler and movies where the most interesting thing about them is a prologue to a much more boring film.)  Presently, director and star Cesar Charron (Jason Robards) is playing a mad scientist who's threatening a character played by his much-younger wife Madeleine (Christine Kaufmann), and somehow a chimpanzee is involved.  In the midst of this Madeleine is, in fact, hallucinating (it's honestly a pretty bold opening gambit), and her mental state will only get worse, but for the time being what's important is that the actor playing the chimp isn't a member of this troupe, at least not anymore.  The man who was supposed to play him is a corpse in his dressing room; and "Erik" is in fact Rene Marot (Herbert Lom), a former colleague of Cesar's long since believed dead from suicide, after an unknown adversary switched prop acid with real acid during a show, leaving Rene disfigured and despondent.  Rene had been the fiancĂ© of Madeleine's mother (Lilli Palmer), another performer in Cesar's company, but between Rene's "accident" and his "suicide," she was murdered, seemingly by Rene himself, who was agonized over the dissolution of their relationship due to the dissolution of his face.  Cesar once loved Madeleine's mother, too; and, as Rene is not dead, it seems that now both men have transferred their affection to the daughter.  And Rene would have her, but not before he's cut a path of vengeance through all those members of Cesar's company who've wronged him.

You sit down to watch it, let alone write it out, and it's basically self-spoiling; maybe the most fundamental weakness of Rue Morgue '71 is that you get ahead of it instantaneously, but it's not really doing much of anything with that.  I'm not sure it even thinks you're stupid and assumes that that you haven't gotten ahead of it: it's a manifestation of how this movie has insufficient force to even take that much of a position on its own mystery, really just indifferent to whether you've cracked its case or not, not even given to enough gumption to plow ahead like it is still a surprise and indulge in the minor pleasures of being obvious, let alone anything more sophisticated.  It's a notable irritation that, very late into the movie, after something like three or four former or current members of his company have been murderedby acid, to the faceCesar is still reluctant to concede to Inspector Vidocq (Adolfo Celi) that it's possible that Rene, or at least someone enacting Rene's will, has targeted them.  He sort of refuses to concede that there's a pattern at all.  Likewise, it's more than just irritating that in the first half hour we're introduced to a former company member whose current act entails miraculously surviving being buried alive, and this prompts nothing for any of these morons for nearly an hour to come.  Even after they know, they still manage to believe they've killed Rene... by smothering.

As for the human story that it's set up, it's worth mentioning that this movie runs 99 minutes (released in 1971 at a much-truncated 87, it's been restored since then), and that's a pretty long time for an AIP Poe movie (Corman's longest was The Masque of the Red Death, at 90).  It doesn't use its 99 minutes to do shit with that human story, almost astonishingly so in some respects: it earnestly doesn't seem to even recognize that "I loved your dead mom so I married you" is weird.  I mean, good grief, it doesn't really seem to think explaining where the hell Madeleine came from is important, or exploring how her mother is somehow simultaneously a massively wealthy bourgeois widow (even "widow" is me presuming) but also an actress in some dingy shock show, though the shock show is patronized by unaccountably high-class clientele, including the so-called "Duchess of Orleans," which like all aristocratic titles, had been abolished in the Third Republic, but now we're just nitpicking in the absence of any actual content to discuss.  In any case, Madeleine is heir to an enormous mansion, and one imagines her father's fortune, but she's also an actress in a dingy shock show, and there's no exploration of this seeming contradiction or Madeleine's hopes/personality, etc., or truly any exploration at all.  She married her father figure, and it's really unclear why; there doesn't seem to be affection, or attraction (on either end), or obligation (on either end), or...  this movie is so excruciatingly null, and what seems pretty fascinating at first blush just grinds onwards toward some tame murder scenes that, with really only the one exception (a decapitation), must have been starting to look real Goddamn quaint by 1971.

Much of this is a screenplay that isn't interested in any human dimensions that don't intersect (hell, don't share the exact same coordinates with) its dumb plot, but it potentially could have been rescued by its actors if they'd supplied those dimensions themselves.  The two male leads are, notionally, "good actors," even.  Robards had a celebrated stage career and had found non-trivial success in movies; apparently he spent this whole movie wishing he could play Rene.  I don't know why, because Lom (whose career was likewise non-trivial, including the Phantom in Hammer's Phantom of the Opera, which is somehow annoying) doesn't seem to be having fun, going through the motions of this Phantom role the way you'd make a sandwich, and even failing to play the superficialities with much menace.  (There are conflicting reports as to why Vincent Price didn't fill one or the other of these roles, but whatever, he didn't.)  But then there's Kaufmann, ultimately (indeed, fairly rapidly) our straight-up protagonist, who's an unmitigated disaster: she's an exquisitely beautiful woman, in a sad doll sort of way, and she has pretty much precisely that one sad doll trick to fix your attention upon her.  This even "works," to the extent that this half-dead phantasmal presence is what Hessler requires from her for her hallucination sequences, which resemble low-tempo Kate Bush videos; but across 99 minutes she resolutely refuses to vary this, almost to the point that she only has one expression, and certainly well past the point that she's actually forgetting to react to onscreen events occurring near her, such as a homicide.

So we've checked off "half-sketched characters given undernouished performances" and "the first scene is the best scene" from our Hessler/Wicking rubric, but, I did say this movie catalogs almost all of their usual sins; even by "almost all" what I mainly meant was that at no point are tavern girls sexually battered in an exploitative and tedious way.  Yet I'll concede that it isn't miserablist, which is the tenor that Hessler usually takes, and he's trying to make a fun proto-slasher with a soupcon of artsy filigree, though between the narrative redundancy and preponderance of slow motion in the dream and hallucination sequences, this is probably why it "needs" to run 99 minutes, and I'm not sure the artsy filigree was even worth it.  Only one (Madeleine lost in an autumnal park) fully comes off in its floaty dreaminess, and maybe just because it's one of the earliest ones.  The rest reach diminishing returns and outright repetitiveness quickly; the psychic flash-forwards to the finale might be an interesting gesture, but they're ungrounded and self-evidently desperate.

There is also the matter of Hessler's aesthetic, which is still being heavily informed by his documentary days, and even more by the junkier side of British horror ("British horror" being his starting place with AIP, essentially serving AIP and their British co-producers as Michael Reeves's understudy).  This limited skillset had been a drag on all his period pieces, which is, of course, most of his AIP horror movies, so that the grungy ugliness, that actually succeeded in his contemporary paranoid thriller Scream and Scream Again, feels cheap and ineffective here, much as it did with Cry of the Banshee and (to a lesser extent) The Oblong Box beforehand, the tilt towards naturalism and a mobile camera frequently coming off chintzy rather than realistic, even given the apparently-loosened pursestrings ($700,000) for a surprisingly posh AIP production.  Most of it doesn't feel "realist" or "naturalist" anyway: Manuel Berenguer's photography is overlit and badly-lit pretty much beginning to end.  (Even spotting Hessler just being terrible at period, Scream and Scream Again, which is kind of junk but also feels like a director completely in control of what kind of movie he's making, continues to baffle me in context with the haplessness of his efforts on either side of it.)

But what of the kills, and horror generally?  Arguably better than the rest of it, but not good: again it peaks early, purely because we didn't expect a corpse to be where that corpse is, but the acid-burn makeup is weak grue, in addition to somewhat limiting Rene's slasher options.  There's a pretty awkward, borderline-comic moment when he runs up to his live-burial teacher and pours some acid on him, then runs away into the middle of a crowd, with no sensation of horror attached to it whatsoever.  (In fairness, this sequence also involves probably the best-presented violence in the film, when a gendarme chases Rene onto a carousel and comes back from the other side with his throat slashed, which does have horror attached to it; Hessler isn't omni-incompetent.)  But then, there's a false jump scare with some backstage sheet-metal thunder that Hessler doesn't even bother staging as such, nor Kaufmann reacting to it as such, so we have to question why it's here.  Indeed, mere clumsiness has been our companion all along: Hessler arranges the death of the second victim, an actress-turned-brothel-prostitute (Maria Perschy), by way of cross-cutting to the can-can dancers in the exhibition hall below, and it is such klunk.  Leaving aside that it equates sex and death for no articulable reason besides "that's what horror does," it does so "successfully" only because I already know that's what horror does.  There's finally some decent multi-level chase stuff in the rafters for the finale (including Kaufmann almost managing another expression, or at least the camera angle manages to spin her diffidence into implacability for a second), and, before this, a theatrical (but, as noted, nice!) decapitation.  On the other hand, the stinger scare at the end depends upon how frightening you find little people (or at least this specific little person, Michael Dunn), and while this has always been tasteless, maybe it's even less of a good idea when the main thing we know about Dunn's villainous sidekick is that when he previously attacked Robards with his springloaded cane dagger, Robards, a stiff old man, immediately disarmed him and stabbed him with it.

Murders In the Rue Morgue nonetheless makes its own bid at historical importance: it was the end of the AIP Poe movies, no. 16 depending on your accounting, the last to emerge from the company even under a fake Poevian title.  We can wish that it lived up to Corman's last Poe film, The Tomb of Ligeia, but it doesn't, which fits, considering that literally none of the post-Corman Poes are good.  And thus the franchise died as it had lived for half its life now, consistent in its ignominy.

Score: 4/10


  1. In all honesty THE MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE title for a franchise (or at least an anthology film) is a perfectly shrewd notion: it’s just a pity they either lacked the ability or the inclination to plunder French gothic chillers and retrofit them into the continuing adventures of C. Auguste Dupin.

    1. The other Poe Dupin stories aren't very conducive to horror (does he have literary fan fiction like Holmes etc.? probably); dunno much at all about French genre literature of... well, any period. As far as this goes, I kinda just think one ought stick with a pongid or just go with a different title.

    2. My dear fellow, just look at Hammer Studios FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA cycles for proof of how far one can go by borrowing names, but very little else from an original story! (-;