Director Gordon Hessler is back for another AIP Poe adaptation, this one mildly clever in the way it incorporates the Poe elements into the film. As we saw with The Oblong Box and many others, it was common to take the title of a Poe short story or poem, apply it to the film, then have not the slightest thing to do with the Poe story of the same title in the plot. Murders in the Rue Morgue takes the title from Poe’s story, but instead of adapting it or discarding it, sets its action around a theatrical production of Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue that becomes plagued with murders and yet another vengeful disfigured madman who was buried alive. According to Hessler, this was done because Murders in the Rue Morgue had already been made into a movie, and everyone knew how it ended. Thus there was no suspense in the film — not that Hessler was all that great at creating suspense anyway.
Murders in the Rue Morgue is also a good example of how important Vincent Price was to the success of these films. His special talent was making bad movies good, and making boring scenes interesting simply because he’s so much fun to watch. Even The Oblong Box, which is heavy on Price sitting there and talking, is made more enjoyable simply by virtue of the fact that Price is doing the talking. By all accounts, he should have been the man in the lead for Murders in the Rue Morgue as well, but contract disputes led to him taking time away from AIP, or so the story goes. The contract dispute was settled, but Price came back and went to work on The Abominable Dr. Phibes rather than on this next Poe adaptation with Hessler. For all I know, though, he could simply have been too busy with Phibes to do this picture, and contract negotiations never came into it. Whatever the case, The Abominable Dr. Phibes is considered by many including myself to be a deliciously macabre horror classic. Murders in the Rue Morgue, on the other hand, is regarded as something less than classic, when it is regarded at all. It’s another in that long line of “not bad, not great” films that manage to satisfy people who are predisposed to like a particular type of film (in this case, Gothic horror) but certainly won’t win over any new fans.
With Price unavailable, AIP went shopping for a new leading man and hooked Jason Robards, fresh off his stint with Sergio Leone in Once Upon a Time in the West. Robards was a real catch of a lead at the time, but he looks about as thrilled to be in this film as I would be to find myself the winner of Celine Dion’s complete discography. That is to say, not very. I like Jason Robards, but it seems that he considers Murders in the Rue Morgue to be the type of film that was beneath him. I’m never a big fan of the “this type of film is beneath me” attitude. Hey man, work is work, and it’s not like the people who sport this attitude have artistically impeccable resumes. Instead of just giving it their all and turning in a memorable performance — the kind that can make a bad movie good, the kind we’d expect from a man like Vincent Price — too often these stars half-ass their way through the film just to collect the paycheck. Robards is never bad in this film, but neither is he ever engaging. He looks bored, and his performance lacks the conviction and enthusiasm it requires to work.
He plays Cesar Charron, the most American Frenchman you’ll ever hear. Didn’t Robards know that when playing a foreigner — any foreigner – you’re supposed to fake a British accent? Cesar is the lead actor and manager of a Parisian theater troupe performing their stage version of Poe’s ghoulish tale. Things get going quick. If nothing else, Hessler could make an interesting start of his films. The actors discover that the man who was supposed to be playing the ape in the play was murdered, and the murderer himself had donned the costume and done the entire performance himself. You’d think a backstage murder followed by the murderer going on stage to rave reviews would be enough to cause a postponement, but I guess the show must always go on. It’s soon revealed that the murderer is Rene Marot, played by Herbert Lom, who starred in Mysterious Island and Hammer’s version of Phantom of the Opera, which is fitting since this film has more to do with Phantom than with Poe’s story. Yes, as with The Oblong Box, our murderer is an unhinged madman with a disfigured face. It could be that Lom got the role because he already had himself a mask. It turns out that Marot was once a member of Cesar’s acting troupe, but after an accident resulted in real acid rather than prop acid being splashed on his face, he ended up killing himself.
Or did he?
Well, no, of course he didn’t, because there he is, a-killin’ his former stage mates. But why? And how did he survive burial? And how does all this tie in to the bizarre nightmares Cesar’s wife, Madeline (Christine Kaufmann) has been having, in which a masked man whirls an ax around and around before chasing her down a hall until she sees a corpse fall from the rafters? And what’s with the midget? Answering these questions is how the film passes its running time.
As was often the case with Hessler’s Poe films, the story is either complex or convoluted, depending on your mood, and there are a lot of disparate plot threads that have to be woven together by film’s end. The film’s ambitions perhaps outreach its ability to deliver, but it still makes for an interesting experiment and attempt to do something just a little bit different. There are a lot of dream sequences. Well, no. There’s one dream sequence, repeated over and over, sometimes with a little more information added here and there as the film attempts to unravel the central mystery. Murders in the Rue Morgue has fewer scenes of people sitting around talking about the plot than previous Hessler Poe adaptations. The nightmare is effective, and the strange slow-motion scenes of the masked tuxedo-wearing killer whirling a giant medieval ax over his head is suitably spooky. Hessler also makes good use of the shadows and all the billowing cloaks and capes one is afforded in a period production, but overall the film is too brightly lit and lacks the chilling atmosphere of AIP’s better Poe films or Hammer’s gothic horrors.
European genre regular Adolfo Celi (Thunderball, Danger: Diabolik!) is on hand as the captain of the most useless police force in France. I mean, Marot manages to stroll up and kill a man with a vial of acid while Celi and the the cops are standing not more than three feet away and looking right at him. Then they can’t even catch the man, presumably because he does “billowing Jack the Ripper cloak” running to confuse them. One would think that an acid-scarred madman in all black and wearing a ceramic mask would attract attention, even in France. On several occasions, the police prove utterly incompetent at catching Marot, even though all it seems like they’d have to do is stick their hand out and grab him. He doesn’t exactly keep a low profile. He keeps coming back to the theater. He keeps murdering members of the cast. How hard can it be? He even manages to evade police while dressed as a monkey despite the fact that they knew from the beginning of the play that he was on stage yet again as the ape, having murdered yet another cast member who was supposed to play the ape. And still he manages to escape. In another scene, police corner Marot and his assistant, the diminutive Pierre Triboulet (the excellent Michael Dunn) in an old crypt/theater. Marot escapes yet again, and then they just seem to sort of let Pierre go free despite the fact that he’s obviously an accomplice, an accessory to murder, a kidnapper, and also guilty of perpetrating annoying Punch and Judy puppet plays on the citizens of Paris.
If one is going to worry about the inability of the police to catch a dwarf who is standing right next to them or successfully nab an acid-scarred murderer kneeling before them, one may as well go on and wonder why, as monkey actors keep getting strangled, no one ever thinks to cancel the show or, for that matter, post any sort of security back stage even when they know Marot is going to be back there skulking about. I mean, it’s really not that good of a play they seem to be putting on, so what’s the harm in taking a few nights off while your cast is being stalked and killed?
You may be worried that the change of venue from England to Paris (although the film was actually shot in Spain) means no bawdy ale house shenanigans. Well, you’d be wrong. Have faith in AIP. Jason Robards still finds time to visit a brothel full of can-can dancers and, yes, patrons hollerin’ and groping women and waving mugs around in the air. Unfortunately, the brothel scene showcases another of the film’s many weaknesses, in this case it timidness. No gratuitous nudity? Not even in the bawdy ale-house scene? In France? Are you telling me those repressed Brits are willing to doff their blouses in the peasant pub, but those liberated French women are going to remain modestly clothed? What crazy kind of world is this? For that matter, Marot’s murders are fairly tame in comparison to other AIP and Hammer films of the time. I guess there’s only so much you can do with acid, but even when the ax comes into play, the camera is atypically shy in lingering over the grue. The goriest set pieces come in Cesar’s stage show, where they’re firmly established as Grand Guignol and “just part of the act, folks,” thus lacking any real sense of shock.
The film’s twist ending is telegraphed about half an hour too early, but it’s still a decently interesting ride before you arrive at the big revelation. Once again, the horribly scarred face of the killer is not all that terrifying, but it’s not built up as such as much as Edward’s face in The Oblong Box, so that’s no real disappointment. No, the only real disappointment in Murders in the Rue Morgue is how substandard the whole thing ends up being, thanks largely to Jason Robards’ disinterest in everything around him. His boredom infects the viewer and makes an already dubiously boring film even more so. As I said, this is the sort of film that could easily have been saved by Vincent Price, but without his services, and with a leading man who couldn’t care less, Murders in the Rue Morgue is dragged down by the weight of its own plot. With no conviction, with no sense of horror communicated by Robards, the movie is sapped of any tension it might have otherwise generated. All of Hessler’s Poe films suffered from the same problem: his inability to pace a film or keep the entire thing interesting. With Vincent Price in the lead, you could cover, more or less, for that deficiency. Without Price, you mostly just spend the entire movie missing Vincent Price.
It’s a shame, too, because despite Robards throwing his little fit, the rest of the cast is pretty good. Celi is as he always is, only this time with one of those fake upturned Poroit mustaches the French so adored at the time. Michael Dunn is wonderful and mysterious as Pierre. He’s actually more interesting than any of the principal characters, and one wonders more about his never-told back-story than the story that becomes central to the plot’s resolution. The French period costumes are good, and the carnival-theater setting is sometimes interesting, but never as sinister or effective as is should be. Despite some promise and some quality moments scattered throughout more mundane events, Murders in the Rue Morgue is really nothing more than a good example of something that might have been. It’s not good or bad enough to be striking in any way, and so remains a minor effort in AIP’s Poe canon, and if it is remembered at all, it will be as “the one that would have been good if Vincent Price had starred in it.”