American International Pictures’ string of Poe adaptations always took liberties with their source material, often using the stories as springboards for whatever fanciful pop gothic thrills the filmmakers should come up with. Gordon Hessler and Christopher Wicking were the last ones entrusted with wringing out the last few drops of profit from this trend and Murders In The Rue Morgue, their final venture into faux-Poe, is by far the loosest — and perhaps the most daring — of all A.I.P. Poe adaptations.
Murders In The Rue Morgue simply uses the titular Poe tale as set dressing: it is the subject of a stage adaptation being put on by Cesar (Jason Robards), a secretive actor and director who specializes in the Grand Guignol. Problems crop up when someone starts murdering Cesar’s collaborators past and present, attracting the attention of Inspector Vidocq (Adolfo Celi). To make things worse, Cesar’s wife Madelaine (Christine Kaufmann) is bedeviled by strange dreams that have to do with her mother’s mysterious death. She also has a secret admirer (Michael Dunn) with questionable intentions — and there is also the issue of Rene (Herbert Lom), a deceased former colleague and rival of Cesar’s who might not be as dead as he seems.
The resulting film is still a bit controversial in horror film circles. A reel’s worth of footage was cut out by A.I.P. before its original release and not reinstated until its DVD release. Some hail the uncut version as a neglected classic while others consider it to be more of something that didn’t work the first time. In Schlockmania’s estimation, the truth falls halfway between the two points of view.
There’s a lot for fans of classic horror to like in Murders In The Rue Morgue: Wicking’s script shows an adventurous spirit as it romps through gothic horror conventions, Hessler directs the proceedings in a lavish and kinetic manner and the nightmare sequences have a kind of Bava/Franco Eurocult sense of the surreal. There’s also a ton of Eurocult regulars in the cast: top honors go to Lom and Dunn, who are are a lot of fun to watch as figures of questionable intent.
However, Murders In The Rue Morgue also feels like the hastily constructed rough draft of a better film. The story is often disjointed and shifts its focus multiple times in a way that is likely to frustrate the viewer. The pacing is also off, particularly in the film’s final third as it gets bogged down in one too many “dream vs. reality” moments. Finally, Robards is sadly miscast and goes for an odd, low-key naturalism in a role that really needed a European style of theatricality.
Thus, Murders In The Rue Morgue comes off as a well-intentioned misfire. That said, there’s enough experimental fun during its running time to make it worthwhile for gothic horror fans to notch up one viewing.
Blu-Ray Notes: Scream Factory has reissued this title on blu-ray as part of a 2-for-1 disc with The Dunwich Horror. The MGM-presented transfer looks pretty nice, with a richness to the color and details that will please vintage horror fans and a quality lossless presentation of the original mono mix.
The main extra for this title is a commentary from historian Steve Haberman. He places the film in the context of A.I.P.‘s Poe film cycle, pointing out the scenes that the studio re-edited and offering plentiful biographical material on Hessler, Wicking and several other cast and crew members. The one other extra for this film is its theatrical trailer.