1845, and Bela Lugosi is Dr. Mirakle, who works at a carnival sideshow in Paris, with his trained ape, Erik, with whom he converses. He's convinced that he can prove the theory of evolution by mingling Erik's blood with the blood of a virgin, but he keeps picking up streetwalkers, and the percentage of them who are virgins is notoriously low. So he sets his sights on lovely (and very virginal) Sidney Fox, whose boyfriend is the second-greatest detective in all of fiction, Dupin, here played as a mooning lover by Leon Ames. Leon lives with a fat gay guy who complains, in best Felix Unger style, that Leon's dinner is getting cold. Nevertheless, Sherlock Ames is intent on solving the “ape murders” that have baffled Paris, when he's not wooing Miss Fox with the worst dialog this side of Ed Wood.
This is the film that Lugosi and director Robert Florey got as a consolation after being fired from Frankenstein when James Whale claimed that project. There has been a beaucoup of rumors about the film over the decade; generally, it’s known that Carl Laemmle, Jr. was extremely unhappy with the finished product, smelled a turkey, and sent the film back into production for several days of retakes, including the infamous insertions of a close-up of a real chimpanzee to replace the close-ups of a fake gorilla. The studio then rearranged sequences to give it a more understandable build-up to some of the horror and thrills. After Dracula, Frankenstein, and Paramount's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, this one landed with rather a thud, and has been the weak sister of the Hollywood Pre-Code horrors ever since, despite gorgeous cinematography by Karl Freund that’s heavily inspired by Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Our romantic leads are a big part of the problem; in what may be the worst-written love scene in cinema history (reportedly written by John Huston!), we have Mr. Ames to Miss Fox…
“Have I ever told you that I love you? Camille, I love you. Let me look at you. You’re like a flower, soft and fragrant, pure and beautiful. You’re like a star, too. A white, morning star! And your hair! It’s full of stardust! You’re like a song the girls of Provence sing on May Day. And like the dancing in Normandy on May Day. And like the wine in Burgundy on May Day. Oh, Camille, I love you!”
I would’ve carried the scene on to increase the romantic tension by having Camille respond.
“Oh, Pierre! I love you too! You’re like a streetlight! A streetlight with a roaring flame that tickles the darkness and incites it to dance! And you’re like a cookie, too, soft and chewy against the hunger of my wanting heart! And your hair! It’s full of crumbs. And you’re like the song the men of Rochefort-en-Terre sing on Victory over Cameroon Day! And like the dancing in Louhans on Victory over Cameroon Day. And like the wine in, in, well, some other French city on Victory over Cameroon Day! Oh, Pierre, I love you!”
The new Blu-ray from Eureka!’s Master of Cinema collection pairs an HD restoration of the film with a couple of more successful Poe adaptations from the Universal vaults, the classic The Black Cat (1934) with Karloff and Bela Lugosi, and Karloff in The Raven (1935) with Bela Lugosi, a near-classic. The release is stuffed with a wealth of bonus material that greatly enhances our understanding and appreciation of the film, particularly in regard to speculation about the “director’s cut” of Murders in the Rue Morgue. In addition to the commentary by Greg Mank and a thirty minute discussion by Kim Newman on the three films in the set, there’s a colorful 48 page booklet with backstories on the films, and in particular rearranging Rue Morgue to approximate the original edit, courtesy of Mr. Mank, Tim Lucas, and Gary Prange . And as if that’s not enough, there’s an actual “alternative cut” of the film hidden as an Easter egg on the disc. We found out, and here’s our impression.
The film now opens with a body being pulled from the Seine, followed by the first sequence in the morgue and then Lugosi picking up another victim (Arlene Francis), whom he tortures to death while extracting the necessary flesh sample. We move on to the carnival sequence that opens the release version of the film, and already the film makes more sense (and explains the “body count” being wrong in the release version of the film). The rest falls into place, with some additional shuffling of scenes, mostly in the first half of the picture. The problem with this cut, and I’m certain that is what Mr. Laemmle noted, is that all the good stuff happens at the beginning and we don’t get any more thrills until the climax (the theatrical release broke up a long sequence with Dupin and Camille and their icky-talk on her balcony; the new cut puts them back together, and since the beginning of the scene is a day shot and the end is a night shot, we’re left to believe poor Camille endured her boyfriend talking about May Day for 8 to 12 hours).
The Blu-ray is terrific, and the new cut of the film is a big improvement over the theatrical release we’ve known all these years; frankly, the film is still a failure, but it’s a much better one than we’ve thought. In the future, this is the cut of the movie I will watch. Incidentally, the theatrical version of the film - which lacked a score except for the usual Swan Lake on the credits - comes with an optional score here. We listened to it, and it isn't bad and doesn't overwhelm the film, as the optional score for Dracula did. It's an interesting alternative.