Thursday, December 19, 2013

Murders in the Rue Morgue (1971)

          Given Edgar Allan Poe’s towering status as a cultural influence and literary figure, it’s interesting to note how few good movies have derived from his work. Excepting director Roger Corman’s stylish cycle of Poe movies starring Vincent Price, released in the ’60s, most attempts to translate the author’s macabre style into cinema have been middling at best. One problem with such projects—the reckless impulse to improve on Poe’s storytelling—is evident throughout Murders in the Rue Morgue, a sluggish horror film that is only peripherally related to the short story of the same name. Director Gordon Hessler and his screenwriters concocted a murky narrative featuring a handful of elements from Poe’s tale, such as a murderous primate and two generations of female victims. Predictably, much was lost in translation—Murders in the Rue Morgue suffers from a confusing script, dull pacing, and repetitive tropes. The picture has great production values, and it boasts the presence of lively stars Herbert Lom and Jason Robards, but it’s a slog to watch.
          Set in early 20th-century Paris, Hessler’s movie concerns Cesar Charron (Robards), producer/star of a Grand Guignol-type theater company that, when the story begins, performs a show called Edgar Allan Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue at a theater called the Rue Morgue. (Clearly, “overkill” was the watchword during the writing process.) When several people in the theater company are killed, clues point to Rene Marot (Lom), a former member of the company long thought dead. Eventually, a connection is discovered between the gruesome death many years ago of Cesar’s first wife and the current bedevilment of her daughter, Madeline (Christine Kaufmann), who also happens to be Cesar’s current wife. There’s also some business involving a little person (Michael Dunn), who does creepy things like stalking Madeline, and a blustery but ineffectual police detective (Adolfo Celi).
          None of this makes much sense, especially since Hessler arbitrarily toggles between “present-day” scenes, dream sequences, and flashbacks; by the umpteenth time Hessler cuts to an ominous shot of a mysterious figure falling from the rafters of the theater, viewer fatigue is inevitable. Robards phones in his performance, but Dunn and Lom add florid villainy, while actresses including Kaufmann and Rosalind Elliot (who plays a doomed prostitute) furnish eye candy. Murders in the Rue Morgue includes some unconvincing gore (think waxy-looking severed heads), as well as a silly riff on Poe’s image of a primate running amok. In other words, the picture’s not without its lurid virtues—but the lack of a coherent storyline unquestionably relegates Murders in the Rue Morgue to the realm of misguided Poe movies.

Murders in the Rue Morgue: FUNKY

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