To recap: the Universal Horror individual monster franchises varied wildly and inconstantly, and often in directions and to magnitudes any sane person would never imagine. Sometimes, however, Universal Horror just created something that can not compare to anything on this earth, in their canon or otherwise. Sometimes they made Murders in the Rue Morgue, just about the perfect encapsulation of messy early sound cinema trying to cope with the increased narrative bent of sound and having no idea what to do with narrative at all. The end result is Universal Horror at their most indebted to quilt-work, patching together the expressionist dread and crawling, impulsive weirdness of silent cinema – itself having very little to do with narrative or realism – and trying desperately to mold all of this prismatic and arcane visual strangeness into something that can approximate “narrative”. It fails as a narrative proper, but what hypnotic failure it is.
Outside of perhaps Bride of Frankenstein, which remains the crowning achievement of Universal’s output and, on a good day, the most perverse Hollywood masterpiece ever concocted in a laboratory, Murders in the Rue Morgue may very well be Universal at its most unkempt, its most impulsive. Yes, that word sounds right: impulsive. Murders is impulsive in the way it puts so much effort into a psychosomatic re-reading of the Edgar Allen Poe original story, a simple detective piece with cringe-inducing racial undertones that tells a two-word tale: “orangutan kills”. Poe wasn’t a great writer of story, and what’s more, he knew it; in fact, in some of his under-known literary essays, he directed his attention precisely to the precedence of plot over mood in literature, showcasing his preferred style not in the norm of moving from event to event breathlessly but in stopping, lingering, in crawling with the mood and in becoming it. He favored a primacy of “moment”.
To follow other movie reviewers who have used this Poe line to consider the failings of film to achieve the beauty of the “moment”, I quote Poe, writing in “The Philosophy of Composition”: “I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect….Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?” He argues, essentially, that true literature is found in stopping on one situation, taking a crowbar, opening up the coffin, and letting the specters of atmosphere and mood run wild from the early grave that narrative and plot throw them into. He argues not for moving forward through event upon event, but holding firm and quavering as he draws out all the implications of a single event.
Poe demonstrates that he understood his own strengths here, and it is the failing of his story “Murders in the Rue Morgue” that he didn’t listen to himself. It is very much a plot-oriented tale by his standards, and Poe did not know much for plot. The Murders in the Rue Morgue, the Universal film, takes very much the same path. Frankly, it doesn’t have a clue for lingering, or even for walking forward. It would rather, honestly, run around in circles to tackle one of the most esoteric plots Universal ever dreamed up. The script, credited to a murderers’ row of writers (including an impossible young John Huston well before he was famous), is, charitably speaking, barely a script at all. It breathlessly rushes through sense and reason in a story that, we are told, follows a mad scientist (Universal flavor of the moment Bela Lugosi still giving his demented, hypnotic all, well before he would become a hopeless staple of low-budget schlock). Specifically, it follows that mad scientist as he chases after women, ties them up, and – and here is the stinger – injects them with monkey’s blood. Not the spirit of the Poe story exactly, but you have to give them credit for trying.
All of this is an impossible collage of storytelling at its most impulsive, switching between threads within the same scene like it is perpetually trapped mid-cycle in a particularly excitable washing machine. It is, let us say, unexplainable and mind-boggling, and that word, “mind-boggling”, takes us both halfway and all the way toward unlocking this film’s mysteries. The script is mind-boggling, yes, so much so that it attains a perverse new light, teasing us and taunting us with its confusion and feral idiosyncrasies. It seems to be enjoying it, and what initially seems like accidental failed storytelling soon pulls us so far away from sense that it becomes its own form of uncanny anti-narrative altogether. Where once incompetence had stood, eldritch mystique and bizarre high-camp begin to take hold, perplexing us and drawing us into the twitchy horror. The flip-flopping nature of the storytelling itself becomes a descent into the absurd.
Which would all be for naught without a glue to bind this all together, and in cinematographer Karl Freund and director Robert Florey, the film finds a glue that is iron-clad without losing malleability. In particular, Freund, one of the great silent middle European cinematographers now working in the US, manages to utilize the confused nature of the tale as a passage for his expressionist, frontierist shadow-play and transformative camera movement. The key, simply, is that he seems to have realized that this Universal pic really wasn’t all that different at the level of base structure from the dreamy hellscapes preferred in the great German horrors he had spent a decade lensing. Most famously, he had imbued The Golem, The Last Laugh, and Metropolis with the fires of hell and the frosty limbo of hanging despair, and he brought no small beaker of his madness with him to the US.
This is a man who actually managed to save Universal’s Dracula, a stilted, stately bore of a film, from utter embarrassment, but he uses the unhinged nature of Rue Morgue to experiment in ways that the buttoned-up Dracula could not allow. Giving the film the allure of a hazy walking nightmare, he shoots with a gauzy romanticism and pushes challenging, impulsive (there’s that word again) shadow and mist into the forefront. At some point, we aren’t even watching a “real” location, and several scenes – for instance, an oblique midnight haunt where the only detail in the entire frame seems to be fog itself – achieve the uncanny, abstract heights of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or even Dreyer’s Vampyr. Quixotic structure, kitsch-infused theatrical acting, and fluffy dialogue coalesce, but Freund, backed by Florey’s compelling understanding of space and willingness to indulge in the film’s more ostentatious impulses, turns it all into horrific poetry. At times the visuals feel downright insurrectionist in their resistance to the normalcy increasingly creeping into film in the early ’30s; the visuals feel defiant.
In the great hall of would-be bad films, Murders in the Rue Morgue stands tall. Tall enough, incidentally, to climb over the ledge into genuine brilliance. Certainly, as an example of a director and a cinematographer reading a script for the first time, turning to one another, and nodding in agreement with the full weight of what they would have to do to make it work as a film, it is about as perfect a case for cinema as you can imagine. It is nothing less than a testament of film craft, to the power of cinema to lasciviously delve into the depths of the human psycho-sexual id (usually where Universal did its best work) and the heights of fluorescent visual disquiet. This is film Angst with the most thunderous German capital-A you could imagine.