Monday, August 4, 2008

Mr. Poe's Bloody Ape

My personal odyssey with murdering monkeys continues with a re-reading of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," a story featuring Pierre Dupin, the template for future literary detectives, most notably Sherlock Holmes. The opening of the story might try your patience, as Poe's narrator expounds endlessly on the nature of "the analytical" and its relationship to the imagination. While Poe ultimately wants the reader to apply his or her own skills of deduction to the events he puts forward (the reader is the true detective, as is the case in any good mystery) the story eventually gets down and dirty with the gruesome murder of a mother and daughter living in Paris. Both corpses bear horrible marks, with the daughter's body stuffed in a chimney, and the mother's body found on the street below, her head decapitated by a razor.

As with many Poe stories, the rational and the irrational exist in a tenuous relationship with each other, and while Poe seems to suggest that the rational wins out--Dupin figures out that (quite obviously) an escaped ape with shaving razor committed the crime--the gratuitous, sensational elements ultimately maintain our interest. Who'd want to read the story if a homicidal ape hadn't decapitated the poor mother?

Like many Poe stories, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" has been adapted into film more than once, but my favorite is one of the earliest: the 1932 Universal film directed by Robert Florey, starring Bela Lugosi, fresh off his portrayal of Dracula. Universal had originally pegged both Florey and Lugosi to work on their follow-up film to DRACULA, an adaptation of FRANKENSTEIN, but those jobs eventually fell to James Whale and Boris Karloff. Instead, Florey and Lugosi found themselves collaborating on MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, which, as Tom Weaver, Michael Brunas, and John Brunas have pointed out in UNIVERSAL HORRORS, has perhaps been unfairly received by horror fans. Taking its share of liberties with the story, the film portrays Dupin as a love-sick medical student who stumbles on the sideshow exhibition of Dr. Mirakle, who plans to cross the blood of an ape with a young human female. Mirakle's ape, Erik, takes a liking to Dupin's girlfriend, and Dr. Mirakle becomes all too willing to find a way for them to mate. It's all as icky as it sounds, in a 1930s pre-code Hollywood way, but I like to think that Poe would have approved of this plot twist, even if they turned Dupin into a bit of a whiner who lacks the near-telepathic skills of Poe's Dupin.

The film opens in a sleazy sideshow (where dancing girls might "bite" for a little extra price) and eventually brings us to Dr. Mirakle's lair, where he ties his victims onto a slanted cross so that he can test their mating potential with Erik. The authors of UNIVERSAL HORRORS note that the film's calls to mind German Expressionism with its visuals and that its "European feel clashes with the English-language dialogue and American accents, only adding to an off-putting sense of strangeness and artificiality." Indeed, Universal's MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE feels like it could easily morph into an English language dubbed version of a Jess Franco film, and for that reason, I love it dearly.

Edit: The image at the top of this post comes from the pen of the amazing Berni Wrightson, and it can be found at Michael May's Adventureblog.


Tenebrous Kate said...

You're making real my dream of a maniac monkey theme week. *swoon*

The mad science/dancing girl/bondage screencap is made of pure excellence. I've never seen this film but it looks 'sploitastic!

The Headless Werewolf said...

It's a dandy, for sure, though I think the last half fails to live up to the first half. And you can never have too many maniac monkeys!