26 November 2014

Murders in the Rue Morgue (1971)
87 min.
Directed by Gordon Hessler.
With Jason Robards, Christine Kaufmann, Herbert Lom, Adolfo Celi, Maria Perschy, Michael Dunn, and Lilli Palmer.
Jose Cruz

A Grand Guignol vehicle with some gusto, this chiller is modest entertainment.

The Rue Morgue Theatre packs in audiences on a nightly basis, the patrons thrilling at the violent parables that play out before them. Except now fiction has merged with fact after an actor is discovered in his dressing room dead from exposure to burning acid.

Cesar Charron (Robards), the leading actor and head of the troupe, begins to grow anxious at these morbid developments. Not only are all the members from the old thespian gang getting snuffed—their faces similarly scarred—but the killings themselves harken back to a terrible incident that occurred many years ago.

Cesar’s wife Madeleine (Kaufmann) has nightmarish visions of this incident, one in which her mother was killed with an axe by a masked man. Perhaps the murderous dream-figure is the disfigured-and-presumed-dead-actor Marot (Lom), the fiend who is now eagerly splashing his bottles of acid at his enemies like so much pinot noir.

Are the two one in the same? Who can Madeleine really trust? And who is the real madman in the Rue Morgue?

This lurid little sleeper is gamely acted by its cast, especially Lom as the tragic villain and Dunn as his snickering partner. Indeed, Lom’s role here is almost a carbon copy of his turn as the eponymous Phantom of the Opera (1962) from Hammer Studios.

The backstory behind his madness and mutilation here is practically lifted whole and breathing from that film, barring a neat “buried alive” twist writers Christopher Wicking and Henry Slesar incorporate in their script. Regardless, Lom’s menacing baritone and glowering glares are always a delight to take in.

The rest of the actors are competent enough. Robards certainly makes for an interesting, dubious hero. He comes off as a touch too vanilla at times, but his casting is perhaps a wise choice given how the story turns out in the end; Michael Gough or Vincent Price might have come off as too obvious.

Hessler (Scream and Scream Again) ably directs the material, especially Madeleine’s nightmares, giving them a nice disoriented quality and even a touch of Italian flair with the use of ghostly soprano vocals. His familiarity with the mechanics of melodrama enlivens even somewhat silly scenes with a real sense of adventure i.e. Lom’s swinging escape from the theatre… in full monkey suit!

A worthy enough addition to the subgenre of theatrical horrors.

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