Sunday, October 2, 2011

Murders in the Rue Morgue (1971): or, Phantom of the Monkey Suit

October Horror Movie Challenge, Day 2!

Jason Robards, of all people, stars in this AIP version of a gothicky thriller, EXTREMELY loosely based on the famous detective story by Edgar Allen Poe--by which I mean, even less tightly than the 1932 version with Bela Lugosi. Which is to say, not really based on it at all. 

Robards plays Cesar, the manager of a Grand Guignol-esque troupe who are performing their smash hit, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, at a theatre actually located in the Rue Morgue in Paris. All is going swimmingly until one night, the actor playing the ape Erik is brutally murdered, and his killer takes his place in that night's performance, which no one realizes on account of the monkey suit. It's only later they realize how meta things have become, as they have a murder at the Murders in the Rue Morgue,  IN THE RUE MORGUE. You see what they did there?

Things are twistier here than our old pal Eddie ever imagined, though, as what follows is less a faithful retelling of his pioneering tale of ratiocination than a mash-up of the Rue Morgue, "The Premature Burial", and The Phantom of the Opera, with a little Bloody Pit of Horror thrown in for good measure. A-List baddie Herbert Lom (later famously of Peter Sellers' Pink Panther series) here reprises his Phantom role from 1961 (with almost exactly the same makeup), playing former theatrical star Rene Marot, disfigured in a freak accident on stage and later a presumed suicide. Of course he hasn't stayed dead, and along with his dapper dwarf assistant Pierre (Michael Dunn), he sets out to wreak vengeance on those who wronged him, and to win the heart of Madeline (Christine Kaufmann), the daughter of his former lover (Lilli Palmer), which is of course not creepy at all.

Dark secrets, gothic settings, and batshit plot twists make this one a real barn burner. If you love the old "man in an ape suit" trope (and if you don't, let's face it, YOU'RE DEAD INSIDE), there's plenty to love here, including ape-man bending the bars of his cage, ape-man holding up decapitated head, and even ape-man swinging Errol Flynn-style from a chandelier! In addition, we get multiple acid-disfigurations (including a particularly nasty one with Eurobabe Maria Perschy, who would later co-star with the Mighty Mighty Molina in The Hunchback of the Morgue, Exorcismo, and Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll), some stylishly filmed, borderline surreal dream sequences, and even some Shakespeare allusions via Punch and Judy shows, administrated by the aforementioned dapper dwarf. Really, it's an embarrassment of riches.

The movie might strike some as a bit slight, but I admired its energy and complete dedication to throwing everything it could at the lens to see what would stick. Robards is a bit miscast, but the rest of the troupe do well, with Kaufmann almost Adjani-esque in her "am I crazy or what?" innocent role, and Lom excellent as always in the villain slot. With more than a couple of inventive twists near the end, this one stays entertaining until the final Dummy Death curtain call. Lush production values and period costumes round out the package, earning this one a 2.5 thumb rating. Fun stuff!



Jose said...

I'm a dyed in the wool aficionado of dudes in monkey suits, and dudes in KILLER monkey suits are like cat nip to me. I've had this one in my queue for a while and I'd say it's about time I reevaluated my life.

And thumbs up for the addition of dwarf sidekick, right? ;)

Samuel Wilson said...

Vicar, you make it sound a lot more entertaining than I remember it being when I saw it as a mere child, but some things (ape suits, dwarfs) weren't as entertaining to me then as they are now. And what film wouldn't be improved with a little Bloody Pit of Horror thrown in?

JamiSings said...

Gee, I wish I knew about this when I was deep into my "anything even remotely Phantom Of The Opera-like" phase!

At least they spelled the name Erik correctly!

For the original - I always felt bad for Erik. Sure, he was a killer and all, but he would actually have allowed Christine to go on singing. Raoul wanted her to stay at home, barefoot and pregnant, and give up singing all together. Obviously, Erik was the one who really loved her. Raoul just wanted a pretty play thing.

*sighs* If only someone would write a version of Phantom that shows Raoul as the asshole he really is!

dfordoom said...

A guy in an ape suit, plus Herbert Lom. This movie has won me over already.

venoms5 said...

Prior to buying the Midnite Movies set, I hadn't seen this since I was a kid and all I remembered about it was the apeman. Well since seeing it on that DVD, I still can't remember anything about it aside from the apeman. Good review, Vicar. It's given me an incentive to revisit it again and anything with Loveless himself, Michael Dunn is worth a viewing or two.

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Jose--In my book, in order to screw up a movie containing both a guy in a monkey suit AND a dwarf sidekick, you'd pretty much have to be TRYING. HARD.

@Samuel--I know that my palate has definitely refined with age, and cheese I'd have thought of as simply stinky when I was a younger man is now simply delicious to me. Chances are you'll find this one at least a little flavorful--give it a go. ;)

@Jami--Lom is *clearly* a Phantom figure here, though in this case Erik is the ape's apellation (see what I did there?). But wasn't the Phantom gonna pull Christine from the stage after a single performance and keep her as his own personal canary after that, cage and all? That's how I was remembering it, anyway. Perhaps a parallel to the bondage of marriage and motherhood Raoul proposed as well, and a comment on the lack of choices for career women in the 1800s opera proferssion? :)

@dfordoom--Indeed! What more does one need?

@venom5--Dunn is great in this, and sports one of the most rakish moustaches ever worn by a person of his stature in the history of hirsuit Little People. :) He also gets a nice "inquisition" scene that had me applauding--watch and you'll see what I mean.

JamiSings said...

Nah, Erik actually made a mask so he would look normal and talked about taking her on walks in the park on Sundays. So obviously he was going to let her go on singing. Both at home and in the opera.

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