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!
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