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Murders in the Rue Morgue / The Dunwich Horror

Shout Factory // Unrated // March 29, 2016
List Price: $26.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted April 20, 2016 | E-mail the Author
Shout! Factory has packaged two ultimately minor AIP horror films with few fans in a wisely paired double-bill: The Dunwich Horror and Murders in the Rue Morgue. Each has its share of assets yet each is tremendously disappointing, considering the talent involved. AIP was really struggling identity-wise at this point, and an air of desperation is readily apparent in both. Still, fans of MGM's late, lamented "Midnight Movies" line will want to reexamine these, as I did.*

(This review looks at the two in chronological theatrical release date order, rather than how they're paired on the packaging.)

The Dunwich Horror (1970), from H.P. Lovecraft's 1929 short story, should have been great, considering the picture's decent (though still modest) budget and those involved. Its director, former Roger Corman production designer Daniel Haller, made his feature debut with Die, Monster, Die! (1965), a cheap but vastly underrated adaptation of another Lovecraft story, "The Colour Out of Space." Dunwich's screenplay was co-written by future Oscar-winner Curtis Hanson, Corman himself executive-produced, the film has a good cast, and it features an especially good, unusual score by Les Baxter.

The movie, however, is generally quite bad. Most of the performers are miscast and the film, adapted to the present day (i.e., the end of the 1960s), feels much more a product of that era than Lovecraft's. Die, Monster, Die!, despite its low budget, has a timeless feel The Dunwich Horror really needed.

Old Whateley (Sam Jaffe, his frizzy hair, mustache, and beard dyed inky black, as if using shoe polish) lords over the labor pains of daughter Lavinia (Joanna Moore Jordan) and birth of grandson Wilbur as two old crones (supposedly albinos) look on, their role in the story left unexplained. This awkward scene gives way to the film's impressive animated titles and Les Baxter's music.

Next, in the present-day, the adult Wilbur (Dean Stockwell) covets the priceless copy of the Necronomicon, a book of the occult held at Miskatonic University (played by USC). Not-very-good librarian Nancy Wagner (Sandra Dee) allows Wilbur to charm her into letting him study it, but visiting Professor Henry Armitage (Ed Begley, Sr., in his last film role) takes possession of the one-of-a-kind tome.

Having missed the last bus back to his small hometown of Dunwich (supposedly in Massachusetts, but clearly in and around Mendocino, California), Nancy offers Wilbur a long ride home. He invites her to stay the weekend but there's no question that he's up to no good, disabling her car and drugging her beverages a la Bill Cosby. Armitage and Nancy's librarian friend, Elizabeth (Donna Baccala) become increasingly concerned about Nancy's safety, he worried that Wilbur may be planning on sacrificing her as part of a pagan ritual to unleash "The Old Ones," earth's original dominant species, from another dimension.

The Dunwich Horror is a real mess, none of it satisfying nor remotely eerie. Supposedly Peter Fonda was first approached to play Wilbur but he turned it down. A far better choice would have been Jack Nicholson, whose early career Corman had supported. Nicholson was just starting to break out of B-movies with the success of Easy Rider (1969) and Five Easy Pieces (1970) soon after, but Corman might just have been able to get him at this point.

Instead, Dean Stockwell plays Wilbur with none of the required devilish charm and menace Nicholson might have brought to the part. Stockwell somehow manages to both underplay Wilbur and be extraordinarily hammy at the same time. Sandra Dee isn't at all bad, and neither is Begley, but neither feels right. Sam Jaffee looks downright weird in the flashback scenes (his voice sounds dubbed in the present-day material). Probably the strangest bit of casting is prolific TV actor Lloyd Bochner as an elderly country doctor. Bochner, wearing old man makeup, was 45 at the time, yet he's playing a character about the same age as 69-year-old Begley.

Generally though, the scenes with Begley, Baccala, and Bochner play better than the mysterious doings at Whateley Manor, with Nancy perpetually woozy from the dope Wilbur keeps slipping into her drinks, and the real mumbo-jumbo staging and language of the pagan ritual stuff. During the climax, Armitage and Wilbur yell pagan chants at one another, but it's so ridiculous it calls to mind the Three Stooges' "Maharaja" routine ("Maha?" "A-ha! Razbanyas yatee benee futch ah").

The picture utilizes some interesting printing effects toward the end, with quick flashes of chemically-made primary colors, but mostly the hand-held camera, lap dissolves, quick cutting to supposedly dreamlike, hallucinogenic imagery (The Old Ones, or maybe they're supposed to be mortal pagans, look more like refugees from Woodstock), combined with the tchotchke-crammed mansion really date the picture.

Murders in the Rue Morgue (1971) is, alas, an even greater disappointment. AIP reached a high-water mark with its popular and well-regarded Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, with a series of films directed by Roger Corman and which usually starred Vincent Price. But, eventually, Corman tired of making them, and even Price lost interest. Other than Witchfinder General (1968), a historical drama refashioned by AIP, however tenuously, into "Edgar Allan Poe's" The Conqueror Worm, none of their later Poe films are any good.

Like Dunwich Horror, Murders in the Rue Morgue should have been much better than it is. For one thing it has a slightly tonier cast: Jason Robards, Christine Kaufmann (Town Without Pity), Lilli Palmer, and Michael Dunn, among others. Add to that its many costumed extras, sets, props, and scale generally, it looks two or three times more expensive than Corman's Poe films from a decade before. But the film is a boring, miscast, and artless mess, more a remake of Phantom of the Opera (even to the point of casting Herbert Lom, star of Hammer's 1962 Phantom, in that role, sporting similar makeup), than the far superior 1932 Béla Lugosi film of the same name.

In this version, stage director and actor Cesar Charron (Robards) operates a Grand Guignol theater staging a lurid adaptation of Murders in the Rue Morgue, complete with the ragged "Moonwatcher" ape suit from 2001: A Space Odyssey. His actress-wife, Madeline (Kaufmann), is haunted by dreams and visions, increasingly during the middle of performances, of her mother's (Palmer) gruesome murder at the hands of an axe-wielding madman.

The suspect, yet another actor long thought dead following a crippling acid injury, Rene Marot (Herbert Lom), turns up and begins murdering members of the troupe, also with acid, despite the best efforts of Inspector Vidocq (Adolfo Celi, Thunderball) to stop him.

Even more so than Dunwich, Murders in the Rue Morgue has no interesting or sympathetic characters to latch onto, and the picture plods along leaving the viewer increasingly impatient to have it over and done with. In this 98-minute "director's cut," I thought the movie was nearly over with a climax that turned out to be a good 25 minutes before the end.

One problem is that the picture has American, Czech, German, Italian, British and Austrian actors all pretending to be French in movie made in Spain. Though technically a British film, financed by AIP's UK subsidiary, most of the crew beyond director Gordon Hessler consisted of Spaniards, and the movie has the same, point-and-shoot, over-lit artlessness of most of their genre films from this period. Just as the script operates from an interesting premise that fails to live up to its promise, the production has all the raw materials yet uses them unwisely.

While Kaufmann is quite good as Madeline, and for that matter would have been fine in a real Phantom film, Robards gives the kind of thoroughly disengaged performance he often played in movies where he knew, early on, he was thoroughly miscast in. (His Brutus in Julius Caesar, from the previous year, is another.) Vincent Price in this role wouldn't have made Murders in the Rue Morgue any better, but at least he would have been fun to watch.

Video & Audio

Shout! Factory, licensing titles from MGM, offers 1080p transfers in 1.78:1 widescreen, approximating their original 1.85:1 screen shapes. Murders is noticeably less sharp and shows signs of damage here and there, possibly the result of the decision to use the longer director's cut, 11 minutes longer than AIP release version. But both transfers are no better than okay, hardly in the league of Shout! and MGM's best-looking AIP titles from this era. The DTS-HD Master Audio (English mono only, with optional English subtitles, is adequate. Both movies are on a single, region A disc.

Extra Features

Steve Haberman provides new commentaries to both films, he finding them much more aesthetically interesting than I did. Trailers for both are also included, along with the previously released (on DVD) featurette "Stage Tricks & Screen Fights" on Murders.

Final Thoughts

Horror enthusiasts and fans of AIP's filmography will want to have this, but both movies are, ultimately, huge disappointments and could have been oh-so-much better. Rent It.

* Sorry this review is so late, but it was misdirected to my home in Kyoto, Japan by way of, I kid you not, pre-earthquaked Ecuador.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His new documentary and latest audio commentary, for the British Film Institute's Blu-ray of Rashomon, is now available.

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