Of the original 12 films that make up the main body of the first wave of horror movies from Universal Pictures (starting with Dracula in 1931 and ending with Dracula’s Daughter in 1936), none is more overlooked or underrated than Robert Florey’s Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932). It’s usually dismissed as the consolation prize Florey and star Bela Lugosi were handed for not making Frankenstein. It’s further denigrated because of its squeaky leading lady, Sidney Fox, whom the studio was mystifyingly trying to build up as a star (to the extent that she gets billing over Lugosi). The awkward performance of Leon Waycoff as the hero and the dubious cutaways to close-ups of an ape that looks nothing like Charlie Gemora’s gorilla suit also don’t help. The pity in all this is that the film offers one of Lugosi’s choicest roles, one of the grimmest scenes in any 1930s horror picture and Florey’s fascinating direction, which, for all intents and purposes, provides a more fluid Hollywood talkie variation on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).
Lugosi plays Dr. Mirakle, a sideshow carnival performer who is really a mad scientist out to advance Darwin’s theories of evolution by breeding a woman with his star attraction Erik the Ape. The problem—apart from the specious nature of the enterprise—is that Erik needs a girl with “pure” blood in order for the marriage to work. The blood test—Mirakle injects ape blood into the prospective brides—is a little harsh, seeing as how the candidates die screaming. The scene with Arlene Francis (later TV game-show regular) as a prostitute Mirakle recruits is still shocking (and why anyone would think a prostitute a likely choice for purity is not addressed). It’s a flawed, but absolutely fascinating film.