Look out! Here come two A.I.P. horror pix from the soggy end of the Poe cycle: the first features Jason Robards, an impressive cast and a disorganized storyline. The second is an almost-good Lovecraft horror with interesting performances from Dean Stockwell and Sandra Dee.
Murders in the Rue Morgue
The Dunwich Horror
Street Date March 29, 2016 / 26.99
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Scream Factory’s new double feature disc finishes off two different American-International horror series. The first picture is the last fright film made for the company by the directing and writing team of Gordon Hessler and Christopher Wicking. It’s no gem, but it’s a lot more interesting on a second viewing. The second is the company’s final try to make that old joker H.P. Lovecraft into a filmic horror icon, like Edgar Allan Poe. It has a lot going for it, but also its own set of problems. Both pictures feature an interesting choice of actors, some of them not normally associated with horror, and are honest attempts at something different.
Murders in the Rue Morgue
1971 / 1:78 widescreen / 98 min.
Starring Jason Robards, Herbert Lom, Christine Kaufmann, Adolfo Celi, Maria Perschy, Michael Dunn, Lilli Palmer, Peter Arne, Rosalind Elliot, Marshall Jones
Cinematography Manuel Berenguer
Production Designer José Luis Galicia
Editor Max Benedict
Original Music Waldo de los Ríos
Written by Christopher Wicking and Henry Slesar
Produced by Samuel Z. Arkoff, Louis M. Heyward, James H. Nicholson
Directed by Gordon Hessler
When Murders in the Rue Morgue was new a number of reviewers dismissed it as incoherent. I believe I first read that A.I.P. had re-cut it in Cinefantastique magazine. Genre reviewers and the entry in Phil Hardy’s original Encyclopedia of Horror Movies suggested that yet another masterpiece had been ruined by those Philistines Arkoff and Nicholson. This was credible considering that Sam and Jim would soon alienate Roger Corman by playing similar mutilation games with his movies. But the story for this title has a happy ending. In the late 1990s when I was at MGM Home Video, I saw the Film Services department take charge of all of Orion Pictures’ holdings, including the A.I.P. Library. Restorer James Owsley made a special effort to reconstitute original cuts, in some cases pulling elements from overseas. Owsley discovered that when A.I.P. chopped up Gordon Hessler’s movie, they left his original version, a fully finished film, completely intact. It was waiting in the vault, unmolested. Cable showings and the DVD release (2003) debuted what was essentially a new movie, eleven minutes longer and with a different ending.
Murders’ impressive cast is led by Jason Robards, who stepped in when Vincent Price turned the project down. Of all the Gordon Hessler-Christopher Wicking collaborations, this is the most interesting. Poe’s story and the Robert Florey classic 1932 version were about a madman and a killer ape, a theme that nobody thought would fly in the late-sixties horror climate. The filmmakers instead concocted a gothic pastiche around a Parisian theater of cruelty like the Grand Guignol. Actor-impresario Cesar Charron (Jason Robards, Jr.) stages an adaptation of Poe’s original tale. There are murders aplenty. Cesar’s wife Madeleine (Christine Kaufmann of Town Without Pity) has recurring nightmares, and for good reason. Years ago, actor René Marot (Herbert Lom) was horribly disfigured on stage. Despite the pleas of his lover, Christine’s mother (Lili Palmer), Marot committed suicide. But now Marot is back (surprise) murdering members and ex-members of the company left and right. He appears to be aided by Pierre Triboulet (Michael Dunn), a gentleman dwarf with an eye for the ladies. Threatened are prostitute Genevre (Maria Perschy) and escape artist Luigi Orsini (Marshall Jones, of Scream and Scream Again and Cry of the Banshee. Police commissioner Vidocq (Adolfo Celi) suspects Robards.
The killings at large mirror the Guignol gore on Charron’s stage. Scarring with acid is a favorite activity. Kaufmann’s dreams blend with Robard’s flashbacks in what could form an interesting pattern — three levels of reality intersect and overlap, in search of a Buñuel- like surreal quality. Madeleine’s dreams about crypts and axe murders are especially reminiscent of the Spaniard’s Belle de Jour.
In interviews Hessler described himself as an efficient story editor, but Murders in the Rue Morgue is a drawn-out, disorganized mess. The story proceeds apace, but its scenes don’t really cohere into a meaningful pattern, despite nice touches like the affection of Michael Dunn for Kaufmann, or the Vertigo-ish possibilities in a nightmare scenario that keeps repeating tragedies. The acid-scarred Lom wears a mask to hide acid scars, just as in his Hammer film The Phantom of the Opera. As we know from the start that Lom’s Marot is exacting a madman’s revenge, there isn’t much of a mystery to be revealed.
The major problem is one of style. Hessler and Wicking have chosen an old-fashioned gothic horror story of the kind usually filmed in slightly expressionistic terms — lots of lurking figures, dark shadows, and weird visuals. But Murders is filmed in an indifferent generic 1970 visual style. The lighting for the ‘Rue Morgue’ play is hardly different than the lighting anywhere else. Even Madeleine’s dreams are devoid of any stylization beyond some slow motion filming. We see some fairly big period costume scenes, including a Carnival with many extras, but none of the images are particularly attractive. Yet this is Hessler’s best-directed film. He pulls off some nice scenes, such as the unbroken shot of Charron wandering through the rooms of a high-class brothel, as Can-Can dancers cavort around him. But everything looks like a camera test, with all the house lights turned up full.
For the original release A.I.P. tinted all the dreams sequences red and hacked off the ending. But it’s easy to see why they interfered: the film’s switches between reality, dreams and flashbacks just aren’t interesting. Commentator Steve Haberman says that Wicking wasn’t certain how to end the movie, and it shows. After the basic conflict is resolved the story stumbles on for an entire reel. After another muffled conclusion or two, the show concludes with a limp, ‘huh?’ scene.
Aided by Steve Haberman’s commentary, I saw a lot more to like this time in Murders in the Rue Morgue. The Spanish settings don’t look as cheap in HD. Apparently almost cut out of the short version, actress Lili Palmer makes a good impression as Madeleine’s ill-fated mother. Michael Dunn’s character is fairly well developed, and his performance is excellent; I think they modeled his character on José Ferrer’s Tolouse Lautrec and John Carradine’s interpretation mad puppeteer in Bluebeard. Herbert Lom is always good, but his character Marot falls dead and pops up alive so often that I lost track (and stopped caring). The ape suit appears to be the same one seen in the previous year’s Trog, which looks like it might be a hand-me-down from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s far too refined and realistic. The movie needed a really fake monkey man costume to provide the flavor of a vintage stage production. The actors don’t even use exaggerated makeup on stage. By the way, the staging of the Guignol play was likely inspired by scenes in the classic Mad Love.
Other directorial blunders gum up the works. Early on a masked killer runs through the streets, pursued by the gendarmes. When he runs right past we can see his bare face — which we don’t recognize. But when he hides in an alcove, a close-up reveals him to be Herbert Lom, wearing a Phantom-like mask. As the runner also looks like the stuntman- ax killer in the dream sequences, I can imagine a critic trying to excuse this by saying that ‘fantasy and reality are interchangeable.’ We’re also not pleased with a scene in which Madeleine and her maid take a midnight trip to a spooky house. As they climb the steps the maid complains that “it is very dark,” even as the scene plays in broad daylight. I thought it was the next morning already. The timing of the video transfer may be off but other day-for-night scenes also keep us guessing about what time of day is intended. It’s difficult enough to keep straight the levels of action – ‘reality,’ the play, the dreams — without being tripped up by such annoyances.
Scream Factory includes an older MGM-produced interview featurette with director Gordon Hessler. Finishing off the quartet of Hessler / A.I.P. pictures, horror author Steve Haberman gives us a feature commentary that doesn’t make too many excuses for the show, and instead advances the argument that it’s a highly imaginative effort pushing the genre in new directions. I don’t agree with that interpretation, as all I see are horror situations begging for some high style and not getting any. Yes, I found it interesting and I’d like to see it again with some friends. We could get argue why it is or isn’t working in any given scene. But I’d guess that Murders in the Rue Morgue leaves many first-time viewers high and dry.
The Dunwich Horror
1970 / 1:78 widescreen / 90 min.
Starring Sandra Dee, Dean Stockwell, Ed Begley, Lloyd Bochner, Sam Jaffe, Joanne Moore Jordan, Donna Baccala, Talia Shire, Barboura Morris, Beach Dickerson.
Cinematography Richard C. Glouner
Film Editor Christopher Holmes
Original Music Lex Baxter
Written by Curtis Lee Hanson, Henry Rosenbaum, Ronald Silkowsky from the story by H.P. Lovecraft
Produced by Roger Corman, Jack Bohrer
Directed by Daniel Haller
T-shirt design needed: Arkham Librarians Are Easy
The uneven but reasonably engaging thriller The Dunwich Horror is A.I.P.’s third attempt to shift the Poe box office magic to the more obscure horror author H.P. Lovecraft. This time Roger Corman is the executive producer; his main contribution seems to have been some smart casting, and to not let anybody spend any money. Several screenwriters worked on the script, notable among them the great Curtis Hanson, getting a big break. It took a while, but Hanson was soon knocking them out of the park, with screenplays for gems like The Silent Partner.
Lovecraft’s original story follows yet another necromancer’s efforts to subvert reality and unleash unthinkable horrors into the world. Potential previous adaptors had been intimidated by Lovecraft’s monsters, which he often described as too incredible for description. The book’s leading player Wilbur Whateley, for instance is mostly human up top, but an obscene mass of weird forms, tentacles and fur from the waist down. I’m not sure how he tricks anybody into thinking he’s human.
The Dunwich Horror’s excellent Wilbur is Dean Stockwell, the former child star of classics likeThe Boy with Green Hair. As later confirmed by David Lynch, Stockwell can play weird with a capital ‘W.’ Here he’s sort of a retro hippie seducer, a well-groomed cross between Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Manson. Producer Corman has paired Stockwell with ex- perennial virgin Sandra Dee, who surely had her aim set on a career boost similar to the one bestowed on Mia Farrow by the previous year’s Rosemary’s Baby. The problem is that director Daniel Haller is no Roman Polanski, and The Dunwich Horror is a modest-budget show all the way. Co-producer Jack Bohrer was Roger Corman’s former production manager. Considering the penny pinching that must have taken place, director Haller deserves to be applauded for what he does achieve.
The story chronicles a 36-hour attempt to throw wide the doors to another dimension, where awaits a host of monster gods eager to invade our world. Handsome Wilbur Whateley wants access to The Necronomicon, a rare occult book on display at the University of Arkham, and guarded (not particularly well) by research expert Dr. Henry Armitage (Ed Begley). Wilbur uses eye-contact magnetism, a suggestive manner and underhanded first date tricks to seduce librarian Nancy Wagner (Sandra Dee). Under the influence of spiked tea, Nancy stays the night in Wilbur’s creepy house in the hamlet of Dunwich, under the same roof as Wilbur’s grandfather (Sam Jaffe), a hostile nut case. Although she hallucinates weird sexual fantasies, Nancy is so becalmed by the ‘tea’ that she submits to Wilbur’s dastardly plan to use her in the welcoming ceremony for the ‘Old Ones’ from the horror-dimension. But first he must get his hands on that book back in the library. Dr. Armitage and Nancy’s friend Elizabeth (Donna Baccala) try to retrieve Nancy back from the Whateley house, but arrive just in time for an unpleasant surprise — a horrendous ‘thing’ locked in the attic wants to greet the Old Ones as well, and Elizabeth accidentally sets it free.
The fiendish Whateleys live in the New England town of Dunwich, but the movie was filmed in California’s scenic Mendocino County, which has an entirely different vibe — Wilbur must be rubbing shoulders with hippies and New Age vegetarians up there. Stockwell sells the menace well, and Sam Jaffe is suitably bonkers, yelling at the locals down in the hardware store. Young Talia Shire (looking great) is a local nurse, while Lloyd Bochner (Point Blank) looks foolish in unconvincing old age makeup as the local Dr. Cory. On the other hand, old-time Corman regulars Beach Dickerson and Barboura Morris appear in small bit parts; the marvelous Ms. Morris is a standout even when she’s on-screen for just a few seconds.
The story is clear enough and a couple of scary moments are there to be enjoyed, but much of The Dunwich Horror is an uphill struggle. Nancy’s first dream sees her chased by weird body-painted people in a beautiful forest setting. It looks like a bad outtake from Psych-Out. Cameraman Richard C. Glouner might have been chosen as a ‘deal’ arrangement with Butler-Glouner, the optical house. They apply interesting effects to these scenes — image smears, multiple exposures and step printing. They also add interesting texture patterns to some shots. Some effects work better than others, but as in A.I.P. films from The Trip forward, the impression given is not scary. We instead accept Butler-Glouner’s work as and experimental futz-with-the-image vibe. The disc commentator praises a matte shot of Whateley’s cliff-top altar to the Old Ones, but even Albert Whitlock’s handsome painting can’t rescue what is a badly designed effect – the shot looks exactly like what it is, two mismatched images plastered together. (pictured). More effectively creating a weird atmosphere is a sound effect of screaming birds that intrudes at key moments — it’s actually quite disturbing.
Also a flop is the main title design. Hard cutout graphics are animated with fast-dissolve ‘animatic’-style transitions. The images aren’t attractive or scary, and the crude depiction of a pregnant woman in delivery, showing an umbilical cord, is in lousy taste. The titles are organized around the theme of Old Whateley taking a female figure up a hill, which turns out to be the silhouette of a giant satanic figure, with horns. This shows a fundamental misreading of the whole movie, which has nothing to do with a conventional supernatural Devil. Lovecraft proposes his own cosmology.
Without getting specific (although the posters give it away) the ‘thing in the attic’ bears a relation to Wilbur Whateley. It’s the same situation as the Thing in the Attic in another Lovecraft semi-adaptation many fans seem to have forgotten, 1967’s The Shuttered Room. The big conclusion in Dunwich wisely gives us an Attic Monster that we don’t see clearly. When we do get a peek, it looks like a cross between a furry Medusa and a circular Aztec calendar. Shots from the monster’s POV depict it killing several unlucky Dunwichites. The fleeting views of the monster at the conclusion are clumsy optical composites.
But one scene works VERY well, even though it earns no points for originality. Elizabeth ventures into the forbidden attic, and the monster Thing attacks. The whole scene jumps to poster-ized or solarized hi-con images, bright red and black, and in a series of blurry flash cuts the Thing attacks like Ray Harryhausen’s Hydra. In a few seconds, Elizabeth is stripped naked and is apparently being raped and slaughtered at the same time. In the commentary Steve Haberman compares this to Hitchcock’s shower scene in Psycho. It seems patterned much more closely on Tippi Hedren’s ill-advised peek into the Brenner attic in Hitchcock’s The Birds.
Unfortunately, much of Daniel Haller’s direction has a get-it-in-the-can haste about it, and little of his scene coverage is atmospheric or visually memorable. The flashbacks to Wilbur’s mother (actress Joanne Moore Jordan) giving childbirth under weird circumstances aren’t very compelling. But the scenes between Nancy Wagner and the disturbing Wilbur are mostly good, as the two actors manage a kind of Svengali-Trilby harmony. Other scenes are just bad. Dr. Armitage, Dr. Cory, the sheriff and some agitated Dunwich locals stand in a row and read klunky dialogue to the camera: “Let’s burn the castle!” “C’mon men!” and my personal favorite, “This is really happening, isn’t it?” The unintended effect is identical to a parody scene in Joe Dante’s affectionate comedy Matinee.
We can see that Stockwell and Dee were trying, and that she was not holding back with the rough stuff. Semi-voluntarily agreeing to lie down on Wilbur’s Abraham-like altar, and allowing him to wave a dagger over her, Nancy Wagner is draped in a shift that exposes quite a bit of her naked flank. Inserts show Wilbur’s hands moving inside the cloth in suggestive places, while she writhes in presumed ecstasy. He even ends up groping her breast, and it doesn’t look as if a stunt double is used. At least one aspect of the film’s funky theme is at least suggested: ‘Let’s worship a pack of sex-starved other-dimensional demons!’
Want a sideways glimpse at The Dunwich Horror? This ‘Mars Gas Studios” Vimeo fan edit makes apt use of a pertinent Roy Orbison song. It’s fairly amusing, and contains big spoilers.
I’m not an expert on H.P. Lovecraft, but I did visit what was claimed to be his home in Providence, Rhode Island, which might be a spooky place under the right conditions. I found Steve Haberman’s commentary for The Dunwich Horror to be a great listen, as he appears to be well acquainted with all things ‘Miskatonic.’ Commentaries always have too many lists of movie credits, but I acknowledge that most viewers aren’t after relief from those the way I am. Haberman gives us a run-down on the author and the original story, and includes some notes about the mini-revival of Lovecraft movies that began in the 1980s. He also reads a selection of Lovecraft passages that describe the ‘Yuggoth from Sothoth’ monster, or whatever. I just realized that if Nancy Wagner formed a friendly relationship with one of the monstrous Old Ones, Lovecraft could have had a hit comic strip.
Scream Factory’s Blu-ray double bill of Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Dunwich Horror will please fans of these films. Both transfers are excellent HD renderings that allow viewers to judge all the makeup and optical effects for themselves. Murders is bright and colorful; we see a few tiny flaws that were probably in the camera negative, such as some fine scratches, and a shot of the theater front that’s unsteady in the gate. Christine Kaufmann, Lili Palmer and Maria Perschy were given special glamour attention. An occasional close-up in Dunwich is soft, but special care is taken with shots of star Sandra Dee, who comes off as peaches-and-cream perfection. The 1:78 scans on both features look fine, even though the films are officially listed as 1:85. In one shot of Donna Baccala in the newspaper office in Dunwich, a microphone appears to bob into the frame. Or is it one of those pesky Old Ones, sticking his toe through into our world?
Shout’s presentation is attractive on all counts, and we appreciate the addition of English subtitles. Newbies to Murders in the Rue Morgue cannot possibly appreciate how much of an improvement this version is over the one A.I.P. released in 1970. Aspiring filmmakers would do well to look at these movies for ideas on what to do and what not to do when making a horror picture.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Dunwich Horror Blu-ray Double Bill rates:
Movie: Murders in the Rue Morgue Fair +++, The Dunwich Horror: Good – minus
Supplements: Audio Commentary with Steve Haberman on both features, trailers, featurette for Murders in the Rue Morgue
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? Yes; Subtitles: English
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: March 6, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson