In all my years of watching old movies, only one film frightened me so much that I had to turn off the TV set.
And I was one little tough ginger snap when I faced off with Murders in the Rue Morgue. I was 8-years-old, but going on about 100 after a medical crisis that left me way more likely to identify with scarred-up bad guys than with menaced little girls.
I could crack up at some seriously raunchy R-rated comedies and was used to watching Psycho with my parents—frequently over a breakfast of pancakes with chocolate sauce.
But even I, jaded little eight-year-old I was, couldn’t make it through Robert Florey’s Murders in the Rue Morgue. I couldn’t even make it through the first third. I think I was, like, 18 before I actually stoked up enough courage to watch the film to its end.
And I’m glad I did because it practically seethes with innovation. Karl Freund’s camerawork paints a dense world of fog, crazy angles, shadows, and carnivalesque attractions. The heritage of Caligari rears its head, to be sure, but there’s an added realness to it all. I’ve lived in Paris, I’ve walked through the perpetual party that the city is in the daytime… and through deserted streets at night. Frenchman Florey and expressionist genius Freund instilled a grainy, ever-moving texture to the film that aptly translates the darkly festive vibe of Paris.
Which brings me back to that scene that scared the Hell out me.
A woman being tortured on a big wooden frame, like a meat rack, as a man punctures her again and again with a syringe. Her shrieks. Her utter subjugation to a raving lunatic. These are not quaint relics of what the Pre-Code era thought spooky. They survive as every normal person’s worst nightmare and certain abnormal people’s most lurid fantasy. The torture scene in Murders in the Rue Morgue, for better or for worse, sketched the blueprint for every filmic depiction of a sadistic killer to follow.
I am referring, of course, to the scene in which Lugosi’s Dr. Mirakle abducts a prostitute, injects her with gorilla blood to see if she’s compatible for mating with Erik the Ape—and thus kills her.
This scene toys with you in that, beginning with the abduction scene, Florey orchestrates a perpetual crescendo of violence. We, the viewer, constantly think, “Well, it can’t get worse than this, right?” And then it does.
Let’s take a close look at this scene—so horrifying that it was cut by many regional censors.
Dr. Mirakle looks out of his carriage window.
A street lamp smashes. The camera tilts down to show a woman screaming then pans over to two men fighting. Not fist-fighting in the burly, entertaining fashion of the movies. Their choreography feels naturalistic, gritty, ugly.
A knife flashes into, then out of, the frame. We know that its blade buries deep into another man’s flesh because he moans.
The woman is still screaming. The wounded man, in one lightening motion, sends something flying. We hear a throwing dagger slice through the air and bury itself into his opponent. They both fall.
This fight scene adds nothing to the plot. It’s pure gratuitous violence, although I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense, inserted into the structure of the film to wring our spirits of every last drop of comfort. This is not a horror movie that graces only four people or so with its interest. Oh no, this is a horror show that goes out of its way to suggest the gruesome things that cling to the skin of the city like leeches.
Even though the fuzzy, mist-filled look of this scene belongs to the silent era, sound facilitates an even higher degree of fear.
The streetwalker’s mixture of horror and hysterical laughter fills the soundtrack with perversity. Her cries and cackles are jarring because they don’t let us totally sympathize with her. Her shrill yelps and giggles provoke displeasure—they’re not only hard on the ears, they make us feel, well, kind of dirty for even watching this. Unlike the lyrical, gracefully stylized monster attacks in Frankenstein and Dracula, this sequence of human violence slaps us in the face with the luridness of horror, of the thrills and chills that sell the tickets.
Perceiving his window of opportunity, Mirakle steps from his carriage and walks right into the camera, as though it’s the viewer he were creeping up on. His silhouette floods the screen with darkness.
Suddenly, we’re on the other side of him, looking at the prostitute as he advances towards her through the whirling mists.
Like a phantom, Mirakle (right) advances…
The disorienting feeling of “passing through” Mirakle (or of him passing through us) not only amps up the surrealist quality of the scene, but also infuses the sequence with the unstoppable dread of a nightmare. We know that something awful is going to happen, but we’re powerless to stop it.
The iconography of the black cloak, prostitute, and streetlamp all spark associations with the popular image of the serial killer, best represented by Jack the Ripper. Florey and Freund press all the right buttons to taunt us with the imminent destruction of the helpless woman.
“A lady… in distress?” The tight, extreme close-ups that follow increase our unease with their intensity. Lugosi’s ghoulish facial contortions contrast with the wide eyes of the young streetwalker (Arlene Francis, if you can believe it!).
She gets in the carriage. Fade to black.
Okay, so this is where a NORMAL Hollywood film would cut to the woman lying in the morgue and we could infer that Mirakle performed some failed experiment. Years of watching movies prepares you for a nice, refreshing ellipsis here.
No such luck.
Immediately the high-pitched screams of the prostitute startle us as we see the shadow of a woman squirm on a rack. Dr. Mirakle performs his tests on her and adds his yells to hers in a cacophony of cruelty as he tells her to calm down so that she can be “the Bride of Science!”
I’d also note Florey’s subversive use of synchronous sound in this scene. The streetwalker’s sobs and moans, however, infuse the scene with a weird… sexual vibe. After all, this victim didn’t need to be a prostitute. The screenwriter could’ve chosen to invent some innocent girl on her way home, but no, the credits tell us from the first to expect a “Woman of the Streets,” as she’s billed.
This suggestion of a sex crime disguised as an experiment returns when Mirakle capers over to his desk to check the blood sample. As he peers into the microscope, his cry of anticipation—and ultimately of disappointment—mingles with her sighs. There’s definitely a weird crossover here between this woman’s, ahem, profession and the warped excitement that Mirakle derives from her.
Mirakle rises and starts to scold his victim for her “rotten blood!” because she failed to give him what he wanted, until he realizes she’s dead. Then he flips into utter religious despair—something that reveals the deeply mixed-up, addled nature of Mirakle, the fanatical man of science. (Note that his stage, or perhaps real, name, Dr. Mirakle: Doctor plus “miracle” with a “k” already hints at this perverse irrationalism-medicine link.)
The exaggerated shadows and Lugosi’s own melodramatic posture of prayer remind me of mannerist paintings and their bizarre mixture of fervor and distortion.
Now, I don’t like it when directors fall into the ugly trap of naïvely equating a character’s suffering with Christ’s martyrdom. It feels cheap—unless the director can bring an added nuance to the allusion. Which Florey does admirably, with the crucified prostitute here.
A moment ago Dr. Mirakle viewed this woman as human garbage. As soon as she dies, however, she becomes a fragile, holy thing for one fleeting instant. Then he chucks her into the Seine.
Mirakle kicks open a trap door and jettisons the prostitute into the Seine.
I’m not a forensic psychologist, but this behavior, these quicksilver changes from contempt to reverence (or vice-versa) characterize the warped minds of serial killers. Humans turn into throwaway objects without the slightest warning. Lugosi’s performance runs the gamut from passion to anger to remorse to self-pity to anticipation of the next attack … an emotional arc that, from what I’ve read, fuels the violence of many serial offenders.
(And, let’s face it, a prostitute, a fallen woman, would also have been a morally acceptable victim for censors of the 1930s. Because, according to the hidden logic there, they deserve to die more than ordinary good girls like the heroine of the film. So, in a way, the sociopathic reasoning that we witness is also shared by a larger social system of morality which deems some people worthless.)
In other words, I was right to recognize this as a very, very sick scene, one that force-feeds us a glimpse into an aesthetic simulation of real madness and torment, not a glamorized supernatural ballet.
Of all talkie genres, horror stands out, perhaps second only to the musical, as the most likely to call attention to its own construction. Consider the assortment of carnival barkers and mountebanks who populate the Universal Horror cycle. Consider how often some character recites or alludes to some legend or dismisses these legends as fictions. Or, indeed, consider how often the movies used prologues to refer to their own shock value as potentially lethal spectacles. I don’t like calling something so meta! because I think that cutsie, overused term has come to describe any questionable art form that winks at its patrons over how bad it is. I love certain bad movies, but I will still call them bad.
However, horror films of the 1930s cultivated a much darker strain of “meta,” forever hinting to the viewer that their status as attractions reflects back on the sordid tastes of the viewers.
How far do you want to go? For me, that’s the meta-question at the heart of the genre. How horrified do you really want to be? And… how much do you enjoy what you see?
The moment when we’re truly scared, we have to look at ourselves and realize that, gulp, we’ve been enjoying all the awful things up until that point. We’re accomplices in the grisly murders, silently abetting the progress of the monsters in a double bind of pleasure and revulsion.
Well, at 8-years-old, I’d reached my limit with Murders in the Rue Morgue. At 21, I can finally realize why I was so scared. I’m glad I was.
Here’s to the things that make us look away, to the things that make us turn off the television! May we never fully enjoy them. And may we turn to thought and self-reflection to process the trauma that is cinema.