1971 film by Gordon Hessler
Murders in the Rue Morgue is a 1971 American horror film directed by Gordon Hessler, starring Jason Robards, Christine Kaufmann, Herbert Lom, and Lilli Palmer. It is a loose adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s 1841 short story of the same name, although it departs from the story in several significant aspects, at times more resembling Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera. In an interview on the film’s DVD, Hessler said that he felt it necessary to reinvent the plot as he believed the majority of audiences were too familiar with Poe’s story.
In early-20th century Paris, a theatre troupe is specializing in gory, naturalistic horror plays in the fashion of the Grand Guignol, under the direction of Cesar Charron.
The director, Cesar Charron (Jason Robards), is presenting Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”. Cesar’s wife, the actress Madeline (Christine Kaufmann), whose mother (Lilli Palmer) had been murdered by axe, is haunted by nightmares of an axe-wielding man. Then, suddenly, Rene Marot (Herbert Lom), a former lover of Madeline’s mother thought long dead after being horribly disfigured on stage, mysteriously returns and begins murdering members and ex-members of the acting troupe, confounding the Paris police, who initially suspect Cesar.
Gordon Hessler was hired to direct the film. Hessler said that he felt the story was so familiar it needed to be changed, so he and writer Christopher Wicking decided to do it as a play-within-a-play, with a mystery happening around a theatre that was putting on a production of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”. The new storyline borrowed plot elements of The Phantom of the Opera.
Hessler said that Vincent Price “was very upset that he wasn’t in” the film “but I had nothing to with that.” He thought that Price was having contractual fights with American International Pictures (AIP) at the time. Hessler said that AIP hired Jason Robards “because of his name, and he was quite well respected. Most actors like to play a horror part at some point in their life, so he was brought onboard.”
Filming started October 1970. The film was shot in Toledo and Madrid, Spain. Hessler commented that it was easier to film there, as “You couldn’t shoot that in London unless you built sets.”
Hessler said that Robards was “fine to work with” but, two weeks into filming, he told Hessler that he had the wrong part and wanted to be doing the other part. Hessler would have been happy to give him the other role, but by then it was too late. “It’s always the monster who gets the best part in a horror picture, it’s much more juicy”, said Hessler.
“We may have had too much fun”, said Robards after production. “It’s hard to tell.”
Murders in the Rue Morgue was released in the United States in the summer of 1971, premiering in Philadelphia on July 21. Hessler said that James H. Nicholson liked the film when he saw it in Spain. The director says he felt “it was one of the best films I had ever made.” However, the film was drastically edited in the United States. Hessler said that he was “appalled when I originally saw the theatrically released version.” He wrote a five-page letter to Samuel Arkoff complaining about the changes made, but by then the film was already in release.
Among the changes that Hessler disliked were removing a sequence from the end of the film and tinting the flashback scenes. “The whole idea was not to tint them so that you wouldn’t know when you’re more or less in a dream sequence or just being puzzled by it,” said Hessler. “The whole trick in that was instead of it being a flashback, this would be a flash-forward, which people really hadn’t done before at that time. It was a premonition of what was going to happen. When it’s tinted, it’s just so obvious. Audiences picked up on it immediately.” AIP also removed a lot of Lilli Palmer’s scenes. “She was vital to the plot and by cutting her scenes down, it was like she was an extra in the film”, said Hessler.
Robards later called the film “a disaster… but I got a good price and part of the picture.”
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Murders in the Rue Morgue received mixed to negative reviews from critics. Leonard Maltin panned the film, awarding the film 1 1/2 out of 4 stars. Howard Thompson from The New York Times gave the film a positive review, praising the film’s direction, costume design, color, and performances. Thompson did, however, note that the film’s ending, while sound, was fairly predictable.
Donald Guarisco from Allmovie gave the film a negative review, criticizing the film’s substandard pacing, convoluted plot, performances, and lack of actual tension, writing “This riff on the famous Edgar Allen [sic] Poe story has an intriguing, experimental edge to it but is not fully successful at reinventing the Poe subgenre”.
The film was released on DVD as a double feature with Cry of the Banshee on April 15, 2003.
Scream Factory released the film as a double feature on Blu-ray with The Dunwich Horror (1970) in 2016. This edition went out-of-print in May 2020.
- “Murders in the Rue Morgue”. AFI Catalog of Feature Films. Los Angeles, California: American Film Institute. Archived from the original on November 20, 2019.
- “Interview with Gordon Hessler”. DVD Drive In.
- Martin, Betty (August 13, 1970). “Burton to Play Gangster”. Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, California. p. G20.
- Champlin, Charles (January 15, 1971). “Critic at Large: Robards Gets Kicks With Poe”. Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, California. p. I1.
- “New Films”. The Philadelphia Inquirer. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. July 18, 1971. p. 6 – via Newspapers.com.
- Murphy, Mary (May 29, 1972). “Star of ‘Country Girl’: Backstage With Jason Robards”. Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, California. p. G1.
- Thompson, Howard (2011). “Murders in the Rue Morgue”. Movies & TV Dept. The New York Times. Archived from the original on May 20, 2011. Retrieved November 20, 2019.
- Guarisco, Donald. “Murders in the Rue Morgue (1971) – Gordon Hessler”. AllMovie. Retrieved November 20, 2019.
- “Murders in the Rue Morgue (1971) – Gordon Hessler”. Allmovie.com. Allmovie. Retrieved 28 February 2016.
- Alexander, Chris (April 4, 2016). “Blu-ray Review: MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE/THE DUNWICH HORROR”. ComingSoon.net. Archived from the original on August 18, 2016.
- “Murders in the Rue Morgue / The Dunwich Horror”. Shout! Factory. Archived from the original on August 22, 2021.
- Maltin, Leonard (2012). Leonard Maltin’s 2013 Movie Guide. New York, New York: Penguin Press. ISBN 978-0-451-23774-3.
- Weaver, Tom (2000). Return of the B Science Fiction and Horror Heroes: The Mutant Melding of Two Volumes of Classic Interviews. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland. ISBN 978-0-7864-0755-2.