Home Video Hovel: Murders in the Rue Morgue/The Dunwich Horror, by David Bax
Scream Factory’s double feature Blu-ray releases have led to some great natural pairings (like The Curse and Curse II) as well as some conceptual ones (like the 1980s supernatural samurai package The House Where Evil Dwells and Ghost Warrior) that work better together than they would apart. Their new release of Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Dunwich Horror, though, comes across as a bit of a stretch. Both films are early 1970s adaptations of classic horror authors (Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, respectively) but beyond that they differ greatly, not just in tone but in quality as well.
Gordon Hessler’s Murders in the Rue Morgue is a slyly clever, proto-slasher update of old school Victorian horror. In turn of the twentieth century Paris, a troupe of actors take the old “the show must go on” ethos to its extreme, continuing to perform a stage adaptation of the Poe story despite the fact that current and former members of their ensemble keep getting murdered, their faces burned with acid. The film is full of such grisly occurrences but Hessler mostly keeps the gore offscreen, framing instead with an eye toward tension and creeping menace. In many ways, the story is as much whodunit as horror and Hessler fills the movie with visual clues and foreshadows that pay off satisfactorily, like the sheet metal used for offstage thunder sounds that plays a part in the finale. He also has fun goosing us with teases, like the smelling salts used to revive an unconscious character which happen to be contained in the same sort of bottle the killer uses for his acid attacks. There are some creepy stylistic indulgences, as well, like the slow motion nightmare sequences but, mostly, Murders in the Rue Morgue is a straightforward and more than competent shocker/caper.
Daniel Haller’s The Dunwich Horror, on the other hand, is as inert as Murders in the Rue Morgue is lively. The highlights come at the beginning—an ominous, animated opening title sequence—and at the end—some very cool matte paintings—but the bulk of the movie is lifeless and dry. Despite a good cast—Dean Stockwell is the quietly sinister young man who wants to open the portal to Hell; Sandra Dee is the virgin whose sacrifice he requires—The Dunwich Horror finds little for its characters to do other than deliver exposition. Poor Ed Begley, as the movie’s Ahab, is saddled with the worst of it. Though at the very least, in a movie this hokey, the exposition does deliver a few laughs. But ultimately, in a movie where even the sex is boring, the monsters don’t stand a chance.
A “double feature” is exactly the right title for this collection. The good one comes first and there’s no need to stay for the second half.
The other reason The Dunwich Horror deserves second billing is that the source elements were clearly not in nearly as good a condition as Murders in the Rue Morgue. While both preserve a nice graininess, the colors and clarity of Murders are fare superior.
Both films include above average commentaries by Steve Haberman and Murders in the Rue Morgue also contains a featurette wherein Hessler discusses the making of the film.