Blu-ray Review: MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE/THE DUNWICH HORROR

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SHOCK reviews yet another AIP double feature Blu-ray from Scream Factory.

I’m confused, on occasion, as to the criteria that dictates which titles merit stand-alone Scream Factory discs and which ones are subject to getting stacked on these sorts of double feature releases. Take this pair of otherwise unrelated AIP potboilers, one a Poe-flavored would-be Grand Guignol thriller, the other a psychedelic, rather erotic for its time, Lovecraft head trip. Each one of them has historical value and could have easily thrived on solo Blu-ray missions. And yet, here they are…

That minor quibble/conundrum aside, it’s just good to have both Gordon Hessler’s underrated MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE and Daniel Haller’s fun and trippy THE DUNWICH HORROR here, presented in such a pretty, high-def fashion.

RUE MORGUE is the last of the Hessler films made for AIP with writer Christopher Wicking and it’s right up there with the berserk SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN as far as its ambitions to make sense of about a dozen spiraling narrative threads are concerned. In it, Jason Robards (who some have cited as being miscast), plays the director of a 20th century Paris playhouse that specializes in violent melodrama. When a spate of bloody murders rips through the theater, the work of a masked madman (Herbert Lom, who is sorta sporting his Hammer-era PHANTOM OF THE OPERA false face), Robards and his daughter are forced to confront a whopper of a family secret.

The film got cut by 10 minutes by AIP (who did that to Hessler a few times, it seems) and was critically panned, the full director’s cut resurfacing on MGM DVD a few years ago. The full cut is really rather good, a brightly lit, odd and unpretentious Gothic romp that, after a slow first half, gets really violent and unpredictable in its final act. The killer ape from the Poe tale makes an ingenious appearance at the header and during the goofy/awesome climax, but this film otherwise makes Richard Matheson’s Poe adaptations look faithful by comparison. The cast is game, with Robards (perhaps instructed to “ape” former AIP superstar Vincent Price) a solid lead and Lom as intense as always; diminutive actor Michael Dunn steals the show, however,  in a sinister yet sympathetic role.

THE DUNWICH HORROR marks art director turned director Haller’s second attempt at adapting H.P.Lovecraft after 1965’s Boris Karloff-starring DIE, MONSTER, DIE!, a somewhat faithful stab at HPL’s “The Colour Out of Space”. As with that picture, Haller employs a colorful and weird visual palette here to jazz up the proceedings, delving deep into hallucinatory visuals. The film sees Dean Stockwell, 16 years shy of BLUE VELVET and 22 years ahead of THE BOY WITH THE GREEN HAIR, playing junior Necromancer Wilbur Whateley, a leering, sinister youth who has but two interests: the Necronomicon and virginal grad student Nancy, played by the once wholesome Sandra Dee. Wilbur romances Nancy, while embroiling her in his schemes to follow in the Whateley family tradition of dragging one of those trusty elder gods out from the beyond and into our world.

Stockwell is great in this slow moving but always amusing, gently perverted tale and his pie-eyed presence is aided immeasurably by Haller’s visual flare. Remember, it was Haller who, wearing his art director hat, helped make many of those early Roger Corman/AIP Poe films so gorgeous to behold; he was an artist who could make a dime look like a dollar and he works the same voodoo here to grand effect. And, as with many of these AIP gems, the entire affair is brought screaming to life by the great Lex Baxter’s thundering, horn heavy score.

Both films arrive light on the extras, with RUE MORGUE coming armed with a vintage featurette ported over from the previous DVD and both titles sporting new commentaries by film historian Steve Haberman. I like Haberman’s commentaries well enough as they come loaded with insight and info. Only problem I have is that he reads off prepared notes, leaving little room for spontaneity or impromptu enthusiasm. But it’s a matter of taste and there’s really little room for complaining: the man knows his stuff.

Together or alone, both films are fun, handsomely produced, literate-minded genre films from one of the greatest studios in horror history. Dig in.

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Weekend: Sep. 26, 2019, Sep. 29, 2019

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