The latest double feature from Shout Factory’s terrific Scream Factory arm boasts, “Terrifying Tales From Literary Legends”, delivering two early 1970s horror films freely adapting Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. More importantly, the two films here are gems from the American International Pictures (AIP) library, and it’s very exciting that Scream has saw fit to do new HD transfers on both, as they are fittingly paired together on Blu-ray.
In turn-of-the-century Paris, an acting troupe perform Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue" as a spectacular Grand Guignol-style stage play. The troupe is led by theater-owner Cesar Charron (Jason Robards, THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE) who is married to the much younger lead actress Madeleine (a re-voiced Christine Kaufmann, RINGS OF FEAR). Madeleine keeps having strange, surreal dreams about a masked man swinging an ax and other macabre apparitions. In the meantime, members of the acting troupe are being nastily offed by the masked Rene Marot (Herbert Lom, MARK OF THE DEVIL), Cesar’s former partner who they think has been dead and buried for years. Marot is also believed to have murdered Madeleine’s mother (Lilli Palmer, THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED) — even though the two were madly in love — then committing suicide. But he's alive and well and seeking revenge by pouring acid on anyone connected with his scarred appearance. Marot convinces Madeleine to meet him at the secluded mansion where the original crimes took place, as he professes his love for her due to the strong resemblance to her mother. Charron has followed Madeleine to the place, and ends up killing Marot (his wife being sort of an accomplice), tossing his body into a crypt. But once again, Marot has faked his own death as he dresses in the ape suit to enact revenge during another performance of “Murders in the Rue Morgue”; the most turbulent one yet!
AIP had been associated with adapting Poe for over a decade by the time they decided to tackle “Murders in the Rue Morgue”. There had already been three screen versions by this point: a 1914 silent version, the 1932 Universal version with Bela Lugosi, and the 1954 Warner Brothers 3-D-shot PHANTOM OF THE RUE MORGUE with Karl Malden. This is precisely why director Gordon Hessler and screenwriter Christopher Wicking (re-writing the original script by American TV scribe Henry Slesar) decided to approach it at a different angle, since everyone already knew the story. This was the fourth and last collaboration between Hessler and Wicking for AIP, as the screenplay takes Poe's basic premise (as a play-within-a-play) and injects some interesting ideas, while Hessler's direction is filled with atmosphere and makes outstanding use of dream sequences which make more sense in this longer cut of the film, something of a gothic masterpiece which might be Hessler’s best film. The basic revenge plot follows the “Beauty and the Beast” motif of Poe’s original story, but the fragmented narrative is ingeniously complex in its flashbacks, flash-forwards and other plot twists brought to the table. As with THE OBLONG BOX, Hessler and Wicking nicely play on Poe’s “buried alive” obsession by having Marot fake his own death, only to rise from his dirt-covered coffin, enraged and quite mad.
It’s scenes like that which give Lom the opportunity for more showiness, playing a very well-developed supernatural persona; a man turned to sadistic, monstrous villainy when double crossed and his love-life destroyed. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Lom’s “Phantom of the Opera” character, a role he famously essayed for Hammer Films in 1962. Although Robards was an excellent actor, he seems out of place and uninterested here (one can only imagine what Vincent Price would have done with the part). On the other hand, his performance as part of a stellar ensemble cast doesn’t hurt the movie any, and Price couldn’t be in every AIP production related to Poe, so things worked out rather fine. There's some notable appearances by ex-Bond villain Adolfo Celi (YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE) as a police inspector, Peter Arne (marvelous in Hessler’s THE OBLONG BOX) as his ill-fated assistant (his demise is on a merry-go-round), dwarf actor Michael Dunn (FRANKENSTEIN’S CASTLE OF FREAKS) as Marot's creepy and ghost-like sidekick (who is detrimental to the ambiguous final shot), Marshall Jones (SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN) as the burly carnival barker who taught Marat how to cheat death, and Spanish horror film regular Maria Perschy (HORROR OF THE ZOMBIES) as a bordello hottie and former lover of Cesar. Most of these characters play more significantly in this longer director's cut, and look carefully to spot a very young Brooke Adams (as a nurse) in a scene that was originally deleted altogether, as well as another Spanish horror regular, Victor Israel (HORROR EXPRESS) as a cowardly coach driver, dubbed by another actor.
When MGM first released MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE on DVD in 2003, it was the never before released to video director's cut (the out of print Vestron tape was of the theatrical cut), thought lost for many years, and this Blu-ray thankfully maintains the same longer cut. This version restores about 11 minutes of footage and puts scenes back in their proper places (and also removes the unnecessary tinting of the nightmare sequences), since AIP tampered with it when first released and cut it down to 87 minutes and placed it on a double bill with RETURN OF COUNT YORGA (also available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory). I had the pleasure of interviewing Hessler (who passed away in 2014) and he reflected on AIP’s theatrical release version: “I was appalled when I originally saw the theatrically released version. I wrote a five-page letter to Arkoff. I knew it was his picture and he could do what he wanted with it, but I asked him to do certain things so it would at least make more sense. But by that time, it was already out and released. I remember the flashbacks were originally never tinted, but AIP tinted them for the theatrical release. 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. 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.”
The longer director’s cut not only brings much more to main characters like Lom’s Marot, but also Lilli Palmer as Madeleine’s mother, as her part was cut down to nothing in the theatrical version. Here, there’s a powerful scene where, weeping, she reinforces her love and devotion to Marot, his face bandaged to cover the acid scars, as the bitter, destroyed man has obviously given up on life and love (the hauntingly romantic music by Waldo de los Ríos is terrific throughout, but especially potent in this scene). Hessler also discussed Palmer’s role in MURDERS: “Lilli Palmer had a big part. She was vital to the plot and by cutting her scenes down, it was like she was an extra in the film. I don't know what she must have thought when she saw it, she must have been astounded. She's a fantastic actress when you think about all the films she's done.”
MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE was the last time AIP did anything associated with Poe, and unlike most of their gothics of the period which were shot in England, the film was lensed in Toledo, Spain (suitably substituting for France), resulting in a lavish spectacle for the company. When asked why the film was shot in Spain, Hessler replied, “Well, Spain was a very cheap place to film. Hollywood made a great deal of their large pictures in Spain, where you could get the crowds cheaply and horses, etc. All the David Lean pictures for Columbia were being made in Spain. You would bring in a skeleton crew — either from Hollywood or London — and the rest was a very elaborate, well-trained Spanish crew, and they would give you anything you wanted. We shot that in Toledo, and the streets there are so similar to Paris. You couldn't shoot that in London unless you built sets. We just shut down Toledo, and shot in the streets and in this theater — it was a very French-looking theater. So that's why I chose that.”
MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE was previously available on DVD as part of MGM’s “Midnite Movies” line on a double bill with CRY OF THE BANSHEE (thankfully now also available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory as part of THE VINCENT PRICE COLLECTION VOLUME 3). As stated, this is the much preferred restored director’s cut (98 minutes) and uses a brand new HD transfer, presented in 1080p in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. This is a remarkable transfer, as the picture is brimming with sharp detail and nice colors which really pop out in every scene. The production values really come out with the numerous crowd shots and lavish set dressings which exhibit every color of the spectrum to full effect, making Manuel Berenguer’s skillful cinematography truly stand out. Image detail and textures are exceptional throughout, and the natural film grain is well-maintained. The English audio is presented in DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio, offering clear dialogue and a strong-sounding score. Optional English subtitles are included.
Steve Haberman is on hand for an audio commentary as he excellently details “Hessler’s efforts to blend fantasy and reality, dream and waking, in a sort of endless nightmare of uncertainty”. As Haberman also did the commentaries for the Blu-rays of THE OBLONG BOX and CRY OF THE BANSHEE, it’s refreshing that he, like this reviewer, is such a champion of the Hessler/Wicking collaborations, describing the films as exciting and quite different compared to earlier AIP gothic fare, and recognizes that the dream sequences are visually the best parts of the films. Haberman not only discusses the cast and behind-the-scenes talent, but adeptly covers the film’s production, its troubled post production and the things that AIP heads Sam Arkoff and James Nicholson didn’t like about it, including the changed ending which is thankfully restored in this director’s cut. Carried over from the 2003 DVD is the featurette "Stage Tricks & Screen Frights" (11:39) where Hessler talks about the film, questions why Vincent Price didn't do it, reveals that Robards felt he chose the wrong part (he could have had the Lom role) and discusses the problems he had with AIP when they wanted to (and did) re-edit it entirely. The piece is nicely edited, containing some rare behind-the-scenes shots, and Hessler gives an informative, well-spirited chat. The original AIP trailer is also included.
During the 1960s and early 1970s, H.P. Lovecraft's works were never as popular as those of Edgar Allan Poe's, at least in terms of big screen adaptations. But like with Poe, AIP was more than happy to exploit any writings in the public domain, so Lovecraft's stories were loosely adapted. Former AIP set designer Daniel Haller got to direct his first feature in 1965 with DIE MONSTER DIE!, a somewhat clumsy but fun rendering of Lovecraft's "The Colour out of Space," produced in England and starring Boris Karloff. Five years later, Haller tackled another Lovecraft story, "The Dunwich Horror," and the results were far more imaginative and interesting.
Fashionable at the time in AIP youth flicks like PSYCH OUT, Dean Stockwell (WEREWOLF OF WASHINGTON) is perfectly cast as Wilbur Whateley, the sinister town creep who stems from a family of accused “old one”-worshipers with his mother Lavinia (Joanna Moore Jordan, I DISMEMBER MAMA) thrown into an asylum after his birth. He visits Miskatonic University in the hopes of acquiring an ancient occult book, The Necronomicon, but lecturer Dr. Henry Armitage (Ed Begley, BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN) informs him that the book is not to leave the campus library. Wilbur attracts the attention of one of Armitage's students, Nancy (Sandra Dee, GIDGET), and she gives him a ride back to his family farmhouse in the town of Dunwich. By vandalizing her car engine and drugging her tea, Wilbur secures the naive girl for a weekend stay, and has big plans in store for her. After stealing The Necronomicon, Wilbur intends to make Nancy the pawn in a blasphemous mating ritual atop Sentinel Hill.
Executive-produced by Roger Corman with young future director Curtis Hanson (L.A. CONFIDENTIAL) as the writer of the original draft, THE DUNWICH HORROR strays from the distinctive style of Corman's Poe cycle (unlike DIE MONSTER DIE!), and totally goes off on a tangent of psychedelic camera effects and modern gothic decor, complete with an eerie abode that even Lovecraft himself would be proud to live in. The idea of an otherworld "thing in the closet" twin brother (mainly revealed through multicolored POV shots) is especially effective. The diverse Stockwell (in a role reportedly intended for Peter Fonda) is suitably cast, and Dee is not bad at all. She's so sticky sweet that it's a pleasure to watch the conniving Wilbur take advantage of her. There's a lot of familiar vets on hand, including Begley as the knowledgeable lecturer, Sam Jaffe (THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL) as Stockwell's lunatic grandpa, Lloyd Bochner (in unconvincing old age make-up) as the concerned long-time town physician, as well as a very young Talia Shire as a nurse. Corman regulars Beach Dickerson (ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS) and Barboura Morris (A BUCKET OF BLOOD) are a God-fearing couple who receive a stormy visit from Wilbur's inhuman brother. Jason Wingreen (later a regular on “All in the Family” and “Archie Bunker’s Place”) plays the sheriff. AIP house composer Les Baxter gives us the surreal score (his later scores for the company were often more distinct and eerie than his earlier ones) and Sandy Dvore did the terrific animated opening titles (he did the same honors for the “Blacula” films and a handful of other AIP productions of the period).
Previously released on DVD from MGM as part of the defunct “Midnite Movies” line, THE DUNWICH HORROR arrives on Blu-ray, again in a longer, R-rated cut of the film giving us a few more peeks of female nudity. This is especially evident during Dee's wild dream sequence, as well as when Stockwell feels up her double on the altar (the most notorious additional scene is the expanded sexual assault on Donna Baccala by "the thing in the closet," as it rips her clothes off in a fit of psychedelic-lensed rage). Scream Factory’s new HD transfer, 1080p and in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, looks absolutely splendid. Print blemishes almost non-existent, detail is extremely strong throughout, and colors are distinct, bright and perfectly saturated. There’s strong, well-maintained grain structure and deep black levels. The English audio is provided in a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track that is robust, with the Baxter score effectively presented, and the dialogue is clean and clear. Optional English subtitles are included.
Haberman is also on hand for an audio commentary for DUNWICH, and it’s nice to hear that he’s fond of the film, making such statements as, “Underrated but really quite effective take on Lovecraft’s most-read tale” and “Haller’s visualization of the action, especially that of the invisible twin brother, is a cinematic tour-de-force”. Haberman covers everything, from the cast and creative people behind it, and he gives a nice history of AIP’s association with Lovecraft after Corman got tired of the Poe films; with DUNWICH he wanted to achieve a more modern atmosphere of Roman Polanski’s recent hit ROSEMARY’S BABY. Haberman discusses the original short story (and some of the differences between it and the movie), he glosses over all the other important cinematic Lovecraft adaptations, and shares the long list of famous actors considered for Wilbur (before it was announced that Peter Fonda was cast and then dropped out) as well as all the "A" list actresses considered before Sandra Dee was chosen (AIP wanted her for her marquee name and she was seeking “adult stardom”). The original AIP trailer is also included. (George R. Reis)
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