February 29, 2012

Mr Movie Fiend: Macabre Monkey Business

Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)

Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue, ” published in 1841, is considered by many scholars to be the world’s first detective story. Although I haven’t researched it extensively, it’s probably safe to say that “Murders” is also the first instance of a great ape — in this case, an orangutan — being the culprit in a “locked room” murder mystery. Why an orangutan? It’s elementary my dear reader– gorillas weren’t discovered and described by western science until 1847. Of course, once the noble yet fearsome gorilla penetrated western consciousness, there was no stopping its appropriation and exploitation by popular culture. Here was a supposed real-life monster tailor-made to scare children and adults in countless stories and films. Only relatively recently has society at large recognized the gorilla’s high intelligence, its sophisticated social life, and kinship with humankind. It’s hard to look at the world famous Koko cradling a kitten and ever again think of gorillas as lurid monsters.

But there’s no doubt that for many, many years the gorilla’s public image was one of a dangerous, ravening monster. (While I love vintage movies and always get a kick out of seeing men in furry suits trying their best to look like apes, I have to acknowledge the possibility that these very images, by both trivializing gorillas and making them into monsters, may have in some small way contributed to a culture that has nearly driven this great species into extinction.) Universal’s adaptation of Poe’s infamous story certainly exploits the image of the murderous ape, but it (and the original story) is also tempered with pathos and sympathy for the beast. In Poe’s story, the orangutan unwittingly kills by imitating the behavior of his master. In Universal’s version, the ape is cruelly manipulated by a human who is the real monster, and eventually turns on him, refusing to help carry out his evil designs. In contrast, many contemporary movie monsters are relentless, remorseless and unfathomable– crude plot devices to get the bloodletting and gross-out effects going.

Universal’s translation of Poe’s tale into film (some might say exploitation) can be a real eye-opener for those who think adult themes, suggestiveness and even outright depravity didn’t make it into popular movies until sometime in the 1960s. The studio took Poe’s tale of “ratiocination,” dropped most of the ratiocinating, and turned it into an hallucinatory, expressionistic horror thriller complete with a wild-eyed, unkempt mad scientist (Dr. Mirakle played by Bela Lugosi).

See the full post at Mr Movie Fiend.

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