Friday, July 11, 2014


PHENOMENALITY: (1) *uncanny,* (2) *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *poor*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*

In 1932's MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, the mad Doctor Mirakle (Bela Lugosi) wants to prove that apes were a "rough draft" (my words) for human beings. I had a parallel feeling with regard to this movie, which is very probably director Robert Florey's most well-known film these days. I don't think MORGUE is successful at trying to be a good film, but it's a rough draft of how one might make a excellent film out of the unpromising Edgar Allan Poe story.

When I say that the material is "unpromising," I'm not saying that the Poe story-- a classic in both the genres of mystery/detective fiction and the "uncanny horror" story-- is bad. But despite its sensational elements it's a very talky story, and not particularly cinematic-- hence "unpromising" as a source of adaptations. Most film adaptations of the Poe tale have, like Florey's, been forced to change Poe's story substantially in order to play to the requirements of the cinematic medium. One close adaptation proves my case by a negative example: the 1986 TV-movie adaptation of MORGUE sticks pretty close to the original, and it's a generally dull affair.

Florey may have also had some influence on the refitting of the original simply because of his circumstances. Initially selected to work on Universal's adaptation of FRANKENSTEIN, Florey was bumped from that project by studio politics. Thus it's probably not a coincidence that Poe's story-- which featured a super-smart detective ferreting out the crimes committed by an unthinking animal owned by a none-too-bright seaman-- changes into a story about a super-mad scientist who controls a unthinking animal, and whose iniquities are exposed by a slightly-smart medical student / amateur detective.  The parallels between Doctor Frankenstein, Doctor Mirakle and their respective monsters could hardly be clearer-- and for good measure, just as Doctor Frankenstein also had a freakish assistant, Mirakle has "Janos, the Black One," played by black actor Noble Johnson. He is, for reasons unclear to me, costumed whiteface, which would seem to defeat the idea behind his nickname.

In the Poe story Dupin must use his phenomenal wits to solve a locked-room mystery involving a murder of extreme sadism with a possible sexual element. The detective then proves that neither sex nor sadism was the intent of the guilty party.  At the same time, Dupin also solves a corollary mystery involving a Babel-like confusion of languages, in that every witness who has overheard the barbarous noises of the crime's perpetrator claims that said perpetrator spoke a foreign language, though no witness agrees on what language it was.

In MORGUE, Florey does manage to work in Poe's solution to the language-mystery. But because the story is no longer primarily about the locked-room mystery and its scene of maybe-sexual sadism, Pierre Dupin's big deductive breakthrough doesn't deliver the goods that it does in the short story. That's because all the real sex and violence has been orchestrated around the figure of the Superman Scientist, not the Superman Sleuth.  Though in my view both Doctor Frankenstein and his monster share center-stage in Whale's FRANKENSTEIN, Erik the Ape is a secondary presence next to Bela Lugosi's quintessential mad scientist Mirakle. Lugosi would play many mad scientists in his career-- far more than he played vampires-- but Mirakle is the best. His makeup and clothing suggest a weird Expressionist combination between a roadshow preacher and a carnival mountebank, and Florey's staging of many scenes in MORGUE suggests that he was familiar with the cinematic strategies of German Expressionism.

The "priest" analogy seems apt for Mirakle; even putting aside his name, he claims to have "consecrated" his life to his project-- ostensibly one devoted to science-- in fulsome religious terms, speaking of the "dawn of man" and "the slime of life."  He horrifies his audience of 19th-century Parisians by advocating a kinship between man and ape, one that can supposedly be prove by joining together the blood of the two. This inverts Poe's strategy, for Poe suggests what sounds like sadistic sex can be explained rationally. Mirakle tries to justify his kinky "blood-joining" project by appeals to some Darwin-inspired scientific truth. But when he rants to his female captive-- spreadeagled in a rough crucifixion posture, no less-- and tells her that she will be "the bride of science," Freudian displacement surely lurks around the corner. One wonders why it should matter to him that his captive's blood is "rotten" and "black as [her] sins." Why wouldn't the blood of (say) a female syphilitic be just as kin to her anthropoid ancestors as the blood of a nice, clean woman whose lover claims she has "stardust" in her hair? Unless the real "groom of science" is not Erik but Mirakle, who is just as "lonely" as the scientist claims Erik is when he purports to translate the ape's language.  If the rest of the film had been as psychologically resonant as this sequence, MORGUE would be on a par with the best of the Universal classics.

MAN MADE MONSTER is in many ways the opposite number to MORGUE.  It is a far less arty and individual work than MORGUE, and the film's focus is not on the mad scientist, but on his creation, the monster who starts out as cheery but dense Dan McCormick. It's not that "Dynamo Dan," as he is known in his carnival act, is very "dynamic" a character. He is narrowly defined as a gosh-gee-willikers fellow who likes dogs and has a mild crush on a woman but never makes a move on her. Famed scientist Dr, Lawrence-- father of June, the aforementioned crush-- becomes interested in Dan's ability to resist electrical shocks and hires him to be a test subject in his laboratory. But where Lawrence is interested only in scientific knowledge, his partner/Jungian shadow Dr. Rigas wants to use Dan as a model for an army of will-less electrical zombies.

Rigas is about as far as one can get from a obsessed ideologue like Mirakle: he's in the science game for sheer power. When he tells the shocked Lawrence that zombie-Dan is the harbinger of "the worker of the future," he sounds like equal parts evil capitalist and evil Communist.  Rigas' relationship with Lawrence is comparable to that of Rotwang and Fredersen in METROPOLIS, another film about controlling the working class through technology, albeit in a very different way.

Still. MAN MADE MONSTER is primarily about creating a new monster, loosely in the Frankenstein tradition. Unfortunately, despite a strong performance by Looming Lon Chaney, the basic idea of a monster who kills by electrifying his victims never, er, sparks into life. I for one found the night-light glow that sometimes appears around Dan's head and/or hands to be absurd rather than sinister. Sadly in 1941, FX were not capable of exploiting the visual impact of a man charged with electricity.

Unlike Frankenstein's unkillable creation, the "man made monster" is more vulnerable; he's doomed to die when his energy runs out. Still, the script doesn't exploit this aspect, because Dan is just a big easygoing schmuck, he's not able to grapple with the existential unfairness of his situation, not even when he's falsely accused-- by Rigas-- of having willfully murdered Lawrence, when in fact Rigas commanded the electric zombie to commit the crime. As if to illustrate that Dan is free from psychological complexity, during his trial the prosecution brings in a Freudian quack who tries to prove that Dan intentionally killed Lawrence to get even with some father-substitute who beat Dan as a child. Actually, in some places this wouldn't necessarily be all that swift a strategy for the prosecution if they wanted a death sentence, as it might have got Dan off with a plea of insanity. Nevertheless the wheels of justice turn quickly and conveniently, so that Dan goes to the electric chair-- which actually gives him a new lease on life, enabling him to save the girl of his dreams and avenge himself on Rigas before he Dan meets the usual monster's fate.

I said that Rigas might be considered the "Jungian shadow" to Lawrence. Of course, Lawrence is an even more one-dimensional character than Dan, but there's one irony about their relationship: that Lawrence, as much as Rigas, brings about Dan's doom. The saintly scientist bursts in upon the laboratory he shares with the selfish scientist, and discovers to his horror that Rigas has created an electrical slave. Lawrence tells Rigas that he considers this transformation to be an act of murder-- even though zombie-Dan technically is still alive-- and Lawrence announces his intention to call the police, whereon Rigas orders Dan to kill Lawrence. One can understand Lawrence's shocked reaction. Yet the whole scenario would have played out very differently had the character been more concerned with preserving Dan's life rather than with expressing moral outrage. The good doctor could well have faked out the bad doctor and called the police on the sly, so that Lawrence might have lived, Rigas might have been carted away without violence, and Dan might have been been cured. But then, it would have been a very anti-climactic monster movie.

No comments:

Post a Comment