Edgar Allan Poe's seminal 1841 detective story "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" is a locked room mystery in which hobbyist detective C. August Dupin realises that an enraged orangutan jumped into an open window and, in a frenzy, slaughtered the women it found there. The first sound feature to adapt a Poe work, 1932's Murders in the Rue Morgue, is a horror film in which a mad doctor hiding in a carnival sideshow tries to mate a gorilla with a human woman in order to prove his theories about human evolution from a simian ancestor. But that gorilla does stuff a dead woman into a chimney, and there's a scene where men of several nations argue about the language they though they heard from the scene of the crime, so it's probably not fair to accuse this of being the single least faithful literary adaptation in cinema history, as badly as I want to go there. And it's probably not the most outlandishly weird, either, though by the standards of what was just starting to assert itself as "the horror film" in '32, Murders in the Rue Morgue is so far beyond the realm of propriety that they don't have numbers big enough to describe it. One gets accustomed to the sick-minded flair of pre-Code Hollywood, but even then, this film's cheery nods to bestiality are pretty stunning.

Anyway, I've skipped ahead. To begin with, the film shows us around a traveling carnival that's presently set up in Paris, in the 1840s. The attendees with whom we're gawking at all the extravagance and exoticism are Camille L'Espanaye (Sidney Fox), her medical student fiancé Pierre Dupin (Leon Ames, during the "Leon Waycoff" phase of his career), Pierre's roommate Paul (Bert Roach), and the entirely disposable Mignette (Edna Marion, who didn't even swing an onscreen credit). After leering at this sex show and that, the end up in the tent of Dr. Mirakle (Bela Lugosi) - that's mi-RAHK-el, though most of the low-budget Yanks in the cast end up rhyming it with "crackle" - the aforementioned evolution fancier, before Darwin even published his groundbreaking works. Mirakle's pride and joy is Erik (Charles Gemora, a veteran gorilla suit expert just breaking into the world of makeup design), an intelligent ape, or so he claims, whose speech he has allegedly learned. And he proves this by translating Erik's generic ape grunting into florid tone poems about life in Africa, delivered with a haunting gusto that only Lugosi could possibly muster. To end his demonstration, he invites Camille and company to study Erik closer, at which point the gorilla starts reacting in an obviously excited fashion, grabbing her hat and freaking everybody out.

Some utterly inscrutable transitions bring us to a knife fight between two men, who apparently stab each other to death for the right to court a woman (Arlene Francis) who is probably a prostitute, though it's also possible she's just a sweetie pie who got mixed up trying to be nice to two jealous boys. Regardless, Mirakle comes along and uses his beaming Lugosi face to bring her back to his lab, where we discover exactly what he's up to: injecting women with blood from his gorilla. Apparently, only a certain kind of woman can withstand his treatment properly - virgins? blondes? the wealthy? - because the crypto-prostitute dies, with Mirakle sorrowfully asking his lackey Janos (Noble Johnson) to dispose of her body in the river. And that's what brings Dupin back into the loop: he's an amateur detective in his off hours - or, in fact, in the hours when he's meant to be studying medicine - and he's eager to take a look at the latest in a line of slayings of women. Using both his deductive and his biological knowledge, he determines that all of the women have ape blood in their bodies; this immediately puts him on Mirakle's trail, but he's not fast enough to stop the doctor from advancing on Camille, trapping her and her mother (Betty Ross Clarke) in their apartment from Erik. And for almost, like, six solid minutes, Murders in the Rue Morgue resembles its source material in any meaningful way, though it quickly returns to the comforting surrealism of a finale that cribs in equal measure from The Hunchback of Notre Dame and the chase scene The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

It's not a good movie, at all, but it is mesmerising in its not-goodness. To be fair, a big part of the problem has to do with its rough production history. The film came about in part because Robert Florey, a French expat who'd been floating around Universal for a while without being given anything interesting to do, had been suddenly and unfairly plucked from Frankenstein, a project he'd been developing quite happily before Carl Laemmle, Jr. booted him in favor of James Whale. Around the same time, Lugosi, fresh from his star-making turn in Dracula, demanded to be let go from Frankenstein upon learning he was to play the mute monster, not the scientist. Murders in the Rue Morgue was extended as an olive branch to the two bruised egos, but Laemmle didn't care much for the movie that Florey was making, and he sliced it down from 80 to 61 minutes to speed up the action and also possibly to cushion the blow from the censors towards a movie whose third act focuses on a gorilla that wants to fuck a human woman. This was done with little artistry, and the result is a chaotic, unclear first act, with that patently awful "who's the woman? A hooker? Also, Knife Fight Madness!" sequence. And while he was slicing, Laemmle demanded the addition of more and better ape footage, leading to the mystifying collision of the patently fake gorilla suit inhabited by Gemora without the smallest attempt to copy a gorilla's body language, with footage of a chimpanzee in close-up.

But let us not lay all the blame at the producer's feet. Murders in the Rue Morgue suffers from outlandishly bad dialogue describing hilariously weird scenarios, and a magnificently unpersuasive cast to carry it all off. Lugosi, at his very best, was more a figure of great uncanny presence than any kind of halfway decent actor, at least in English, and the hair & make-up department seemed hellbent on doing everything possible to undercut that presence, fitting him with an enormous, puffy hairdo and a unibrow that moves - or rather, doesn't move - completely independently of the rest of his face. And yet, despite looking completely ridiculous, he still acts rings around the other leads, with Fox so strident and fruity that I honestly couldn't stand to think of her as the actual lead, and assumed when the far more nuanced, elegant, thoughtful Arlene Francis showed up that we had just encountered our real star. Ames, for his part, offers a totally generic romantic hero performance, while looking disorientingly similar to John Barrymore.

It's silly and frivolous and absolutely deserves to be laughed right off the screen, but for one tremendous achievement: it is one of the best-looking horror films of the '30s, full stop. It was shot by Karl Freund, who I'm increasingly sure could save anything: if the rumors are true, he's the only reason Dracula exists as a functional object, and between The Mummy and Mad Love, he directed two of the most excitingly atmospheric films in the first wave of Universal horror. And good God, but does he ever bring the most flamboyant Expressionist zeal to Murders in the Rue Morgue, using sharp delineations of light to hammer home moments of terror and the uncanny, and he and Florey combined for some really amazing camera placements that present a sense of depth and shape to the rather generic Parisian settings that blazes miles past anything in the stagey Dracula. The film's greatest scene, indeed, is as good as anything else in '30s horror: the sequence in which Mirakle torments that poor unidentified woman in his lab, a fever-dream collage of religious imagery of crucifixion, supplication, and praying, and some of the most overt BDSM-tinged imagery that you get to have in a '30s movie, and an epic tracking camera movement that sweeps us through the chamber of horrors with a level of physicality and depth that damn near manages to mimic 3-D. And Freund lights it with the hardest delineations of light and dark in the entire film, emphasising our sense of this place as something deeply unreal, nightmarish, impossible.

The scene is so good that it very nearly manages, entirely on its own, to justify the film's latter day recovery as a Universal classic. I frankly don't think that the whole thing earns that; even if it's cinematically more accomplished than Dracula (whose classic status I also find rather urgently debatable), it's the fucking dumbest thing, often hilariously so. Whether as camp or as legitimately great horror, though, the film is awfully fun to watch, with Lugosi especially giving a performance almost as committed and unhinged as his turn in White Zombie in the same year. That plus the way that the film's bestial overtones still have the frankness and violence to trigger a certain revolted sense of, "wait, no, that's not okay", and the film manages to be compulsively watchable for all the reasons, right and wrong.

Body Count: 5, unless it's 7, because I have absolutely no effing idea what happens in that knife fight. Also a fake gorilla.