In this cellar, an ape wrestles with the bars of its cage as he sees his master (Jason Robards Jr) threaten a young woman (Christine Kaufmann) he has trapped there. But somehow the ape gets free and grabs her, only for the police to burst in and shoot it... All very dramatic, and the audience are most impressed, for yes, this is not real life but a stage play at Paris's famed Grand Guignol theatre, where gory entertainments and thrills were the order of the day. However, there is something not quite right about the man in the ape costume, as when he returns to his dressing room he takes off his mask to reveal he is Rene Marot (Herbert Lom) - and he is supposed to be dead!
Not only that, but he has bumped off the actor who was meant to be in the costume, killing him with acid which would be his signature style of execution and one which was implemented a few times over the course of this Poe adaptation. What do you mean you don't remember that happening in the great writer's The Murders in the Rue Morgue, often cited as the first modern detective story? Well, there was a reason for that, as director Gordon Hessler decided everyone knows what happened at the end of that tale, so it would come as no surprise to a savvy audience of the early nineteen-seventies, therefore it was rewritten in a new form to catch that audience out.
The trouble with that was, Poe's twist may have been pretty laboured by 1971, but it was a far more solid idea than anything dreamt up to replace it here, which largely came across as a confusion of flashbacks, dream sequences and bits and bobs of other Poe-era (and later) fiction. For example, you had a premature burial in the form of a sideshow performer getting buried alive for a stunt (rather than accident or malice), or a heavy dose of Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera, somewhat perversely casting Hammer's Phantom as the stand-in for the villainous, masked Erik, which was what the character was named here as well, but was decidedly not from Poe.
And Leroux went uncredited too, prompting one to ponder what on earth was going through Hessler's mind when he was concocting this undisciplined mishmash. There were those who responded to it, calling it a breath of fresh air into some decidedly dusty plotting, but watching it now it smacks of desperation: the director fully admitted the scripts he was getting at A.I.P. were terrible, and he would go out of his way to conjure up something of value out of the mediocrity he was being ordered to work with. His other efforts for the American studio were no less wayward, and here the whole thing was afflicted with a flat, television movie of the week style of lighting that suffocated any attempts at atmosphere; not much help was a cast who did not seem to be on the same page.
In fact, it rarely came across as if that cast (many of them Spanish - it was shot in Spanish studios) had been given the same script, with Robards in a role that screamed out for a Vincent Price to make sense of it, but wholly unsuited for this kind of pulp, Lom lurking mysteriously behind his mask (and later, makeup) yet still feeling like a third wheel, and Kaufmann swooning and shrieking her way through an interminable amount of nightmares, flashbacks, and nightmares that became flashbacks, to the point of confounding any audience in their willingness to work out why that person we saw killed is now alive, and vice versa. Michael Dunn showed up as (what else?) a sinister dwarf, Maria Perschy was given a decorative contribution, Lilli Palmer found most of her role on the cutting room floor, and the whole air of getting hastily cobbled together to meet a deadline was hard to shake. In its favour, it did achieve a certain delirium, but at the utter expense of any coherence. Music by Waldo de los Rios.