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Wednesday, 12 April 2017

CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN (1943)

Whilst Universal spent 1943 spinning the wheels of its monster properties in the lack-lustre franchise sequels Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman and Son of Dracula, they were producing other stand-alone horror titles, even if not wholly original. Captive Wild Woman is an entertaining ape to human, body-swap B-movie enlivened by some risky-looking animal sequences and a silkily sinister mad scientist portrayal by John Carradine.

Fred Mason (Milburn Stone) is an animal trainer bringing back forty jungle cats from an expedition for his circus employer John Whipple, played by Lloyd Corrigan. His prize catch is a highly-intelligent female gorilla named Cheela, (actually that prolific man-in-a-monkey suit exponent Ray Corrigan whom we recently saw in The Strange Case of Dr RX – see review dated 17/3/2017). Fred’s fiancĂ© Beth (Evelyn Ankers from The Ghost of Frankenstein) is more interested in telling him about her sister Dorothy’s glandular problems, which she hopes will be cured by taking her to Crestview SanItorium.

The resident expert there is Carradine’s eminent Dr Sigmund Walters, whose thin, slanted moustache emphasises his distinctive Asiatic eyes. He appears a charming and sympathetic specialist who has every confidence he can aid poor Dorothy (Martha Vickers). In private, Walters enthuses to Nurse Strand (Fay Helm) about the value to him of this “rare case of follicular cyst which induces the secretion of unusual amounts of the sex hormones”. He is experimenting on the potential benefits that glands offer in transforming organs to beyond normal size. (No, not those organs. See me after class). Dorothy will make a handy draught vessel overflowing with the very fluid he needs. His assistant is appalled by his publicly-concealed machinations. “I can see you’re not a scientist at heart, Nurse Strand…One must be daring”, he replies airily.

All Walters requires is a subject beneficiary strong enough to survive the operation. He finds this by chance when visiting Whipple’s Circus, where a handler is fired for almost being throttled after carelessly giving Cheela water. Since the circus won’t sell the gorilla to him, Walters bribes the ex-employee to steal Cheela for him. To compound his ethic-free approach to research, in lieu of payment he pushes the man into the ape’s homicidal arms – a marvellous moment of restrained evil by Carradine, witnessing the off-screen killing with a chilling, appreciative stillness. The next morning’s newspaper announces the death with the usual over-simplified headline; however there’s an amusingly specific sub-heading ‘Nails of beast press through back of neck severing spinal cord’ suggesting the reporter confused his job with giving a coroner’s report.

We are treated then to some hair-raising, tiger-taming sequences showing Frank at work in the circus cage. Actually for the most part he is simply acting the close-ups, intercut with scenes of celebrated real-life animal trainer Clyde Beatty doing the whip, chair and gun brandishing. These were taken from Universal’s circus drama The Big Cage (1933), and although modern audiences may find the footage cruel, his impressive skill merits a prologue card praising his ‘Inimitable talent in staging the thrilling animal sequences’.

Back in the equally questionable world of laboratory cruelty to animals, Dr Walters is having none of Helm’s overly melodramatic acting. He turns her refusal to voluntarily cooperate into a fatality gifting him a cerebral transplant for Cheela. This would be Helm’s second time on the receiving end of unfortunate intimacy with a hairy horror after her cameo as Jenny, murdered by Bela Lugosi’s werewolf in The Wolf Man (1941).

One new brain and a glandular oil change later, courtesy of Dorothy, and the gorilla is now transformed into a striking, olive-skinned woman, re-christened by Walters as Paula Dupree. The actress embodying this unusual role was given the enigmatic name of Acquanetta, though in reality she was born the slightly less exotic Mildred Davenport in Wyoming. Universal marketed her as ‘the Venezuelan Volcano’, confusing an ancestry that was interesting enough as she was of Arapaho lineage. Adding further complication was the rumour that she was African-American, causing print media of that culture to follow her career. (I mention this in passing only because her later prosthetic make-up looks uncomfortably like a racist caricature). Acquanetta would go on to several more B-movies including this film’s sequel Jungle Woman (1944).

Unleashed here, Dupree the naked ape has not so much lost a pelt and her animal memory but gained a paranormal talent that comes handily into play the next time Fred goes a few rounds in the ring with the jungle cats. She saves him from the volatile, roaring lion by mesmerising it with nothing more than her uncanny stare. Sensing a terrific (and potentially life-saving) partner for the act, Fred recruits her to stand sentinel outside the cage every time he performs. She has no trouble soothing the savage breast into rolling over like a passive pussycat; what she cannot control is the torrent of primitive jealousy within her at seeing Fred with his fiancĂ©. This manifests externally as darkening skin mutating into a toothy, fright-wigged misfire by the normally admirable Jack P Pierce that gives her a laughable resemblance to a satanic Blaxploitation harpie. Dupree’s only outlet is a primal hunting of Beth, breaking into her bedroom at night to kill her rival, yet only succeeding in slashing her neighbour to death (Fern Emmett, who similarly dies for her interference in Dead Men Walk - see 6/4).

Suddenly the medical megalomania of Walters’s plans is being unravelled by his guinea-pigs. He scolds Dupree for going rogue. Her raging hormones have erased the tissue work keeping her human, meaning he must drain more secretions from Dorothy. She guesses as much and tries to call her sister for help, causing Walters to cut them off mid-call. Can’t they just be good little victims? When Beth shows up, he decides to make her a hands-on part of his work – once again Carradine dialling back the temptation for ripe histrionics into a more unsettling minimalist menace. He unwittingly gives Beth a get-out when he gloats at the fully-restored Cheela rattling her cage: “She senses what’s coming. She’d love to get her hands on me”. While Walters is distracted, Beth sets Cheela free to fulfill that wish.

Meanwhile Fred has opted to still perform his dangerous wild-cat act in the circus without supernatural supervision. As a freak storm panics crowd and animals alike, he seems about to become the lion’s supper again when Cheela redeems herself by rescuing him, and is shot dead by a cop. There’s gratitude.

It only remains for the elegant tones of an uncredited Turhan Bey (whom we saw as Mehemet Bey in The Mummy’s Tomb) to narrate a closing epilogue warning that fools like Walters will always pay a karmic price if they “tampered with things that men should not touch”.

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