Friday, 8 September 2017
RETURN OF THE APE MAN (1944)
Out of all of Bela Lugosi’s horror movies, the last to be released in his infamous Monogram Nine contract, Return of the Ape Man (1944), remains the hardest of which to track down a copy. Fortunately for Lugosi fans, and indeed bad film aficionados in general, I was able to get a decent print on DVD. It’s certainly worth seeing but as with many of the notoriously banned ‘video nasties’ in 1980’s Britain, the rarity value is greater than its actual value.
According to Tom Weaver, Return was meant to be filmed as part of a proposed actors’ stock company trumpeted in the press by Monogram producer Sam Katzmann, composed of John Carradine, George Zucco and Frieda Inescort (from 1943’s Return of the Vampire). The two male leads were to be teamed up with Lugosi for this and then the dull, drecky Voodoo Man - see my review – the latter of which was released first. Technically, Return of the Ape Man represents the first appearance of this triumvirate in the same movie; yet to add more confusion is the long-debated question of whether Zucco was actually in the film despite being credited. We shall get to this shortly.
The title promoted this film as a sequel to the previous year’s wonderfully dreadful The Ape Man (also examined in this blog) but mercifully without any connection in plot or character. The director was Philip Rosen who, although not as fast a sausage factory churner of programmers as The Ape Man’s infamous William Beaudine, was capable of shooting in Monogram’s quick, no-frills Poverty Row style. He had just come off the back of helming two of their popular Charlie Chan series and would in total rack up six credits that year.
The lack of continuity with The Ape Man was a blessing as the prequel literally made a monkey of Lugosi and is often cited as the worst/best reason for the notoriety of the actor’s Monogram collection. Here the falling Hungarian star is accorded rather more dignity by being the instigator of evil and not the victim.
Before we get to him, regular readers of my blog will know of my penchant for forensic examination of in-film newspaper headlines. Return has a couple of doozies and opens with an amusing little gem. In order to introduce some questionable morality at work, under the headline ‘NOTORIOUS TRAMP STILL MISSING’ we read that Willie the Weasel, a vagrant ‘familiar among downtown derelicts’, has disappeared after being driven away by ‘a couple of distinguished-looking gentleman’. Aside from featuring as little newsworthiness to the public as most social media pieces today (unless the reader is one of his tramp fraternity), it contains no geographical details at all. The journalist doesn’t divulge an area or indeed the city the event happened in, a technique repeated in a later clipping, leading me to wonder if this is the Anywheresville Gazette.
Nevertheless we soon fill in the newshound’s gaps by meeting Lugosi in the role of scientist Professor Dexter and his colleague Professor Gilmore. These distinguished gentleman have just revived Willie from Dexter’s experimental chamber wherein unbeknownst to him he has spent the last four months in frozen suspended animation without food and water. As a drunk he awakes in possibly less of an addled state than a typical morning-after and gratefully accepts five dollars as a fee on his way out. The results mark a triumphant breakthrough for Dexter which he aims to build upon by seeking examples in the arctic of frozen cavemen.
Being a Monogram production, Dexter and Gilmore’s ship sets sail in stock footage polar waters accompanied by inappropriately jaunty library music – a standard cost-cutting measure that here draws attention to itself more than the usual Poverty Row titles, underscoring the action like episodes in a Flash Gordon serial. Cut to ten months later and the scientists are frustrated at their lack of progress, no surprise as the two employees behind them hack away with their ice-picks at the set floor as daintily as if defrosting an old fridge. Gilmore the family man tell Dexter that he must return to his missed loved ones. Single-minded Dexter has no such sentimentality: “A true scientist is married to his profession”. At their point of separation suddenly an avalanche occurs that by sheer coincidence dislodges a frozen caveman for them. This will prove an inciting incident from which only bad things result.
Back home in Dexter’s laboratory, he takes a blowtorch to the ice block containing the Ape Man and soon his conscious prized specimen is released. Audiences were led by the poster billing to believe that the bearded, hairy Grizzly Adams that emerges was a shared credit between George Zucco and actor Frank Moran. There is no evidence however of any trace of Zucco in the part except for an on-set still photo that appears to show him made up for the role. Any close-ups of the Ape Man clearly show what must be Moran’s lighter coloured eyes than Zucco’s beady dark ones. The voice at times is reminiscent of Zucco yet could not have benefitted from post-production dubbing even if such was possible on a shoestring budget. The studio certainly gained maximum benefit from touting Zucco as an attraction; arguably Zucco in turn benefitted from not being authentically seen in the movie. There was no escape from the hilarious face fuzz indignity committed on Lugosi in the original film; it would have been even more cripplingly funny to endure the emoting of a middle-aged Zucco sporting animal skins and furry booties in addition.
Regardless, Moran the Man goes ape at his revival until Lugosi resourcefully trains the blowtorch on him, gloating “You see? Fire is his master. He probably never understood it”. What Dexter really implies is that he will be the caveman’s master, intending to make him his slave to perform unspecified dark deeds. This can only be achieved though once Dexter has transplanted part of an intelligent modern brain into him, just enough to give reasoning and speech without obscuring his existing primitive mind. This naked playing of Dexter’s true God complex card appals Gilmore into accusing his colleague of planned murder: “Murder is an ugly word,” broods Lugosi thickly. “As a scientist I don’t recognise it.”
Later that night, a Gilmore home dinner party celebrates the engagement of Steve Rogers (Tod
Andrews) to Gilmore’s daughter Anne (Teala Loring). As a side-note it may not be a coincidence that both these young leads changed their stage names in the same year that Return of the Ape Man came out (from the credited Michael Ames and Judith Gibson respectively) to protect their later work from B-movie connotations. Andrews would have the longer of the two careers including Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970).
To be fair, as the plot unfolds it’s made with no less a workmanlike quality than the standard B-movie medical madman horror in spite of its absurd developing premise and the occasional amusing unintended detail. The differences between Dexter and his host are at least capably illuminated further at the party by Robert The Ape Man Charles’ functional screenplay that supports the two stars playing effortlessly to type. Carradine gives Gilmore his calm, cadaverous geniality while furrowed-brow Lugosi sits at a cold remove from the other guests, judging them with disdain – “Some people’s brains would never be missed” – and opportunistically eyeing the young groom-to-be.
Events move on apace when Dexter drugs Steve in order to make him the donor brain for his shaggy slave. Gilmore breaks off from playing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata for his guests and races to the lab just in time to prevent Steve becoming an eligible candidate for more than matrimony. (He threatens Dexter with a gun mystifyingly pulled from his tuxedo trousers – had he anticipated refereeing a violently-contested game of Charades back home?). “Fool! You’ll pay for this”, vows Dexter after Gilmore leaves.
The catalyst for all hell breaking loose is Dexter experimenting with an electrified steel-plate later intended to entrap his associate. The Ape Man doesn’t appreciate being labelled a guinea pig either, makes a bar-bending jailbreak and jumps out of the window; howler-spotters may enjoy the glimpse of his twentieth-century white underpants as he does so. The city news desk is soon on the case, reporting in another exclusive that a beat cop is subsequently strangled ‘by a weird-looking character in primitive garb, with supernatural strength’ – once again with no clues as to where in the world this took place.
Poor Prof. Gilmore then becomes the paralysed victim of Dexter’s electro-plated trap. Such is his decency that in the face of potentially fatal brain theft he nobly goes along with it out of misplaced guilt: “If someone has to the victim of your madness, I’m glad it’s me”. You have to admire Dexter’s dexterity as a surgeon - his resuscitated post-op neanderthal bears no trace of any skull work whatsoever. Not only that, but seemingly within minutes the cave slave has shimmied up the ivy outside casa Gilmore and broken in to play his new alter-ego’s favourite piano piece. His recital takes a sinister turn though and it isn’t long before he high-tails his hirsute way back to the lab to sheepishly admit to his master “I killed (Anne’s Aunt) Hilda”.
All too late Dexter realises he has thawed out what should have remained in nature’s freezer. Even the police’s bullets have no effect upon the rampaging beast and he scrappily throttles Lugosi as he has everyone else in the movie - glaringly bereft of a fight director). Dexter sees the error of his medical meddling just in time to warn the police “There is only one way…fire!” - before checking out in wide-eyed ham death throes, leaving them to clean up his mess.
This just leaves a haphazard climax beginning with the fleeing primate kidnapping Anne and bustling her through an empty theatre. Backstage, he takes time out to slap what he thinks is a real warrior for staring at him - actually a Mongol stage mannequin – before taking her back to the lab and inadvertently setting fire to the place to his own terminal cost. Meanwhile heroic Steve is in tow backed up by two patrolmen. (We’d seen the station chief calling out for ‘all units in the vicinity’ so we must presume it’s been a busy night elsewhere.)
Return of the Ape Man never stood a chance of being a good film (any scenario that involves a Lugosi scientist pursuing a furry caveman down a city street with a blowlamp will never compete with Citizen Kane) but it rattles along at a fair pace, hovering in and out of the Entertainingly Bad red zone of amiable movie daffiness.