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BY TRAV S.D. (travsd.wordpress.com) | If you’re at all like me, this Halloween season you’ll be asking the question: What are the best ape-related classic studio era horror films for me to watch, not including “King Kong” or its sequels “Son of Kong” and “Mighty Joe Young” — which are GIANT ape movies, a different species of horror film altogether?
Not to worry! I got your answer right here!
The good, the bad, the downright hairy: 1932-1954
MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932)
Yes, It’s “based on the Poe story” but, on the other hand, no, not really. The only thing the film shares in common with the original story is the event of a body being stuffed up a chimney by an ape. The movie version concerns Bela Lugosi as one “Dr. Mirakle,” who appalls the people of Paris by exhibiting a “gorilla” — which is alternately portrayed by an actual chimpanzee and a guy in a gorilla suit, often in different angles during the same scene. Even worse, Dr. Mirakle preaches the heinous doctrine of evolution! And did you notice how he happens to resemble an ape? Worse than all of this, he is performing an evil experiment, kidnapping maidens and injecting them with ape blood, which kills them. Then he very shockingly dumps them into the river. The crimes are eventually solved by a medical student with a microscope. The next victim, in an amazing coincidence, was to have been his girlfriend. The movie is as beautiful to look at as the other Universal horror films of the time, if you can forgive the absolutely daffy element of how the ape itself is represented.
THE GORILLA (1939)
This one is more of a comedy/horror film/murder mystery. Seems largely a parody of the old dark house mystery, “The Bat.” The all-star cast features the Ritz Brothers (as detectives), Bela Lugosi, Patsy Kelly (as a perpetually fretting maid) and the omnipresent Lionel Atwill. And a guy in a gorilla suit.
THE APE (1940)
A low-grade cheapie — one of the very few times that Boris Karloff sank as low as Lugosi was capable of falling. In this one, Karloff plays a doctor who disguises himself as an ape — the better to kill people and take their spinal fluid in order to create a cure for “paralysis.” Oh, there is a set-up. He has been working on this cure for 25 years, after failing to cure his own wife. Now he lives next door to a young girl he would like to cure. And an ape has conveniently escaped from a nearby circus. Karloff kills him and apparently makes a costume of its dead body. Anything for science! Just generally tedious and bad.
THE APE MAN (1943)
Directed by the wonderful William Beaudine, this is merely the penultimate level of badness — Ed Wood being the gold standard. We begin in medias res: a sister (who happens to be a ghost hunter) finds her long missing brother (Bela Lugosi), whose research has caused him to become an ape creature. He is now searching for the antidote. We next proceed to watch the half-man/half-ape Lugosi, who, with the aid of a supernaturally well-behaved full ape assistant, must steal the “spinal fluid” from still living victims for his antidote — a process fatal to the victim. The other characters are the requisite policemen and reporters, Lugosi’s colleague and his wife. The movie is surprisingly dull for such a delicious set-up. And, truth to tell, what would be so bad about being a half-man/half-ape, anyway? So bad you’d kill for the antidote? Why not just come out in the open, gaining fame for your discovery in the process, and get the entire scientific community to work on the antidote while you accept lucrative banana endorsements? Ah, but this is the world of fantasy. There is also a funny coda. This mysterious man who periodically pops up through the story tells us in the end, that he is the screenwriter!
RETURN OF THE APE MAN (1944)
Was the first one such a smash hit they needed a sequel? This movie has nothing to do with the original, however. Bela Lugosi and John Carradine are scientists working on the problem of suspended animation. They get it to work on a homeless man they have frozen. Realizing that it works, they launch an arctic expedition to find intact frozen cavemen — and, astoundingly, they find one! They bring the caveman back to the lab and thaw him out. But the caveman can’t talk to relay what he knows. Lugosi decides to transplant part of a modern brain into his head. Carradine refuses to participate — it will be murder to do so. Lugosi tricks him (with an electric floor plate that paralyzes him but somehow allows him to talk) and takes his brain. The caveman runs amok in the city and commits some murders. Authorities chase him back to lab. Caveman kills Lugosi, but then dies in fire. He should have stayed in bed!
BRIDE OF THE GORILLA (1952)
Despite the unprepossessing title, which we used to make fun of when we were kids, this is, I have to say, objectively the BEST of all the ape horror movies. It was written and directed by Curt Siodmak, who wrote the classic “The Wolf Man” and numerous other major horror titles. It’s a pretty solid story; only the title is unfortunate. Siodmak’s original title was “The Face in the Water” — which is unmemorable, but at least doesn’t cheapen the story. The same sexual themes at the back of most horror films (nearly all of them, now that I think of it) are foregrounded in this film. Raymond Burr is a fairly brutish plantation overseer in South America. He bemoans the fact that he doesn’t have slaves to do his work. He is indifferent to the death of one of his workers. He knocks up a native girl and ignores the situation. Then he kills the boss so he can take his wife. The mother of the pregnant girl puts a spell on him to turn him into a creature, the titular gorilla. Much like Jekyll & Hyde or The Wolfman, he begins to transform, and he keeps hearing “the call of the wild.” By the end of the film, he is ready to abandon his bride and take to the jungle completely. But the misguided girl follows him. In the end, the local sheriff (Lon Chaney, Jr.) and a doctor shoot Burr as he is carrying the bride through the treetops. The film is marred by its low budget. The gorilla outfit is just yet another Halloween party grade costume. But the spine of this story is quite good. I’m waiting for the re-make starring Benecio Del Toro!
BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA (1952)
Dare I say, William Beaudine’s masterpiece? I’m guessing the inspiration was the runaway smash hit, “Bride of the Gorilla.” Jerry Lewis impersonator Sammy Petrillo and his partner Duke Mitchell are stranded on a desert island with a bunch of natives and Bela Lugosi, who plans to turn them into gorillas. At one point, Mitchell does transform. Petrillo is able to recognize him when he manages to sing his signature song (“Indeed I Do.”). Anyway, it’s all okay. It turns out to have all been a dream. When last we leave the boys (a comedy team that never made another film), they are doing their act in a jungle-themed nightclub.
Dishonorable Mention: GORILLA AT LARGE (1954)
Featuring what is undoubtedly the most prestigious cast ever assembled for a gorilla movie, “Gorilla At Large” boasts Lee J. Cobb, Ann Bancroft, Cameron Mitchell, Raymond Burr and Lee Marvin. It’s also the first, last and only one in 3-D. But don’t expect a lot of thrills and chills. This is one of those movies that makes you sit through seeming hours of boring melodrama about a love triangle (and an equally dull murder mystery) before giving you the good stuff. Only at the film’s climax are we finally rewarded with the spectacle of Goliath the Gorilla climbing to the top of the roller coaster with the screaming Ann Bancroft slung over his shoulder.
When Goliath falls to his death, so too apparently does this minor subgenre. The next time we get a whiff of scary apes in the movies, about 15 years later, they will vastly outnumber the humans — and the costumes will be considerably better.
Trav S.D. has been producing the American Vaudeville Theatre since 1995, and periodically trots it out in new incarnations. Stay in the loop at travsd.wordpress.com, and also catch up with him at Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, et al. His books include “No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous” and “Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and its Legacies from Nickelodeons to YouTube.”