Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Bride of the Gorilla (Jack Broder Productions, 1951)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Bride of the Gorilla, which Charles and I watched the night before The Astral Factor, actually proved to be a pretty good movie — not a deathless horror classic, and certainly in thrall to earlier, better films that had involved the same personnel, but quite entertaining, well worth watching and a movie the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 folks also seem to have left alone, perhaps because even they realized it didn’t deserve their ridicule.

The stars are Barbara Payton as Dina Van Gelder, frustrated wife of Klaas Van Gelder (Paul Cavanagh), who’s stuck her on his rubber plantation in the Amazonas [sic] and left her miserable and in search of alternate male companionship; Lon Chaney, Jr. as Police Commissioner Taro of the Itmas Valley region that borders the Amazonas, who delivers the opening narration over a traveling shot of the Van Gelder plantation house in ruins; and the two men who are offering Dina the alternate companionship she isn’t getting from her sniveling weakling of a husband: plantation overseer Barney Chavez (Raymond Burr) and in-house psychiatrist (what on earth is he doing there?) Dr. Viet (Tom Conway). It’s hard to believe that, given her druthers, Barbara Payton would pick Raymond Burr over Tom Conway, but she does, starting a clandestine affair with him that she hopes will lead to her departure from the plantation, especially since her husband has decided to fire him.

Instead Barney decides to grab both the plantation and Dina by offing her husband — he takes him for a walk in the jungle, then trips him while he’s in the path of a poisonous snake, and the snake ex machina finishes him off — marrying her and then, much to her disappointment, announcing that he’s going to stay on at the plantation as the owner and she’ll have to remain there with him. This pisses off the native servant girl, Larina (Carol Varga), who goes to her grandmother Al-long (Gisela Werbisek) to complain — and grandma, either because Barney jilted her granddaughter for the white girl or she’s upset that he killed Klaas, puts a curse on Barney that will change him into a gorilla.

Bride of the Gorilla, despite the risible title producers Edward Leven and Jack Broder saddled it with (the working title was The Face in the Water, which is more evocative and suspenseful but would probably have been a less effective selling tool to the audience for a film like this), is actually a pretty good movie, thanks largely to the efforts of a good cast and writer-director Curt Siodmak. It’s a pretty obvious recycling job from movies both Siodmak and his cast members had done better in the past — most notably The Wolf Man (though it’s jarring to see Raymond Burr playing the were-gorilla, especially with Lon Chaney, Jr. appearing elsewhere in the cast, and frankly this film might have been even better had they switched roles), from whom Siodmak borrows not only the central character but also the Maria Ouspenskaya role (it’s quite obvious that Werbisek is channeling Ouspenskaya as the elderly female oracle!) and even a few scenes, notably one in which Raymond Burr’s arms suddenly start going dark, his first stage of transition into gorilla-hood, just as he’s about to sign the contract to sell the plantation (which he quickly decides not to do anyway) — he had to cope with this shit without even the warning of a full moon to give him a heads-up that he was about to change!

Val Lewton’s I Walked with a Zombie is also evoked, not only by Tom Conway’s presence in the cast but by some striking visual quotes, notably one of Barbara Payton standing straight and tall in the shadows of the half-lit jungle at night. Though derivative as all get-out and clearly inferior to the films it’s derivative of, Bride of the Gorilla is nonetheless a legitimately entertaining and chilling 64 minutes’ worth of viewing time; Siodmak’s direction is genuinely creative, seeking unusual camera angles and getting the most out of cinematographer Charles Van Enger’s evocative, chiaroscuro work — and his cast is coolly competent and, in Payton’s case, better than that; playing close to her real-life character — the slut who got off on playing the men in her life against each other — Payton creates a convincing update of the silent-era vamp and gives quite a bit of life to this film.