by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film I picked out was Return of the Ape Man, which I’d just ordered from Sinister Cinema because it was the only one of the cycle of nine Bela Lugosi movies produced by Sam Katzman and Jack Dietz for their Banner company, released through Monogram, between 1941 and 1944 that was not available on archive.org. It was also the only one of the nine I’d never seen before at all, and while there’s some uncertainty as to where it fits chronologically (Tom Weaver’s book Poverty Row Horrors! says it was actually filmed before Voodoo Man but released afterwards), and it turned out not only to be a non-sequel to The Ape Man — though, as Weaver points out, “the title itself really isn’t a misnomer (the film is about an ape man who returns to life)” but a totally different story and one with a great deal of promise that got hideously botched in the execution.
After the relative quality of Voodoo Man, Return of the Ape Man is a return to the stupidity of most of the Monograms — and this despite the fact that some of the collaborators who entered the series with Voodoo Man returned for this one as well, including co-star John Carradine, screenwriter Robert Charles (who had actually written some genuinely witty lines for Voodoo Man but here sank to the usual dumb-cliché level of a Monogram writer) and cinematographer Marcel le Picard, who had brought a genuine touch of Gothic atmosphere to Voodoo Man but here shot the film in the usual flat, evenly lit and utterly unatmospheric Monogram house style. Philip Rosen was the director, and while he made two genuinely great movies in the early 1930’s — The Phantom Broadcast for the first iteration of Monogram and Dangerous Corner for a major studio, RKO — by 1944 whatever talent he’d had had been burned out by years of hackery and his presence really doesn’t help. It also doesn’t help that Monogram music director Edward Kay, who for Voodoo Man had found some genuinely interesting records in his stock collection (notably a surprisingly Stravinskian piece that sounds like the quieter moments in The Rite of Spring and proves surprisingly effective for the scenes inside the home of the “voodoo man”), here reverts to form (or lack of same) and plugs in some of the most ludicrously inappropriate underscoring any film has been cursed with since the early days in which silent movies were accompanied by whatever the nickelodeon pianist thought of on the fly.
It’s a real pity that Return of the Ape Man is so bobbled in the execution because the central premise — the rescue and bringing back to life of a caveman preserved in suspended animation by being frozen in ice way back when — is a potentially compelling one that’s been used since in films ranging in quality from Iceman to Eegah!, though it’s hardly original with Robert Charles — one of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ last pulp stories, “The Resurrection of Jimber-Jaw,” was about a caveman who was brought back to existence in the modern world and, in an ending that would have worked as pathos if Burroughs had been a better writer, wanders off to find his lost girlfriend, not realizing she’s been dead for hundreds of thousands of years. (There were probably earlier versions than Burroughs’ 1931 story as well.)
The film opens with a newspaper insert saying that the officials of the unnamed city where the action takes place are worried about the fate of “Willie the Weasel” (Ernie Adams), a homeless person who disappeared four weeks previously and was last seeing getting into a fancy car with two well-dressed men inside. (It’s indicative of the never-never land in which Monogram movies take place that the disappearance of a homeless person, even one with a colorful nickname, would merit front-page coverage.) In an establishing scene reminiscent of The Mad Doctor of Market Street, made two years earlier at Universal and also dealing with a mad scientist who used homeless people as guinea pigs, professors Dexter (Bela Lugosi, continuing the odd run of blandly Anglo-Saxon names Monogram’s writers kept giving him — “Brewster” in The Ape Man and “Marlowe” in Voodoo Man) and Gilmore (John Carradine) are shown in their lab in the basement of Dexter’s home (and yes, it’s the same basement lab Lugosi worked out of in Bowery at Midnight and The Ape Man), applying electrodes to Willie the Weasel’s head and then giving him an injection to bring him to after he’s spent four weeks under suspended animation with no apparent ill effects except he wakes up feeling oddly cold and with no recollection that he’s been unconscious for four weeks.
Dexter and Gilmore congratulate each other and Dexter says, “If I can suspend animation for four months, I can do it for four years, or perhaps 400 years!” Gilmore is skeptical, less about the theory than about their ability to prove it, but Dexter hits on the idea of forming a scientific expedition to the Arctic to see if they can find a frozen caveman who essentially was put into suspended animation by nature the way Willie the Weasel was by Dexter’s freezing process. The expedition itself is represented by a lot of stock footage of ships maneuvering their way through ice (mostly, according to imdb.com, from a 1926 Pathé two-reeler called Alaska Adventure), while on the soundtrack we hear one of Edward Kay’s all-time worst musical selections: a bright, peppy piece of hotel-ballroom dance music that suggests that in addition to whoever they brought along as research help and general staff, Dexter and Gilmore also invited a society orchestra and are regularly holding dance contests aboard ship to relieve the monotony of the cruise. Then we see a scene of Dexter and Gilmore along with two natives hacking away at some ice while Gilmore complains that he’s been separated from his wife (Mary Currier) for nearly a year and begs Dexter to give up and return home. Just then a glacial avalanche (more stock footage!) occurs and throws forth the frozen caveman Dexter and Gilmore have been looking for.
They return home to an ambiguous reception, with plenty of front-page speculation that whatever they were attempting, they’ve failed — only they’ve succeeded: inside a block of ice they’ve brought back an unconscious but still alive specimen of prehistoric man. As Weaver noted, “Delicately positioning a heat lamp above the slab of ice containing the frozen Ape Man, Lugosi insists that the thawing-out process must be done with great care, although as soon as Carradine leaves the room, Lugosi shoots a dirty look in the direction of his departure, fires up a blow torch and starts going to town on the thing.” When the ape-man finally gets revived, he’s played by large stuntman Frank Moran (who’d already appeared in a Lugosi Monogram as Angelo Rossitto’s big — in both senses — brother in The Corpse Vanishes), though Monogram co-credited the performance to George Zucco in an attempt to maintain the “Gruesome Threesome” billing of Lugosi, Carradine and Zucco in the promotion of Voodoo Man. Producer Alex Gordon, who knew both Zucco and Moran, said both men had assured him that Moran plays the ape man throughout the movie and Zucco isn’t in it at all, but that hasn’t stopped fans (in the original sense of the word, short for “fanatics”) from claiming in various movie magazines that they can spot Zucco as the ape man in this shot or that.
He’s dressed in what appears to be a papier-maché loincloth and nothing else (I didn’t notice the 1940’s underwear he was wearing under it, but enough other people who’ve seen this film and written about it have that I’m sure it’s there), and though the costume and makeup are singularly unimpressive (except for the possibility that someone at Geico’s advertising agency saw this movie and decided to use a similar-looking caveman character in their ads), the initial scenes after the ape man is revived are the best in the movie, largely because they quite closely copy the 1931 Frankenstein, with Lugosi in Colin Clive’s role as the mad scientist who has masterminded the experiment, Carradine in the Edward Van Sloan role as the scientific voice of reason, and Moran as the monster. They attempt to tame the beast by whipping it (Dexter just happens to have a bullwhip lying around in his lab!), try to confine it to a cage (of course it just bends the bars open and escapes) and ultimately Dexter discovers that its one vulnerability is fire and that if he can keep his blowtorch at the ready, he can ward it off.
Dexter hits on the idea of slicing part of the brain of a living human out and transplanting it into the ape man’s head, with the idea of taming it and giving it the knowledge of human speech while retaining intact its memories of its former caveman existence. At a party given by Mr. and Mrs. Gilmore to celebrate the engagement of their niece Anne (Judith Gibson, later Teala Loring) to Steve Rogers (Michael Ames, later Tod Andrews), Dexter mutters about how “some people’s brains would never be missed,” and he decides that Steve’s is the brain that wouldn’t be missed: in something that comes off more like a Gay seduction scene than anything we expect to see in a horror movie, Dexter lures Steve to his home and gives him a drugged drink, and is prepared to do the transplant when Gilmore figures out what his plan is and arrives at Dexter’s home just in time to stop him. This leads to a confrontation scene in which Gilmore asserts traditional moral values while Dexter insists that science trumps all, including obsolete and quaint values like the sanctity of human life — “I see you and I do not theenk alike!” Dexter tells Gilmore — and Gilmore resolves never again to have anything to do with Dexter.
Only Dexter manages to lure him — surprisingly easily — back to the lab, where Gilmore falls for a trap Dexter has set (an electrically charged steel plate on his floor which instantly immobilizes anyone who steps on it) and Dexter slices out part of Gilmore’s brain for the super-transplant — after which, incidentally, Frank Moran’s head looks exactly the same as it has in the rest of the movie, without any sign of the scars or bandages worn by people who undergo brain surgery in the real world. Moran gains not only the power of speech but fragments of Gilmore’s identity — he breaks into Gilmore’s home and plays the “Moonlight Sonata” on the Gilmore family piano (as the real Gilmore had done in an earlier scene), strangles Gilmore’s wife and heads back to Dexter’s place. Steve sees all this and reports it to the police, who repeatedly shoot the hybrid ape man/Gilmore — of course, mere bullets have no effect on him — and the ape man then attacks Dexter and breaks his back, with Dexter (Robert Charles repeated H. G. Wells’ mistake in The Island of Dr. Moreau of knocking off the principal villain with a good chunk of story time — one whole reel of this 59-minute movie — still left to go) using his dying breath to tell Steve and the police that the only way to kill the ape man is by fire. The ape man opportunely reappears at Dexter’s after having fled, there’s a big chase scene obviously copied from Lugosi’s 1932 Universal vehicle Murders in the Rue Morgue (also about a murderous ape and a mad scientist, played by Lugosi, who attempted to control it), and ultimately the ape man is cornered inside Dexter’s house, where he’s brought the kidnapped Anne (a ripoff from yet another ape movie, King Kong), where he trips on some electrical wires, gets tangled in them and starts a fire that conveniently takes him out while Steve is able to rescue Anne from the burning house in the nick of time.
Return of the Ape Man had some interesting potentials that got totally neglected or ignored — though it’s unlikely anyone connected with the film had heard the name “Dr. Josef Mengele” when it was made, there were enough urban legends about murderous enemy doctors performing diabolical experiments on hapless civilian captives in occupied countries that perhaps Philip Rosen and Robert Charles did intend for their wartime audience to see Dexter as a sort of scientific Nazi, totally detached from normal reverences for life in his mad pursuit of whatever it was he was hoping to gain from his experiments — and the confrontation scenes between Lugosi and an effectively underplaying Carradine do seem to have some intent of a philosophical debate over just how far scientists have a right to go to extend humanity’s knowledge and how much harm real human beings can ethically be put through for the sake of scientific discoveries.
One aspect that totally gets ignored is the culture shock of a prehistoric man suddenly brought back to life in a modern world — Rosen and Charles couldn’t have been less interested in it — that even Arch Hall, Sr. managed to catch a bit of in Eegah!; they may have done it too sloppily and stupidly to evoke real pathos, but at least they tried. Return of the Ape Man is a fitting end to the Banner/Monogram Lugosi cycle — unwittingly silly, wretchedly produced from a physical standpoint, with good but formulaic acting from Lugosi himself (and, here and in Voodoo Man, from the other horror stars assigned to supporting roles) and a sense of potential unrealized in the movie we actually have.