Bela Lugosi plays Dr. James Brewster, a scientist who has inadvertently turned himself into the titular character, in this bizarre thriller from Monogram. When the film starts, Dr. Brewster is already an ape man, which to me seems like the screenwriter missed about half the fun. Apparently, he’s gone and injected himself with some ape spinal fluid (and, really, what’s the deal with apes and spinal fluid? First Karloff in the previous entry, now Lugosi in this one…and why was spinal fluid such a hot topic in the early ‘40s anyway? And why does it seem to be so inextricably linked with apes?), and now he needs human spinal fluid to inject to get rid of the AMS (ape man syndrome) that he’s come down with.
His best friend, Dr. Randall (played by Henry Hall, who was in The Ape, our previous entry, as the sheriff) has planted the story that he’s disappeared in order to keep the press from finding out that Brewster has now gone simian. When he meets Brewster’s ghost-hunting sister after her ship arrives and spirits (hehe) her back to the ape man’s house, it arouses the suspicions of Jeff Carter, a newspaper guy. He teams up with a new female photographer for his paper, Billie Mason, and they go to do a story on the sister, Agatha, while keeping an eye out to see if they can figure out what’s happened to Dr. Brewster.
Meanwhile, after moping, pouting, and complaining about being a half-ape and beating the gorilla he keeps in his laboratory with a whip handle for no good reason, Dr. Brewster asks Dr. Randall to acquire some spinal fluid for him. Balking at the idea of killing someone, Dr. Randall essentially tells Dr. Brewster to do it himself. So he does, taking the suddenly conveniently-friendly ape along with him.
Plot complications ensue, as they are wont to do, and in the end, the gorilla decides that, you know, actually, he doesn’t like Dr. Brewster after all, and he goes amuck. Luckily, the photographer and reporter get out safely.
There’s a lot to mention about this film, because it’s just so, so strange. First and foremost, there’s a guy who acts as an ersatz Greek chorus, giving characters hints as to what to do next to keep the plot moving. He sees Jeff Carter at the docks while he’s waiting for someone else to arrive and tells him that Agatha Brewster is on that ship and that it’s “a great story—a pip!” He sees Dr. Randall and asks if he’s there to pick up Agatha. Later, he’s seen standing outside the Brewster house, peering through windows. He shows up again at the end of the film, and when Jeff Carter asks him who he is, he says, “Me? Oh, I’m the author of the story. Screwy idea, wasn’t it?”
I’m sorry, but what kind of weirdo meta crap is that?! I can’t decide whether the screenwriter (the actual one, Barney Sarecky) was unduly influenced by the wiseacre persona of Bugs Bunny, who was the animated embodiment of the country’s wartime sass, or if he just hated the audience so much that it was a big middle finger to anybody watching. Whatever the case, it’s a perplexing narrative device.
Louise Curry, who plays photographer Billie Mason, doesn’t seem to be having a very good time being in the film. She’s usually seen scowling and/or barking her lines, and there’s no chemistry at all between her and the guy who plays Jeff Carter, Wallace Ford. At one point, he hits her with the film’s best line: “Cocky little wench, aren’t you?”
The director of The Ape Man, William Beaudine, was one of the most (if not THE most) prolific directors in Hollywood in a career that spanned over fifty years. During that time, he made hundreds of films; he made eighty in the 1940s alone. Most of his post-silent films were made for the Poverty Row studios–the studios such as Monogram, PRC, and Republic which cranked out low-budget fare. He’s responsible for a dozen or so Psychotronic films, so his name should come up again pretty soon here on the blog.
Star Bela Lugosi was also relegated to Poverty Row during most of the 1940s. Sure, he still made the occasional film at Universal or Columbia, but those were just that—occasional. He worked steadily at Monogram on a series of films produced by Sam Katzman which are now referred to as the “Monogram Nine.” I plan to get to all of them here on the blog eventually. Katzman later went on to more mainstream success with the Jungle Jim films (featuring Johnny Weissmuller) and a series of low-budget horror films at Columbia, then he made a few Elvis movies in the ‘60s before retiring. In fact, Sam Katzman produced a film we discussed several entries back—Angel, Angel, Down We Go.
Another thing of note: Minerva Urecal, as Dr. Brewster’s sister Agatha, looks as if she could actually be related to Bela Lugosi. I love this shot in the film that shows their resemblance:
Here’s a question that I can’t answer: why did mad scientists in the mid-twentieth century always have gorillas in cages in their labs? The upkeep of a gorilla has GOT to be a financial strain, especially when it’s compared to having a couple of white mice or some guinea pigs around. Plus, the stench in the lab from gorilla funk was bound to be eye-watering. Of course, in this movie’s case, if Dr. Brewster had injected himself with, say, white mouse spinal fluid, it would have been called The Rodent Man…which, now that I think about it, might have made for a more interesting movie.
I feel like there’s much, much more to say about The Ape Man, but I’ve gone long as it is, so I’ll wrap it up. One last note, though: there’s a primitive version of the Ring™ doorbell on display at Dr. Brewster’s house; he can see who’s at the door via his “televisor.” Maybe this film was ahead of its time after all; has anybody noticed an uptick in spinal fluid research lately?
Here’s a reissue trailer for The Ape Man from YouTube that contains far fewer spoilers than I just threw out:
As The Ape Man is in the public domain (as was The Ape in our previous entry), there is no end to the options that you have for watching it online. However, because it IS in the public domain, the quality of the copies of the film that are available vary wildly. Here’s one of the better-looking copies of the film from YouTube—have at it!
Up next: No other woman looked like her, felt like her, loved like her!