Sunday, November 25, 2012
The Ape Man
Quick Plot Synopsis
An ocean liner docks amid mystery. Dr. James Brewster has mysteriously disappeared. His associate, Dr. George Randall has little to offer the press. Brewster's sister, Agatha, has come from Europe to help (somehow). Reporter Jeff Carter smells a story in all the mystery. He gets assigned a beautiful lady photographer, Billie. They bicker like siblings throughout most of the film. Carter's instincts were correct, but he doesn't know it yet. Brewster is alive and living in the basement lab of his mansion. One of his experiments had gone horribly wrong. He injected himself with spinal fluid of an ape, but instead just improving physical strength, it turned him into a half-man / half-ape. Nothing else he has tried will reverse the process. Brewster is convinced that injections of human spinal fluid will reverse the process, but Dr. Randall refuses. To take the fluid is to fatal the donor. Brewster, "mad" at the prospect of being doomed to be an ape-man, takes the real gorilla to Randall's home/office and has it kill the butler. Brewster extracts the spinal fluid from the dead butler. Brewster and Agatha force Randall to give Brewster the serum injection. It works, somewhat. Brewster is able to stand erect, but will need more spinal fluid to lose the facial hair, etc. Again, Randall refuses. Brewster and his gorilla go on a killing spree. Brewster eventually has enough spinal fluid for many injections. Randall not only refuses to help, but smashes the jar. In a rage, Brewster breaks Randall's neck. What with all the recent murders, the police are on his tail. He returns to his mansion, where the two reporters are snooping around. Brewster carries off Billie to his lab, apparently to extract some spinal fluid. Carter can't get the secret passage open. Brewster chases Billie around the lab. The caged gorilla is upset by all the chasing. Billie accidentally opens the cage. The gorilla and Brewster fight to the death -- Brewster's. Agatha arrives with the police. She opens the secret passage just in time. Billie escapes. The police shoot the gorilla dead. Billie and Carter decide they should date instead of bicker. The End.
Why is this movie fun?
Mostly, it's Bela Lugosi. He brings more class to the film than it would otherwise deserve. Director William Beaudine, famous for "one take" productions, puts out a fairly fast paced (if shallow) story. It's also fun to see someone else's zeitgeist. Apes and spinal fluid. Such a curious combination to be fascinated with.
Cheap films had their place. No one feels gypped if they pay a buck for a burger and don't get filet mignon. The same "value" reality worked for movies. TAM was a product of Monogram Pictures, one of the better known of the "Poverty Row" studios. They filled a market need for simple, inexpensive B film entertainment. They weren't making Citizen Kane or Gone With The Wind and everyone knew that. Knowing that you're selling hamburgers, not fancy steaks, means not having to take yourself (or your products) too seriously. Like a Burlesque / Vaudeville show, a Poverty Row film was, often enough, a medley of romance, comedy, horror, action and a bit of exploitation, if they could sneak it in. Audiences didn't mind. They were looking for budget entertainment, not story-telling purity.
Sequel Worthy -- As shallow and odd as TAM might seem to modern viewers (accustomed to finer fare), it must have been enough of a success at the box office that Monogram decided to ride its coat tails. Their follow up "sequel" the next year ('44) was Return of the Ape Man, also starring Bela Lugosi. In truth, "Return" is not a sequel in any way. The "ape man" is a thawed cave man. Lugosi is all human -- but still ends up getting killed by the "ape" of the story.
Poor Man's Wolfman -- Middle-tier studio Universal Pictures made a splash with their Wolfman film in 1941. Lower-tier studio Monogram seems to have tried to create their own man-beast hybrid with TAM. While it could have had some potential, Monogram didn't steer the writers to leave the sequel door open. A half-man/half-ape resurfacing now and then, killing to obtain spinal fluid to perhaps cure him, might have been a formula for multiple sequels. Sadly, Monogram let it fade.
Unintentional Metaphor? -- In the mid and late 40s, Bela Lugosi's career was in decline. His drug addiction (pain killers for a war wound) and alcoholism required income, so he could not be fussy about acting jobs. The drugs were also taking a toll on his 60-year-old body. Lugosi was unable to rise above his addiction, just as Dr. Brewster continued to hope, but was never able to stand erect for long. In the end, the "monkey on his back" (the Ape) finally beat him.
Why Zippo? -- One of the more curious things about TAM is the Zippo character. He's dressed as a bumpkin, but doesn't function as the usual bumpkin-esque comic relief. Instead, he's omnipresent and apparently all-knowing. He tells the gathered reporters who's on the ocean liner and why they should press for a story. He's peeking the lab window as Brewster experiments. He jumps out of a doorway to tell a hapless woman not to go further -- because Brewster and his ape lie in wait for another victim. at the end of the film, Carter asks Zippo who he is and why he's everywhere. "I'm the author," says Zippo with a wink and a smile. It makes sense, in hindsight, but it is a strange thing to write into a screenplay.
Bottom line? TAM is low-rent entertainment, aimed at a low-rent audience, so expectations of high art are best avoided. Lugosi, as usual, saves the film from being utter dreck. The science fiction is very thin. It's primary interest will likely be fans of the old-school "mad doctor" genre, or Lugosi fans. Viewers seeking a thoughtful script or impressive effects, should probably skip TAM.