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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Ape

Boris Karloff did another "mad doctor" film outside of the more famous set of four he did for Columbia between 1939 and '41. In 1940, he made The Ape with low-budget Monogram Pictures. William Nigh directs. Curt Siodmak deserves most of the writing credit. For some reason, killer apes were all the rage (so to speak) for awhile in the 30s and 40s. King Kong ('33) is, of course, the most famous of them. But the killer ape trope was around before Kong and obvious after. The Ape is yet another sci-fi hybrid that is notably weak on the sci-fi part. Spinal fluid plays a pivotal role, and would again in a followup film by Monogram, The Ape Man.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A circus comes to the small town of Red Creek. Dr. Adrian (Karloff) is eyed with fear and suspicion in Red Creek, but he is the only doctor around. So, when a circus ape escapes and injures a trainer who had been taunting him, they bring the wounded man to Dr. Adrian. The trainer dies. Adrian, recognizing an opportunity, extracts some spinal fluid from the dying man for a serum he's working on to help pretty young Francis (paralyzed from the waist down). The ape is loose in the countryside. He killed a farmer named Wilcox. The serum begins to work on Francis. She has feeling in her legs. Adrian accidentally drops the vial, breaking it. He needs more spinal fluid. The ape breaks into Adiran's house (seeing the trainers coat on a chair). Adrian kills the ape, then has an idea. Later, he leaves his house, dressed in the ape's skin. Henry Mason, a disrespected town banker and philanderer, leaves to visit his mistress, but never arrives. His body is found. A coroner notes a similar puncture at the spine. Adrian pretends not to have noticed. The coroner recognizes Adrian as a shunned, but brilliant researcher from 25 years go. After additional serum treatments, Francis can move her legs a little. The coroner sees that Adrian was right after all. The sheriff, his men and dogs have concentrated their search around Doc Adrian's house, where most of the sightings place the ape. Adrian, encouraged at Francis's progress goes out one more time for more spinal fluid. He attacks one of the guards, but is chased off by another guard. On the way back to his house, he is seen and shot. A crowd gathers around the ape body on the porch. The sheriff lifts off the head to reveal Adrian. Francis wheels up in her wheelchair to show the dying Adrian that his serum's worked. She stands and takes some wobbly steps. Adrian dies, but vindicated. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
As usual, it is Boris Karloff who pulls an otherwise drab B movie higher than it would have on its own. The premise is a bit strained, but has some interesting roots. It is also interesting to see the "mad doctor" turn out to be right, for a change.

Cultural Connection
In the years before nuclear radiation dominated sci-fi thought, medical science got a lot more screen time. The "mad doctor" trope was a sort of flip-side to cultural optimism about what medical science could do.

Less Madness -- Karloff plays yet another "mad doctor" with the customary tension between his altruistic desire to help and his ruthlessness as to the methods. In The Ape, Dr. Adrian is almost the most mild-mannered of the mad doctors. He is so driven to help poor beautiful Francis to walk again that he's willing to push the ethical envelope. Unlike most of the mad doctors, it turns out Adrian was right and actually does the good he set out to do.

Just Desserts -- In the spirt of Occupy's "Eat the Rich" mindset, the one man that Adrian does murder is sort of a small moral loss. He is the banker Henry Morgan. No one in town much likes Morgan for the interest rates he charges. Nor does Morgan join any community efforts to find the ape. "Thats your job." Further, Morgan is cheating on his wife. Even worse, he is mean-spirited to his poor mousey wife. She pleads with him not to carry on his affairs so flagrantly near home. "If you don't like it, you can leave," he says. She says she has no relatives, no friends, nowhere else to go. "There's always the river," he sneers. Adrian murdering Morgan is not quite horrible. Poor little Mrs. Morgan may be better off with the insurance money and someone else.

Broadway Roots? -- The credits list the story as coming from a play by Alan Hull Shirk. (Screenplay by Kurt Siodmak) While this play may not have been filmed, an earlier movie is also said to have been based on the play. House of Mystery (1934) credits Shirk's play. Interestingly, HoM was also directed by William Nigh. The '34 film and Siodmak's '40 screenplay are very very different stories. House of Mystery is a more pedestrian murder mystery with many people in a spooky mansion, seeking an inherited fortune, dying off one by one. The murderer turns out to be a gorilla, trained to stand stiff like a stuffed ape, but kill on command. There is one small scene where one of the lesser characters has dressed up in an ape suit in order to sneak around the house looking for the treasure. He gets shot by nervous policemen. The setting and camera work in House of Mystery suggest stage roots, so may be closer to Shirk's play. Siodmak's story is almost completely unrelated -- except for the man dressed in an ape suit getting shot and an actualy killer ape.

Rapid Taxidermy -- Dr. Adrian is supposed to have stripped the entire skin off of dead Nabu, including hands, feet and face. And, tanned them all sufficient to be worn. And, he did it in a day or less. Granted, Adrian is supposed to have been a brilliant doctor, but this bit of the plot strains credulity beyond what movies like this usually do, if one knows even a little bit about taxidermy.

Bottom line? The Ape has very little science in its fiction. It does have some of the classic elements: a shunned brilliant doctor who secretly works on some boon for mankind, and it even has an angry mob. It is low on production values, but par for poverty row studio Monogram Pictures. Karloff fans will enjoy it. Those with expectations not too high, can be entertained. Modern tastes may only be annoyed.

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