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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Return of the Ape Man

Before continuing with Columbia's four Karloff movies, this seems like a good time to chase the Frozen Alive trope itself. which seems to have gotten its start in, The Man With Nine Lives ('40). Two Frankenstein movies after that, in 1943 and '44 used the Frozen trope. Return of the Ape Man (RAM) was also released in '44. It is another Frozen movie, but is also intertwined with the Frankenstein series. (more on that below). RAM starred Bela Lugosi as the mad scientist, and John Carridine as his ethical assistant. Lugosi was in the downslope of his career, doing films like RAM for Poverty Row studios like Monogram.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A tramp named Willie the Weasel has been missing for over a month. Professor Dexter (Lugosi) and Professor Gilmore (Carridine) abducted Willie and put him in their deep freeze chamber. They were experimenting with suspended animation for the usual supposed benefits to medical science. They revive Willie after three months, proving their process a success. Dexter, however, wants a bigger test to prove it. He mounts an arctic expedition to find a Neanderthal man frozen for tens of thousands of years. Reviving him would be the ultimate career coup. Handily enough, they find an "Ape Man" frozen in glacial ice. They haul him back to Dexter's basement lab. Once thawed, Dexter administers his drug and electric treatments. The Ape Man awakens, but is violent. Dexter keeps him at bay with an acetylene torch and locks him in a handy jail cell. Dexter wants to give the Ape Man half a brain transplant. A modern half-brain would allow him to speak and understand (obey), while the original half would still contain all his caveman memories. Dexter wants to know what life was like as a caveman. Gilmore objects, as brain transplant equals murder. At a dinner party at the Gilmore home, Dexter lures Gilmore's nephew-in-law, Steven to his lab and drugs him. He would have been the brain donor, had not Gilmore arrived in the nick of time. Gilmore says they're through as a team. Fine. Meanwhile, the Ape Man bends his jail door bars and escapes. He accosts a woman and kills a policeman. Ape Man returns to the lab and is reconvened. Gilmore knows the "monster" is Dexter's Ape Man. Dexter asks Gilmore to come to his lab to "help destroy the monster." Gilmore agrees, but it's a trap. Gilmore becomes the brain donor. Now with half a modern brain, the Ape Man can speak. He says his name is Gilmore. Dexter thinks another operation is needed to access the Ape Man's identity. This news makes Ape Man run away. He runs to the Gilmore home. He climbs the trellis, plays Moonlight Sonata on the piano, then kills Mrs. Gilmore (for no good reason). Steve and Gilmore's niece Ann call the police. While searching Dexter's lab, Ape Man breaks free of the cell (again), mortally injuring Dexter, who says with his last breath that the Ape Man will go to the Gilmore home.. He does, and abducts Ann. With her limp, fainted form draped over his shoulder, he climbs buildings and eludes the police. Eventually, he takes her to Dexter's lab and locks her in the freeze chamber. The sparking wires upset him, which creates more sparks and eventually a fire. Steve and the police arrive. Steve rescues Ann, but the Ape Man dies in the flames. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Mostly, it is Bela Lugosi who gives RAM any appeal. In fact, he is the primary redeeming feature. The film's interconnections to the Frankenstein franchise add interest, for those aware of such details.

Cultural Connection
In the vein of Lost World, RAM continues the notion that things ancient were brutish, destructive and deadly. By extension, is the backhanded conceit that modern man is rational, constructive and kind. The Savage, is an old cultural trope, always looking for a new face by which we may contrast ourselves.

FrankenThreads -- RAM has several interwoven connections to Universal's Frankenstein movie collection (which was almost done by 1944). Aside from the by-now-familiar mad scientist character, Lugosi played Ygor in Son of Frankenstein ('38) and Ghost of Frankenstein ('42). He played the monster himself in the next film, Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman ('43), which also had the Frozen Alive trope. John Carridine also acted in House of Frankenstein done in the same year as RAM, 1944. Carridine would go on to play the mad scientist in the Frankenstein idiom, in later films. Then is the scene when the Ape Man first stirs post-thaw. "It's Alive!" exclaims Dexter.

Ape Threads -- An interesting alternate rabbit trail is Caveman thread. There are many movies in this sub-genre. Some are purely set in cave man times, such as One Million B.C., but most are, like RAM, built around the resulting mayhem when a caveman is put into "modern" society. While in RAM the Frozen and Caveman threads intersect, following the cavemen will be a later project.

Threadbare -- Monogram productions were never slick. The writing was more prone to pulp than poetry. A couple of examples: Tiny Haystack : To test his process Dexter needs a prehistoric man who happened to be frozen alive thousands of years ago. Gilmore calls the search a needle in a haystack, but sure enough, they find one in a few minutes. How handy. The Healing Door: The Ape Man bends the bars of the jail cell door to escape. When Dexter recaptures him, he puts him in the same cell with the bars restored. He must have had a spare jail cell door. Very Handy! Instant Powerless Pad: Dexter reads in his How To electronics book, how to make a paralyzer pad that will immobilize a person. Handy for stopping a brutish Ape Man, AND your victims with little exertion. Cheap Freeze: Dexter's freezer room is a simple booth with some pipes visible through the window. It has one knife-switch and one big dial which goes from 60 to zero in seconds. No time is wasted on freeze effects. Simple Surgery: Dexter performs brain surgery on two men, by himself, in about a minute. No shaved head, no bandages, no big dramatic stitches or franken-scars. Dexter had some serious surgical skills. Very very handy.

Where's Zucco? -- The posters give George Zucco third billing. Even the credits cite Zucco and Frank Moran as playing the Ape Man. What's the deal? Apparently, Zucco was hired as the Ape Man. (He played in several prior cheap horror films, so had some marquee power.) He was was fitted with the Ape Man makeup and costume, posed for some publicity stills and even started some of the shooting. But, he fell ill. Movies like RAM had very tight schedules and were typically shot over just a couple weeks, No time for recoveries. Frank Moran was hired as a replacement. Some fans contend that Zucco does not appear on film at all. Others say that shots of the just-thawed Ape Man are Zucco, but that when he sits up, it's Moran (and thereafter). They call attention to the changes in makeup as their guide.

They're After Our Women! -- In true "Kong" form, the Ape Man performs the required abduction scene. Making this easier, she faints a lot and doesn't fight too hard while being carried over his shoulder. Still, the ancient visceral imagery is there. The Outsider, the Stranger, is out to steal OUR pretty young women -- who are enticingly dressed in clingy fabrics and high heels!

Returns? -- The neanderthal "returns" to life is the rationale, perhaps, but the title seems like a marketing allusion to a prior Monogram film, The Ape Man, 1943, also starring Bela Lugosi. RAM is not a squeal.

Bottom line? RAM is clearly low-B entertainment with low production values. On its own, it has little to recommend it. But Bela Lugosi gives it life. It has some film-historian value, too, as a dot connecting several threads.

1 comment:

Randall Landers said...

I've always wondered about Zucco's involvement in the film. I thought the other chap might've been a stunt double.