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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Jungle Woman

Universal's second ape-woman movie was a "classic" sequel in many ways. Jungle Woman (JW) (1944) continued the story of Paula the ape woman right where the first movie left off. Some of the prior cast carry over, particularly Acquanetta, who remains the titular ape woman. There is virtually no science in this fiction, so the film would normally fall outside of this study of sci-fi cinema. However, it earns a family pass from the first ape-woman movie (in the mad doctor genre) and the animal-woman affinity from H.G.Wells' "Island of Dr. Moreau" (soon to be reviewed here as The Island of Lost Souls. (1932))

Quick Plot Synopsis
The film opens with a man being attacked by a woman (all shown in shadow). He stabs her. Dr. Fletcher is then before an inquest for murder. The trial frames multiple flashbacks to tell the story. Fred and Beth, from the first film, narrate flashback clips condensing Captive Wild Woman into about ten minutes. Fletcher then tells how Cheela the ape wasn't totally dead and he nursed her back to health. Fred tells Fletcher about rumor of an african witchdoctor who turned people into animals. Cheela might have originally been a woman. Cheela goes missing, but Paula appears in the woods. Seeming traumatized, she becomes Fletcher's patient. Fletcher's semi-retarded patient-helper Willie (usually in trouble for something) takes a shine to Paula. Paula, however, takes an instant shine to Bob, boyfriend of Fletcher's daughter Joan. Paula kills the smitten Willie and hides his body in the woods. Paula is jealous of Joan. In a huff and unseen, she topples the canoe where Joan and Bob are smooching. Some local farm animals are killed by something very strong. Willie (a large lad) is suspected since he's now missing. Paula (who now speaks semi-broken english) tries to get Bob to run away with her. She pretends that bruises on her shoulder were from Dr. Fletcher abuse. Caring, naive Bob wants to help. Joan is jealous. Another doctor tells Bob to take her back to Fletcher. Paula, not happy about not getting to run away with Bob, hides in the bushes. Willie's body was found. Fletcher, now knowing the truth about Paula, prepares a hypo with a sedative. Paula tries to break into Joan's cottage to eliminate the competition. Fletcher comes along. Paula attacks him. (opening scene, so end flashbacks) Since a woman is dead, and Dr. Fletcher admits giving the sedative (unintentionally overdosed) the District Attorney calls for a guilty verdict. The coroner (acting as judge), believes Fletcher's tall tale. If true, Paula wasn't really human, so it can't be called murder. At the morgue, they uncover dead Paula to see a mostly-ape/semi-human head. Not guilty. The happy music plays. Bob, Fletcher and Joan walk off, arm in arm. A final text screen reads, "The evil that man has wrought shall in the end destroy itself." The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Mostly, for the continuation of the Paula, the Ape Woman saga. The story is fairly fast paced with some interesting scenes. Acuqanetta is still easy on the eyes.

Cultural Connection
As mentioned before, one of the interesting traits of pre-bomb sci-fi is the underlying reassurance that the evil is (or can be) contained. The final title card hammers this thought home. It was just the accepted norm that the monster died at the end of the movie. Often, the evil scientist died too. If not, he was deeply sorry and repentant. Audiences were reassured that evil was manageable. This all changed when people realized that nuclear radiation was an indiscriminate, pervasive and long-lasting killer. Atomic evil could not be contained.

Three In One -- A curious quality to JW is that it feels like a stew of three movies (maybe four). The inquest frame recurs enough to take on a story life of its own. The flashback footage from Captive Wild Women is then a second film. Yet another, if one senses the recycling of footage from The Big Cage. Then there is the Bob, Joan, Paula triangle story. This last part is something of a remake of the Fred, Beth, Paula triangle in the first film, but with less depth. Where Cheela's affection for Fred had lots of time to develop, Paula's instant infatuation for Bob has only the depth of a petulant middle-school crush.

Cool Scenes -- Director Reginald Le Borg made the film visually solid, if mostly unremarkable. Two scenes stand out as visually interesting. One is the shadow attack at the start of the film. A slender wild-haired woman jumping on and mauling a man who struggled to stab her with something, is captivating -- all the more so for being shot as cast shadow. The second cool scene is when Paula swims out to overturn Bob and Joan's canoe. She's a human torpedo. This, too, is visually striking.

Woman or Ape? -- Just to muddy the waters, Paula may have been originally a woman, turned into an ape by a witch doctor. That, Fred says, may explain her intelligence and affection. Then Dr. Walters manages to somehow undo the witch doctor's black magic with glandula treatments. (so he really didn't succeed in his quest after all). Now, in JW, Paula is a slender woman with the strength and mood of an ape without having to turn into one. Although, she does occasionally, such as in the off-screen chicken coop affair where she left large ape-like fingerprints. Now, she seems to be able to adopt either form, if not at will, at least without outside "science".

She Speaks! -- Acquanetta gets more of a chance to act than she did in the first film. She had several speaking lines in JW. Her first one, "Hello, my name is Paula," is interesting since it breaks her silence. From then on, however, her simple english and flat delivery ("No. I don't like doctors. Take me away.) don't help the ape-woman role, nor her career as an actress. Her movements are stiff and wooden. Since the other actors and actresses manage more 'natural' movements, her woodenness is not likely director Le Borg's fault. Perhaps Acquanetta was more fluid and charming off screen, to make Universal execs think she had star potential. On-screen, however, tt became fairly apparent that a pretty face and great legs just aren't enough.

Flacid Scientist -- Quite the opposite of John Carradine's mad scientist character, the role of Dr. Fletcher is more like Dr. Milktoast. He had no ulterior motives of creating a super race. He wasn't ruthlessly pushing the ethical bounds of science. He wasn't doing much beyond adopting Dr. Walters' problems from the first film.

Bottom line? JW is not really sci-fi. It's just grandfathered in because the other two films in the trilogy have traces of the mad-doctor sci-fi. It is the weaker of the three, but still moves briskly enough to have entertainment value. While probably not worth seeking out on its own, JW would be worthy of a triple feature Ape Woman marathon.

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