Ape for April: The Ape Man (1943)
A common trope in classic movies is the use of a gorilla as a monster. This month we explore movies that feature gorilla suits.
RODNEY BOWCOCK: Dr. James Brewster has a problem. A big problem. For an inexplicable reason, he has injected himself with a serum that is slowly turning him into an ape. Suspended in a partial state of ape-dom, he knows that the only cure is an injection of human spinal fluid that will immediately kill the doner. When he is unable to obtain this from another doctor, he, and his ape pal head out to kill. How does he know this will cure him? That’s not an important question. Logic has no place when discussing The Ape Man, the eighth film in the infamous series of films that Bela Lugosi made for Monogram in the early 40’s.
SAMANTHA GLASSER: These so-bad-they're-good movies are best when the presence of logic is completely absent. The more often you stop and say, "What?" the better. This one is a mix of ludicrous and serious tones, which gives it a bipolar feeling throughout. The Film Bulletin said, "This programmer frequently brings laughs during situations intended to be frightening." I got the biggest chuckle from Lugosi hunched over next to a man in an ape suit slinking down the street looking for his next victim.
RB: Last year at the Picture Show, we marveled to another Lugosi at Monogram effort, Invisible Ghost. In spite of a ludicrous plot and laughable dialogue, Invisible Ghost benefited from direction by Joseph H. Lewis. The Ape Man, helmed by William Beaudine, does not have that benefit. Most shots are completely static, takes are long, hats disappear and reappear with abandon, which all create a completely nonsensical dreamlike quality to the film. I suppose that’s a nice way of saying that the film is incompetent, and it is, but in a sort of charming way.
SG: Beaudine infused the film with humor purposefully. There is a character who appears in random places throughout the film, and he is used for a strange joke ending. James Neibaur wrote in his book on the director, "Ending the film on a gag does not negate the actual mystery and horror elements that precede it, but it does offer the sort of light approach that Beaudine would continue to add to any film he did that neared the horror genre."
RB: Wallace Ford was an actor that wasn’t above slumming on poverty row, even though he also appeared in a couple of Hitchcock films (Shadow of a Doubt and Spellbound) and was a preferred supporting actor for John Ford. He’d bounce around in high prestige films like those aforementioned, and during the same time be paired with El Brendel in PRC’s attempt to copy the Hope-Crosby Road films. He’s one of those guys that pops up all the time and is a welcome presence, even in this movie.
SG: Ford is fantastic in his final film, the unforgettably powerful A Patch of Blue.
RB: Louise Currie had the distinction of being the last surviving cast member of Citizen Kane, but over her decade long career she appeared in dozens of films including what is generally regarded as one of the very best Republic serials, Adventures of Captain Marvel. Many of her roles were uncredited, but when given an opportunity to appear on screen for more than a second, she brightens up the films that she was in. This is no exception. Her performance as Billie Mason, a newspaper photographer works well here. She has some chemistry with Ford, which allows for some snappy (and not so snappy) 40’s news reporter and photographer byplay.
After today, you'll be shooting that one-eyed monster of yours for Uncle Sam!
SG: Currie remembered the film fondly, saying Beaudine gave the actors a lot of creative freedom and that he was always prepared and calm on the set. The shoot took only 15 days.
I spotted a former Our Gang kid, Ernie Morrison in a brief scene in the newsroom.
RB: And then there’s Bela. If you’ve never seen Bela Lugosi wearing a bizarrely shabby ape costume, hunched over and grunting while communicating with a costumed ape decked out only marginally better than he is, well you haven’t lived. His performance is simply ludicrous, maybe one of his most strange, and that says something when you’re discussing someone whose career included Glen or Glenda. As we know, Bela could act, but performances like this make his turn in The Gorilla seem almost Oscar worthy.
SG: I was impressed by how much effort he put into his performance in this obvious turkey. He plays his turmoil and avarice with sincerity. Motion Picture Herald reported, "Bela Lugosi's followers are in for something of a letdown in the case of this venture in horror due to a failure on the part of his associates, before the camera and behind it, to give the enterprise that semblance of realism which films of fright depend on for effectiveness." William Weaver for Motion Picture Daily wrote, "Action and wordage impede his performance... The film does not represent them [the filmmakers] at their best."
Just one year later, Return of the Ape Man would see a Monogram release, but that film has nothing to do with this one outside of casting Lugosi in the lead, in spite of its misleading title.
RB: Clocking in at just over an hour, and a film that has been seemingly in circulation since it was released, The Ape Man is a terrible movie that is also inexplicably appealing. This is a two-star film, but one that I still heartily recommend. Nobody ever sets out to make a bad movie, and they certainly did their best with this one. I had great fun with it, but it’s not for the faint of heart.
SG: I will give the movie two stars, mainly for the entertainment value of its shortcomings, but for such a short movie, it moves very slowly and feels longer. I wanted more action, more instances of Lugosi with the ape trolling for spinal fluid. There are lots of scenes without dialogue of characters snooping around or mixing potions, and between that and the poor sound quality, the film threatened to put me to sleep and succeeded at least once.