by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film was The Ape Man, a 1943 film from Monogram starring Bela Lugosi in what was probably the worst movie in the nine-film cycle producer Sam Katzman made with him there — indeed, probably Lugosi’s all-time worst movie until his even more embarrassing credits from the 1950’s, films like Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla and the Ed Wood efforts. I remember seeing this for the first time when I was still in high school and being disappointed that director William Beaudine, whom I knew at the time mostly for his delightful 1934 comedy The Old-Fashioned Way with W. C. Fields, could have made such a crappy movie. This was before I realized that most of Beaudine’s credits were at or near the quality level of The Ape Man than The Old-Fashioned Way, or that it really didn’t take much directorial skill to make a W. C. Fields movie: all you had to do was make sure the cameras were pointed at him and in focus, and the mikes were recording his dialogue audibly.
The Ape Man was based on an “original” story by Karl Brown — “original” in quotes because like the Frankenstein monster (which Lugosi had just played in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man immediately before shooting this), it’s spliced together from bits and pieces, not of dead bodies but of dead movie clichés — and scripted by the film’s associate producer, Barney Sarecky (that’s how his name is spelled in his writing credit: as producer he added an initial and billed himself as Barney A. Sarecky), whose last name appropriately rhymes with “drecky.” It opens with some stock footage of a New York pier and a steamship approaching it, and then with some dull expository dialogue between reporter Jeff Carter (a homely-looking Wallace Ford) and his photographer, Barney (Charles Ford), which lets us know that one of the passengers on the ship is Agatha Brewster (Minerva Urecal), who’s returning to the U.S. from Europe to inquire about the whereabouts of her missing brother, world-renowned glandular specialist Dr. James Brewster (Bela Lugosi).
A tall, thin, rather cadaverous-looking middle-aged man, Dr. George Randall (Henry Hall), a former research partner of Dr. Brewster, runs through the press gantlet (all two people of it) and tells Agatha Brewster that her brother isn’t missing at all, “except to this world; he’s hidden away in Springdale, in the old mansion. He’d be better off in the family crypt,” he ominously adds, explaining that six months earlier Dr. Brewster developed a super-serum and injected it into himself. Dr. Randall explains that the serum was a great success — though we’re never let in on what the h--- it was supposed to do; its actual effect was to turn Dr. Brewster into a sort of were-ape, still recognizably human but with a lot of crêpe stuck on his scalp and cheeks to give his face a half-human, half-simian appearance (when I first saw this film in 1970 I thought he looked like he’d gone for the hippie look and way overdone it) and with his posture permanently locked in a hunched-over position.
He’s actually living in a secret basement under the old Springdale mansion (a set readily recognizable from Lugosi’s other Monograms) — though the house appears to be located close enough to New York City that Dr. Brewster and the real ape he’s got living with him in the basement (played by ape specialist Emil Van Horn in a costume that’s relatively convincing except for the immobile mask-like head) can pop over to an urban environment any time they like and terrorize the locals — and about a third of the way through the movie Brewster learns that the only thing that can cure him is to extract the spinal fluid from a living (or recently deceased) human and inject it into himself at the base of his own spine. Accordingly he first murders Dr. Randall’s butler and extracts his spinal fluid, then gets Dr. Randall to perform the injection — and he straightens up for about a reel or two, though he still has all that unwanted facial hair, until the original serum kicks in again and he realizes he has to collect the spinal fluid of many victims and inject it all at once.
With the help of his pet ape, he kills off enough people to fill an ordinary home-canning jar full of the spinal fluid and then breaks into Dr. Randall’s place, demanding that he perform the injection, only Dr. Randall, not willing to do any more enabling of Dr. Brewster’s habit (as Tom Weaver noted in his book Poverty Row Horrors!, there’s a macabre and ultimately pathetic, in both senses of the word, parallel between the plot of this movie and the real Lugosi’s later drug addiction), smashes the bottle to bits and, for reasons that remain unclear, retreats from Dr. Russell’s home to his own, where reporter Carter and his new photographer, Billie Mason (Louise Currie) — with whom, of course, he’s had a hate-at-first-sight relationship that blossomed into love after his old photographer was fired for bringing in a double-exposed negative — are waiting for him: Billie ends up on the wrong side of the trap door (behind a mobile fireplace) that admits people into Brewster’s secret basement lab, and in an attempt to let in Jeff, who’s in the main part of the house trying to figure out a way into the basement to rescue her, she inadvertently releases the lock of the door to the cage containing the ape, and the ape kills Brewster, the police arrive and force Agatha to tell them how to open the basement door, and they kill the ape in the nick of time to save Billie.
A comic tag features an oddball character — not named in the actual movie but called “Zippo” in the official cast list — a rather nerdy guy played by Ralph Littlefield who’s turned up in several scenes stalking the other characters — they ask him who he is and Zippo says, “Me? I’m the author of the story. Screwy idea, wasn’t it?” Then Zippo rolls up the side window of his convertible car and the words “The End” appear on it, likely spelled out with masking tape. This final scene — which Sarecky probably ripped off from the original Seven Keys to Baldpate (where a similarly wild and unlikely story is revealed at the end as the novel the central character has just written) — is the cleverest part of this movie, which (like other Monograms we’ve seen, including ones outside the horror genre), seems to have been less written than compiled.
The basic premise — a scientist gives himself a toxic drug that has a horrible effect on both his appearance and his morals — is clearly a ripoff of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (though since we never see Brewster revert to normal humanity it lacks the pathos of Stevenson’s story). Lugosi’s make up is clearly derived from his appearance as the victim of mad surgeon Charles Laughton in The Island of Lost Souls, the first (1933) and best film version of The Island of Dr. Moreau, though in Lost Souls Lugosi was an ape-to-man Transspecific person instead of a man-to-ape as he is here. The business of a mad scientist needing to drain the spinal fluid of living people to perform a super-operation was Monogram ripping off itself — in this case The Ape, an equally wretched Boris Karloff vehicle from 1940, though in that one Karloff was a man in an ape suit instead of half a murder team with a real ape, and the person he was trying to save by knocking off all those people and draining their spinal fluid wasn’t himself but a local polio victim (Maris Wrixon), the daughter of a friend of his.
What’s really annoying about The Ape Man — and it’s true of a lot of “B” horrors not only from the 1940’s but later as well — is it’s simply dull: scenes that could have been genuinely scary (and often were in the other movies from which they were, shall we say, derived) are shot flatly and edited dully and mechanically. It doesn’t help that the archive.org download we were watching offered decent picture quality but murky and sometimes unintelligible sound — though it wasn’t that hard to figure out what was going on (Lugosi’s unwillingness to learn more than the simplest English and insistence on learning his scripts phonetically encouraged his producers, especially his “B” ones, to have the writers give his characters as little dialogue as possible) — but to my mind The Ape Man is the worst of Lugosi’s Monogram films (and the competition in that department is truly formidable!) and probably his most embarrassing credit until the really pathetic (in both senses, again) movies he had to make to support himself and his drug habit in the 1950’s.