Sunday, April 15, 2012
FILM REVIEW OF "RETURN OF THE APE MAN" (1944)
Far-fetched but fast-moving, “Return of the Ape Man” qualifies as hilarious hokum. Of course, the horror here is similar to “Frankenstein.” Mere mortals struggle to appropriate powers that belong to the gods. Predictably, our mad scientist heroes take themselves very seriously in “Spooks Run Wild” director Phil Rosen’s black & white epic about suspended animation and brain transplants. Not even the suspension of your disbelief will make this low-budget, Monogram Pictures melodrama appear less dreadful. Indeed, “Return of the Ape Man” fits the description of a “so-bad-it’s-good” movie. “Voodoo Man” scenarist Robert Charles gives a better account of himself with “Return of the Ape Man.” At least, this Lugosi opus boasts some scope and spectacle, part of the narrative transpires overseas as our protagonists travel aboard with serviceable B-roll and adequate back projection. Comparatively, “Return of the Ape Man” surpasses “Voodoo Man.”
“Return of the Ape Man” casts Lugosi again as an insane scientist. He is a scientist who sacrifices everything on the altar of research, including his closest colleague. Mind you, the teaming of Bela Lugosi with John Carradine makes this almost essential viewing for anybody who craves bad horror thrillers from the 1940s. Previously, Lugosi and Carradine appeared in “Voodoo Man,” with Carradine in a supporting role as one of his goons. After the two scientists restore a homeless man to life who they have had in suspended animation for four months, they grow very ambitious, obtain funding for an Arctic expedition, and ten long months later excavate a caveman preserved perfectly in ice. Of course, media attention is confined to newspaper stories while our protagonists toil in secret. Professor Dexter (Bela Lugosi) and Professor John Gilmore (John Carradine) thaw the caveman out. The sight of Lugosi wielding a blow torch to melt the block of ice encasing the prehistoric man is amusing. “A perfect specimen of pithecanthropus,” quips Gilmore to Dexter after they inspect the body, adding, “Neither man nor ape.” They restore the Ice Age man to life. “It’s alive,” breathes Dexter in awe. No sooner has the cave man regained life than he threatens both Dexter and Gilmore. Like the Frankenstein monster, the “Ape Man” fears fire. Dexter brandishes the blow torch to control him. Dexter backs the brute into a cell and locks him up for safe-keeping.
Dexter confides in Gilmore that he wants to remove half of a contemporary man’s brain and implant it into the Ape Man. Dexter wants to “endow him with just enough understanding” so he can communicate with him. He refuses to remove the cave man’s entire brain. Dexter says “that would remove his entire connection with his former life.” Dexter wants his patient to retain his memories. “I must leave in him enough of his old brain to stimulate his memory.” At this point, Dexter goes off the deep end. Gilmore assures him he will never find a willing subject who will donate half of his brain. Nevertheless, this setback doesn’t deter Dexter from recruiting reluctant subjects. He goes after the fiancé of Gilmore's niece Anne, Steve Rogers (Michael Ames), and tampers wit his drink so Steve will be more amenable to his designs. During this episode, Dr. Gilmore plays the “Moonlight Sonata” on the piano for Anne. Presumably, this display of musical virtuosity makes Gilmore more sympathetic. When he notices that Steve has left, Gilmore rushes to their laboratory. Gilmore catches Dexter before he can mangle Steve. Gilmore calls Dexter “despicable” to harm somebody dear to him. He refuses to continue with their research and says he should have heeded his wife’s advice. After Gilmore leaves, Dexter has trouble with the Ape Man. The hairy brute pulls the bars of his cell far enough apart to slip through, eludes Dexter, and hits the streets. Not only does the Ape Man mug a woman, but he also struggles briefly with a uniformed cop before killing him. Later, Dexter lies to the gullible Gilmore about disposing of the Ape Man, and he convinces Gilmore to help him. Instead, he paralyzes Gilmore and implants part of Gilmore’s brain into the Ape Man. When Dexter awakens Gilmore after surgery, he speaks to the Ape Man, and the latter responds to his words. “I have advanced his brain 20-thousand years in a few hours,” Dexter marvels at his own success. When Dexter suggests a second operation may help matters even more, the Ape Man bursts from the house.
Naturally, after Dexter has implanted half of another brain, the Ape Man really goes on a rampage with predictable “Frankenstein” results. He flees to Gilmore’s house, plays “Moonlight Sonata,” and then in response to his wife’s summons, he strangles her to death. Steve sees him leave the bedroom and pursues him, but he doesn’t get far before the Ape Man slugs him. Anne alerts the cops, and they arrive to find Hilda dead in her bedroom. The Ape Man returns to Dr. Dexter, and Steve leads the police to Dexter’s house. The authorities search the premises. Initially, they find nothing until the Ape Man smashes through the wall concealing his cell. He breaks out and takes about five shots from a cop before he seizes Dexter. The Ape Man escapes again, and Dexter admits to Steve and the cops that he transplanted Gilmore’s brain into it. “In the interest of science you must destroy that thing,” says the dying Dexter. Predictably, the Ape Man retraces its steps to the Gilmore residence. The Ape Man abducts Anne after it tells her that she is beautiful. The police issue an alarm for a maniac on the lam with a woman. “Return of the Ape Man” turns into “King Kong” with the Ape Man using high power wires to elude the authorities. He carries an unconscious Anne on his shoulder the entire time during his flight. He takes Anne to a theater and then to Dexter’s home where he ignites a fire by accident. Michael runs into the lab and rescues Anne. The Ape Man dies in the blaze.