THE APE MAN may be the most surrealistic Poverty Row thriller ever made! With a way-out plot that’s a Salvador Dali fever dream, nightmarish imagery, cardboard sets, low-rent lab gear, a 1940s Brenda Starr, ghost hunters and a half-human Bela Lugosi on the prowl – what more could anyone want?
And lucky for us Lugosi completests, this 1943 flick, the sixth of Bela’s Monogram B features, is another fine presentation of Public Domain Theatre. The APE MAN is tons of scary fun – emphasis on the fun – because the plot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense (which actually works in its favor!)
And no matter, as in any Lugosi movie, no matter how wretched, Bela gives it his all, slipping himself a hormonal mickey, slowly becoming more and more ape-like as he slips lower and lower down the evolutionary food chain.
And if you’re expecting a makeup more John Chambers and Rick Baker, tain’t here, McGee. Apey Bela appears more like a wild Amish man crossed with Abe Lincoln after dabbling in things that were meant to be left alone! Sharing a cage with a “real” ape (Emil van Horn in a thread bare gorilla suit), Bela needs fresh human spinal fluid to cure himself of “creeping monkeyism”. Needless to say after showing the gorilla who’s boss, Bela goes on a slay spree to get his much-needed fix.
Shot in less than 19 days by prolific director William “One Take” Beaudine, it’s not one to waste time on a convoluted back story or any reason as to Bela’s simian dilemma as THE APE MAN unfolds in a brisk 67 minutes.
When Bela’s spiritualist sister Agatha Brewster (Minerva Urecal) arrives in New York she’s immediately ambushed by a gaggle of nosy reporters who want all the deets on her latest ghost hunting expedition abroad. Among them is family friend, Dr. George Randall, who sent her an urgent cable gram as her brother James (Bela) is reported missing. Newshound Wallace Ford gets a tip from a seemingly innocuous character (Ralph Littlefield) that the missing Bela would make “a good story – no, a great story!” over the ghost-busting Agatha.
Agatha and Dr. Randal arrive at the old Brewster estate where they are shocked to find a hairy Bela sharing a cage with a gorilla.
Emerging, the de-evolved Bela struggles to stand erect. His arms hanging monkey-like, he is unable to walk like a man.
“What I mess I made of things,” he moans, divulging that he had injected himself with the ape’s spinal fluid which has now transformed him into a manimal. (Holy ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, Dr. Moreau!) But this Bela is no beastly Sayer of the Law and what he needs now is human spinal fluid to reverse the transformation.
And when his primordial passions begin to seize control of his humanity, he locks himself up with the gorilla to chill out.
Meanwhile, reporter Ford has, himself, teamed with a new photog – hottie Louise Currie. Their attempt at HIS GIRL FRIDAY crackling newsroom banter makes for some period wartime “battle of the sexes” jabs. (Ford’s happily received his “Greetings” from Uncle Sam proving he’s not a 4-F wimp to the skeptical newsmen.)
Interviewing Spooky Agatha at the Brewster estate, they soon discover another presence in the manse. After developing a photo, the newshounds discover a furtive Bela in the background monkeying around.
Bela demands Dr. Randall get him the much-needed human spinal fluid and after in a truly bizarre sequence, the camera dollies in on Bela shooting up! Perhaps, an inadvertent commentary on Bela’s real-life addiction but more likely a key image for the studio’s PR machine.
After Dr. Randall gets Bela his fix, he stands fully erect – it works – but not for long and when the doc refuses to enable him again – Bela throttles him!
Into the dark night, a disguised Bela with leashed ape in tow, turns his addictive spinal tap cravings way past eleven as bodies pile up to further Bela’s resolve to “straighten up and flay right”.
The reporters become suspicious when they discover ape hair was found on the victims. Evidently these reporters don’t go to the movies or they might have seen Bela as the mad monkey master in MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932). Undaunted, by this weird science they continue the murder investigation.
Naturally, Currie is abducted by beastly Bela who takes her back to the lab to extract her precious bodily fluids!
As in all post-KONG flicks, the caged gorilla takes a shine to Beauty and promptly becomes territorial. Whipped into a frenzy (literally) by Bela, the “real” ape escapes his cell and strangles Bela. As the gorilla attempts to consummate his jungle lust, Ford and the cops show up in the nick of time to pump lead into the berserk beast.
The End…? Not quite. For the seemingly innocuous character (named Zippo in the credits) who’s popped in and out of the picture at the most opportune moments, is finally cornered by the reporters. Admitting that he “wrote the story” Zippo offers a critique of pure unreason, “Screwy idea – wasn’t it?”
And as bizarrely Meta as that sounds, Monogram’s King of the Cheapies, producer Sam Katzman reused that exact same shtick in another Bela flick – VOODOO MAN a year later. The ostensible hero of that flick is a horror screenwriter for Monogram’s Banner Productions.
After enduring unspeakable horrors at the hands of Bela and his cohorts (George Zucco and John Carradine), the dim-witted hero suggests to his boss “S.K.” that his recent real-life experiences would make for a darn good horror film. And who to star? Why, Bela Lugosi, of course!
And for good reason. While not at the top of the money making rung during his Monogram era, Bela wrings every last vestige of emotion from his role, compelling the audience to empathize with his plight – both on and off screen.
So, without further ado, THE APE MAN – presented here in all its unexpurgated public domain glory. Warning: the imbibing of consciousness-altering substances is suggested by the management to prevent any instances of Reverse-Darwinism that may occur while viewing. Proceed with caution.