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Monday, October 19, 2009

THE NEANDERTHAL MAN -- movie review by porfle

(CAUTION: The part where I sorta give away the ending might be considered a "spoiler.")

My videotapes, mostly recorded on SLP so I could cram more stuff onto them, are a real mixed bag. Recently, I was watching one that features two great classics--THE SAND PEBBLES and SEVEN SAMURAI--followed by THE NEANDERTHAL MAN (1953). Talk about taking a nosedive from the sublime to the ridiculous! And yet, this is one of my favorite schlock films from the 50s.

Robert Shayne, who was Inspector Henderson on TV's "The Adventures of Superman", plays Professor Clifford Groves, a scientist who is obsessed with proving that primitive man was superior to modern man, not only physically but mentally as well. And when I say "obsessed", I mean googly-eyed, profusely-sweaty obsessed. When he addresses a group of fellow scientists early in the film to expound upon his theories to their chuckling derision, he's already in full-on whacko mode. He practically chases his scoffing peers out of the room as he rants, "Tuck your fears between your legs and run from new truths! Small men! Small views! You want proof, do you? Well, I'll give you proof! I'll show you such proof that no men have ever had!"

Meanwhile, in the High Sierra mountains of California, the local folk have been reporting a huge sabertooth tiger roaming the woods. Game warden George Oakes (Robert Long) is skeptical until he's driving down the road one night and it leaps onto his hood. Up to this point we've seen only stock footage of a regular tiger (in one shot, his leash is clearly visible), but here we're given a close-up, and it's a doozy--it looks like a big plush-doll tiger head with long fangs glued on. Really, it's just totally laughable. But it's enough to scare the dickens out of poor old George and send him to Los Angeles to seek help from a zoological expert named Dr. Ross Harkness (Richard Crane, TV's "Rocky Jones, Space Ranger"), who, after some initial skepticism of his own, agrees to come check out the situation. (And with a name like "Dr. Ross Harkness", we can safely guess that this doughy, Vitalis-haired stiff is going to be the film's heroic character.) A couple of convenient story twists later, and he's actually staying in Professor Groves' house during his investigation.

But where did this prehistoric beast come from? In an earlier scene, we saw something escape from the lab of Professor Groves, who lives in the mountains with his daughter Jan (Joyce Terry, who sorta resembles a serious Gracie Allen). He's been developing a reverse-evolution serum that will cause the subject to regress to its primitive state, and we discover that the sabertooth tiger is really a kitty cat that he has injected with the serum. With this in mind, you just know that the good professor is going to use it on himself sooner or later. The only question is, will this make him scarier than he already is?

In one of the least believable aspects of the script, we find that this creep actually has a fiancée named Ruth Marshall (Doris Merrick). She's a fairly decent-looking dame, so God only knows why she's remotely interested in marrying a goofball like Professor Groves. "I want you--the man I once knew! The good companion, the cheerful friend!" she whines, practically grovelling as she begs him to give up his all-consuming research and go back to being Mr. Fun Guy again. "What is this unhappy work that has absorbed you so much, that is undermining your nervous system and making you such an intolerable sorehead?" (You just don't get fascinating dialogue like this in good movies.) At one point she ruffles his hair, and he finishes out the scene with a feather-duster hairstyle which, coupled with his dour, persimmony expression, looks wonderfully comical.

But the old sorehead throws her out of his lab, because it's time at last for him to inject himself with the serum and turn into a monster. This sequence is fascinating because it uses the same technique seen in classics such as DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1932) and WEREWOLF OF LONDON--instead of just lap-dissolving from one stage of makeup to the next, as in the Lon Chaney "Wolf Man" movies, we see makeup that is already applied to Shayne's face become slowly visible as the lighting is gradually altered. This makes for some pretty convincing transforming in a couple of shots.

Unfortunately, the makeups that he is transforming into look so dumb that they cause him to resemble a hairy, bucktoothed Clint Howard. The final stage of his transformation is a stiff, crummy-looking gorilla mask with too much eyeliner. And for some reason, he also sports a head of curly ringlets that would make Shirley Temple jealous.

Well, it's rampage time, and the Neanderthal Man horns in on a romantic photography session deep in the woods, where some guy is snapping pictures of Beverly Garland, who plays Nola Mason, the waitress at Webb's Cafe, in a one-piece bathing suit. I love Beverly Garland--she was a fine actress who brightened many a low-rent monster flick with her lovely and talented presence--but here, she's replaced by a stand-in in the bathing suit shots. We can clearly see that it isn't her posing provocatively for the camera, which is just plain weird. Anyway, the Neanderthal Man shows up, kills the guy with the camera, and carries Beverly off into the woods to have his Neanderthal way with her. Which, you might imagine, does not include dinner and a movie.

The monster returns to the lab and reverts back into Professor Groves. But just like Dr. Jekyll before him, he finds the lure of the beast too strong and begins to transform without the benefit of the serum. After that, he runs around in the woods some more and kills a couple of other guys until finally our hero Dr. Harkness is able to use his incredible intellect to figure out a way to stop him.

One of the most remarkable things about THE NEANDERTHAL MAN is how similar is its idea of genetic memory being retained in the brain of Man to the theories of William Hurt's "Eddie Jessup" in the much later ALTERED STATES. Both characters espouse the same theories and use drugs to revert to their devolved states, transforming themselves into primitive man-beasts that go on a rampage. I don't know if ALTERED STATES' screenwriter Paddy Chayevsky ever saw this movie, but the similarities are pretty strong.

Another noteworthy element of this movie is the pulse-pounding musical score by Albert Glasser (THE CYCLOPS, INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN, THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN, EARTH VS. THE SPIDER). Glasser was just plain awesome--I don't know how he did it, but he could write music that, in its all-out, almost artless intensity, could simply scare the crap out of me when I was a kid, and still retains its ability to give me the creeps. Glasser wielded the studio orchestra like a blunt instrument, using blaring brass and pounding kettle drums to bludgeon the viewer with a sense of unreasoning fear. He goes full-tilt even in scenes such as Professor Groves simply entering his lab, filling the viewer with an unrelenting sense of unease that is sustained throughout the entire movie.

This almost palpable musical background also underlies another memorable sequence, in which Dr. Harkness discovers that Professor Groves has been experimenting on his deaf-mute housegirl, Celia, when he uncovers a series of photographs detailing her transformation. In yet another seeming inspiration for a later film, the sequence in which Harkness leafs through the photographs serves as a veritable blueprint for the scene in SE7EN in which "Sloth" victim Victor's photographic record of deterioration is discovered by Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman's cop characters.

All of which adds up to a pretty interesting monster flick, though admittedly it's also cheap, tawdry, and often inept. Directed by Ewald André Dupont, whose career began with silent films in 1918 and undoubtedly saw better days, THE NEANDERTHAL MAN is a lot of fun to watch, and, come to think of it, that's all it really needs to be. Whether you watch it on its own terms or simply to make fun of it, it's still an entertaining film. And at the end, Dr. Harkness gets to solemnly recite one of those classic, self-important soliloquies so common to films of this type:

"We mustn't think of him too harshly. The things he did--and they were terrible--all of us are capable of doing when we give free play to the basis which is a part of everyone. He tampered with things beyond his province...beyond what any man should do. And if it was madness...well...those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad." Oh, yeah! Gotta love it.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent ~ Rakshasa (CHFB)