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Sunday, October 29, 2017

RETURN OF THE APE MAN -- DVD Review by Porfle

It sounds like a sequel to Monogram's 1944 simian shiver-fest THE APE MAN, also starring Bela Lugosi, but RETURN OF THE APE MAN (also 1944) gives us an all-new story, an all-new ape man, and an all-new horribly unscrupulous mad doctor character for Bela to sink his incisors into.

This time Bela's experiments in freezing people and bringing them back to life (he practices on a bum named "Willie the Weasel") come to a triumphant climax when he and his associate, John Carradine, find a half-human, half-ape cave creature frozen in the Arctic ice and, in Bela's basement laboratory, revive the violent, uncontrollable wretch.

Needless to say, the ape man eventually gets away and wreaks low-budget havoc on the modest Monogram backlot.  He looks ridiculous with a mop of hair and shaggy beard, animal-hide toga, and furry boots, but he's a fun character who adds some amusement value to the film even at its most grim.

This latter quality of RETURN OF THE APE MAN is supplied in spades by Bela in one of his signature roles as a ruthless, utterly inhuman scientist to whom nothing in more important than his latest quest for scientific advancement.  When he suggests transplanting part of a living person's brain into the ape man, thus either killing the donor or rendering him an idiot, Carradine is aghast and calls it murder.  "Murder is an ugly word," Bela retorts.  "As a scientist, I don't recognize it."

As you might guess, Carradine himself ends up the unwilling brain donor after an unsuccessful attempt by Bela to secure Carradine's future nephew-in-law Steve (Michael Ames) to do the honors.  Thus, when the newly-improved ape man escapes again he's drawn to Carradine's house where he terrorizes niece Anne (Judith Gibson) and wife Hilda (Mary Currier) before clashing with the local police. 

Everything looks wonderfully low-low-budget as only 40s-era black-and-white horror films from studios such as Monogram can look.  The subject matter and its presentation are probably among the most tawdry and repellant of mainstream films circa 1945 as the filmmakers seem to relish each atrocity almost as much as Bela's sadistic, vainglorious, and utterly mad doctor. 

It reminds me of a later film that could be similarly described, THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE, right down to an almost identical basement laboratory where horrible experiments take place and a "monster in the closet" (here, the ape man struggling against the bars of his cell) waits to break free for his climactic rampage. 

For fans of such dark doings in that distinctive Monogram style, this one delivers enough of the goods to make it one entertaining romp.  (Needless to say, others beware--you won't find much to like here.)  I love watching two distinguished actors such as Lugosi and Carradine imbuing it with their talent and professionalism, each slumming at Monogram for his own reasons and making the most of the lurid, dime-novel script. 

The rest of the cast manage to get through it without falling over, which, for the lovely Judith Gibson (aka Teala Loring, BOWERY BOMBSHELL, BLUEBEARD), is saying a lot (she's not the most expressive actress).  As our hero Steve, Michael Ames (the future Tod Andrews of such films as IN HARM'S WAY, HANG 'EM HIGH, FROM HELL IT CAME, and THE BABY) marks time waiting for better things.  Mary Currier (MAGIC TOWN, VOODOO MAN), sort of a poor man's Mary Astor, plays Carradine's wife Hilda in dignified fashion.

Top: Frank Moran as the Ape Man. Bottom: George Zucco in the role in an early still.

The ape man himself is credited to both Frank Moran (ROAD TO UTOPIA, MIRACLE OF MORGAN'S CREEK) and the distinguished George Zucco (THE MUMMY'S HAND, THE MUMMY'S TOMB), who doesn't appear in the film at all save for a few seconds lying on the lab table before taking ill and having to be replaced.  (Monogram still gave him his promised third-billing credit.)

Image quality for the Olive Films DVD release is miles above the usual public domain stuff, and while sticklers for utter clarity may quibble over its specks and occasional rough spots, I found the print used here to be quite watchable.  Besides, as I've often mentioned, those little imperfections only increase my feelings of nostalgia because they remind me of watching such films on the late show or matinees at the theater. 

With a cast headed by stalwarts Lugosi and Carradine (the two embodiments of Dracula himself over at Universal, not counting "son" Lon Chaney), a perversely amusing man-monster who might very well be the direct ancestor of Captain Caveman, lots of sordid goings on to both delight and strain credulity, and that overall Monogram aura of exquisite cheapness, RETURN OF THE APE MAN is the kind of low-rent fun that makes me giddy just putting it into the DVD player. 

Order it from Olive Films
Also available in Blu-ray

Rated: NR (not rated)
Subtitles: English (optional)
Video: 1.33:1 aspect ratio; B&W
Runtime: 61 minutes
Year: 1944
Extras: none



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