If you’re at all like me, this Hallowe’en season you’ll be asking the question: “What are the best ape-related classic studio era horror films for me to watch this Hallowe’en season, not including King Kong or its sequels Son of Kong and Mighty Joe Young, which are GIANT ape movies, a different species of horror film altogether?”
Not to worry! I got your answer right here! (ape-like gesture)
The Unholy Three (1925)
Amusingly the ape in Tod Browning’s silent horror classic is upstaged by a trans ventriloquist (Lon Chaney), a Little Person (Harry Earles), and others. Chaney’s crooked character employs his simian as muscle in order to keep strongman Victor McLaglen in check. Referred to as a giant ape in the intertitle dialogue, the critter was actually a fairly small chimpanzee, made to look larger by having Earles stand in for the other men. This technique may actually explain some of the more bizarre aspects of Murders in the Rue Morgue below. Prior to that though, The Unholy Three had another shot:
The Unholy Three (1930)
In the talkie remake of the film, the ape was an actor in a gorilla suit, setting a precedent which fans of B movies and lowbrow comedy have cherished for generations.
Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)
Yes, it’s “based on the Poe story” but, on the other hand, no, not really. The only thing the film shares in common with the story is the event of a body being stuffed up a chimney by an ape. This version concerns Bela Lugosi as one “Dr. Mirakle”, who appalls the people of Paris by exhibiting a “gorilla” which is alternately portrayed by an actual chimpanzee and a guy in a gorilla suit, often in different angles during the same scene. Even worse, he preaches the heinous doctrine of evolution! And did you notice how he happens to resemble an ape? Worse than all of this, he is performing an evil experiment, kidnapping maidens and injecting them with ape blood, which kills them. Then he very shockingly dumps them into the river. Instead of following the detective (Dupin) as he gradually solves the unexplained murders (the template that would come to be used by Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and a million others, we know from the outset who the murderer is. Dupin is a medical student, who eventually solves the mystery with a microscope—and the next victim, in an amazing coincidence, is his girlfriend. Still, the movie is as beautiful to look at as the other Universal horror films of the time, if you can forgive the absolutely daffy element of how the ape itself is represented.
The Monster Walks (1932)
How disappointing that the “monster” is merely a chimpanzee, and that he remains locked in a cage throughout the entire movie, which is just a boring murder mystery with the typical thunderstorm, moody servants, uncle in a wheelchair, shifty lawyer, and the reading of the will of the recently deceased head of the household. “Sleep ‘n’ Eat” is the racist comic relief. Every so often a scary ape hand reaches through a hole in the wall or headboard of the bed and strangles somebody. In the end, we learn the butler, in cahoots with the uncle, has been wearing the monkey arm. But he gets his comeuppance. In the last scene , as he is whipping the ape through his cage, the ape grabs the whip and pulls him toward him, and strangles him. One of the very worst of the early horror movies.
This one is more of a comedy/horror film/ murder mystery. Seems largely a parody of The Bat. The All-star cast features the Ritz Brothers (as detectives), Bela Lugosi, Patsy Kelly (as a perpetually fretting maid), and the omnipresent Lionel Atwill. And a guy in a gorilla suit.
The Ape (1940)
A low-grade cheapie. One of the very few times that Boris Karloff sank as low as Lugosi was capable of falling. In this one he plays a doctor who disguises himself as an ape, the better to kill people and take their spinal fluid in order to create a cure for “paralysis”. Oh, there is a set up. He has been working on this cure for 25 years, and tried and failed to cure his own wife. Now he lives next door to a young girl he would like to cure. And an ape has conveniently escaped from a nearby circus. Karloff kills him and apparently makes a costume of its dead body. Anything for science! Just generally tedious and bad.
The Monster and The Girl (1941)
A conventional crime picture involving rival gangsters — UNTIL one of them is executed for murder, and George Zucco emerges as one “Dr. Perry”, removes the brain from the corpse and transplants it into an ape — an ape who wants revenge.
The Apeman (1943)
Directed by the wonderful William Beaudine. This is merely the penultimate level of badness (E. Wood being the gold standard). As in The Alligator People, we begin in medias res – a sister (who happens to be a ghost hunter) finds her long missing brother (Bela Lugosi), whose research has caused him to become an ape creature. He is now searching for the antidote. (An unsatisfactory plot formula, it seems to me. Better to meet the hero initially and then watch him change…a journey). Here, we merely watch Lugosi as a half man/ half ape, who, with the aid of a supernaturally well-behaved full ape assistant, must steal the “spinal fluid” from still living victims for his antidote—a process fatal to the victim. The other characters are the requisite policemen and reporters, Lugosi’s colleague and his wife. The movie is surprisingly dull for such a delicious set-up. And, truth to tell, what would be so bad about being a half man/half ape, anyway? So bad you’d kill for the antidote? Why not just come out in the open, gaining fame for your discovery in the process, and get the entire scientific community to work on the antidote while you accept lucrative banana endorsements? Ah, but this is the world of fantasy. There is also a funny coda. This mysterious man who periodically pops up through the story tells us in the end, that he is the screenwriter!
Return of the Apeman (1944)
Was the first one such a smash hit they needed a sequel? This one has nothing to do with the original. Lugosi and John Carradine are scientists working on the problem of suspended animation. They get it to work on a homeless man they have frozen. Realizing that it works, they launch an arctic expedition to find intact frozen cavemen—and they find one! They bring him back to the lab and thaw him out. But the caveman can’t talk to relay what he knows. Lugosi decides to transplant part of a modern brain into his head. Carradine refuses to participate—it will be murder to do so. Lugosi tricks him (with an electric floor plate that paralyzes him but somehow allows him to talk) and takes his brain. The caveman runs amok in city and commits some murders. Authorities chase him back to lab. Caveman kills Lugosi, but then dies in fire. He should have stayed in bed!
The Monster and the Ape (1945)
In this Columbia serial Ralph Morgan (Frank Morgan’s older brother) invents a robot that gets robot-napped by rival professor George Macready for his own nefarious purposes, aided and added by his trained gorilla. Young Robert Lowery’s mission is to battle the ape so he can retrieve the robot!
White Pongo (1945)
A British film, set in the Belgian Congo. Scientists battle natives and seek a mythical white gorilla purported to be a missing link between ape and man. A safari stalks him (and to a certain extent he stalks them). Finally the white pongo fights an oridinary gorilla and is sufficiently weakened for the scientists to be able to catch him.
Polynesian-American actor Jon Hall in a story about a boy raised by gorillas.
Mark of the Gorilla (1950)
Johnny Weissmuller’s Jungle Jim must foil a gang of Nazis who are looking for gold in the African jungle dressed as gorillas.
Bride of the Gorilla (1952)
Despite the unprepossessing title, which we used to make fun of when we were kids, this is, I have to say, objectively the BEST of all the ape horror movies. It was written and directed by Curt Siodmak, who wrote the classic The Wolf Man and numerous other major horror titles. It’s a pretty solid story; only the title is unfortunate. Siodmak’s original title was The Face in the Water, which is unmemorable, but at least doesn’t cheapen the story. The same sexual themes at the back of most horror films (nearly all of them, now that I think of it) are foregrounded in this film. Raymond Burr is a fairly brutish plantation overseer in South America. He bemoans the fact that he doesn’t have slaves to do his work. He is indifferent to the death of one of his workers. He knocks up a native girl and ignores the situation. Then he kills the boss so he can take his wife. The mother of the pregnant girl puts a spell on him to turn him into a creature, the titular gorilla. Much like Jeckyll and Hyde or the Wolfman, he begins to transform, and he keeps hearing “the call of the wild”. By the end he is ready to abandon his bride and take to the jungle completely. But she follows him. In the end, the local sheriff (Lon Chaney, Jr.) and a doctor shoot him as he is carrying the bride through the treetops. The film is marred by its low budget. The gorilla outfit is just yet another Halloween party grade costume. But the spine of this story is good. Could be re-made. Would be great with Benecio del Toro—way better for him than the ill conceived Wolf Man remake he starred in.
Dare I say, William Beaudine’s masterpiece? I’m guessing the inspiration was the runaway smash hit Bride of the Gorilla. Jerry Lewis impersonator Sammy Petrillo and his partner Duke Mitchell are stranded on a desert island with a bunch of natives and Bela Lugosi, who plans to turn them into gorillas. (At one point, Mitchell does transform. Petrillo is able to recognize him when he manages to sing his signature song “Indeed I Do”. ) Anyway, it’s all okay. It turns out to have all been a dream. When last we leave the boys (a comedy team that never made another film) they are doing their act in a jungle-themed nightclub. More on the film here.
Gorilla at Large (1954)
Featuring what is undoubtedly the most prestigious cast ever assembled for a gorilla movie, Gorilla At Large boasts Lee J. Cobb, Ann Bancroft, Cameron Mitchell, Raymond Burr and Lee Marvin. It’s also the first, last and only one in 3-D. But don’t go expecting a lot of thrills and chills. This is one of those movies that makes you sit through seeming hours of boring melodrama about a love triangle, and an equally dull murder mystery before giving you the good stuff. Only at the film’s climax are we finally rewarded with the spectacle of Goliath the Gorilla climbing to the top of the roller coaster with the screaming Ann Bancroft slung over his shoulder.
The Bride and the Beast (1958)
Written by Ed Wood; directed by Adrian Weiss. This one owes more than a little to Bride of the Gorilla and Gorilla at Large As in the earlier Bride it is a film that derives its suspense from the constant suggestion that a gorilla (guy in a gorilla suit) is going to rape a beautiful woman. Scientist brings his new bride home, where he keeps a gorilla in the basement. Later they got on an expedition to Africa, where they meet several large gorillas and see some stock footage of a tiger doing battle with a crocodile.
The Ivory Ape (1980)
A late entry to our series, through the genius of Rankin-Bass! What’s old is new again! In this U.S./ Japanese co-production, Jack Palance plays a big-game hunter out to kill or capture the titular Albino siminian, while government softies Steven Keats and Cindy Pickett only want to save it and give it hugs. It all happens in Bermuda for some reason.