The Ape/Gorilla (1940) -***
What the hell ever happened to gorilla movies, man? Back in the 40’s and 50’s, it seemed like one or two of these things came out every couple of weeks, but the closest things to a real gorilla movie I can remember hearing about or seeing during the last ten years are Congo and that completely pointless remake of Mighty Joe Young that appeared in 1998. This is a truly tragic turn of events, because as The Ape/Gorilla amply demonstrates, there’s just no substitute for a really awful gorilla movie.
As with most of the old-school gorilla flicks, The Ape also involves a scientist of questionable sanity. This man is Dr. Bernard Adrian (Boris Karloff, who one assumes was afraid that the second Hollywood horror boom would be as short-lived as the first, and wanted to make whatever money he could while he had the chance), who came to the small town where he currently resides some years ago, at the height of a polio epidemic. There were good reasons for Adrian to do so, because the doctor’s main line of research involves a radical potential cure for paralysis. (Allow me to digress for the benefit of those among my readers who were born after the mid-1970’s. Poliomyelitis, or polio for short, was a major public health problem for most of the twentieth century, before the great revolution in antibiotics mostly wiped it out, and even as late as the 60’s, just about everybody would have known someone who had had it. The disease attacks the cells of the myelin sheath, the protective covering that surrounds the axon, or transmitting end, of the patient’s nerve cells. The result, in pre-antibiotic times, was almost always permanent paralysis, either partial or total, and sometimes even death if the infection attacked the nerves of the thoracic cavity. Adrian’s line on a cure for the disease would have seemed like the purest wishful thinking in 1940, something truly in the domain of science fiction.) We will later learn that this research got Adrian into all kinds of trouble with the people who were funding it, but the doctor’s most immediate difficulties have more to do with his neighbors; like most men of science in movies of this vintage, Dr. Adrian is not a popular man. In fact, there are those who believe he caused the polio epidemic in the first place.
One of Adrian’s patients is 18-year-old Frances Clifford (White Pongo’s Maris Wrixon, who also turned up in The Face of Marble). She lost the use of her legs following the epidemic years before, and the doctor took a strong liking to her from the moment they first met because of the extent to which Frances reminds Adrian of his own daughter, who would have been the same age as Frances if she had lived past early childhood. Predictably, the doctor is fixated upon curing his surrogate daughter’s paralysis especially, and it is for this reason that he continues to see Frances even today, long after her seemingly hopeless case was brought to his attention. When we first meet Frances, the doctor is paying her a visit; it’s his daughter’s birthday, and he wants to give Frances a piece of spectacular old jewelry that was to have been the dead girl’s coming-of-age present. While the doctor, the girl, and her mother (Dorothy Vaughan, from The Mummy’s Ghost) talk, Adrian suggests that Frances ought to get out more often. Indeed, Adrian thinks she should get out that very night, and go see the circus that has recently come to town. Frances loves the idea, and she brings it up to her boyfriend, Danny Foster (Gene O’Donnell, from The Devil Bat and The Mad Ghoul), the moment he shows up on the Clifford doorstep.
We really only need a circus in this movie for one thing, when you get right down to it— its direct relevance to what passes for the plot is minimal, and scarcely continues past the second reel. But gorillas are in short supply in most small country towns, and a circus seems as good a means as any for introducing one into the story. This gorilla, as it happens, doesn’t much care for its handler. We can see why; all this shit-for-brains knows about working with animals is that most of them will stop whatever they had been doing if you whomp them a couple of times with a stick. Sure, the handler claims to have a grudge against this particular ape, on account of how it killed his father (who had been its handler as well), but the way the circus manager tells it, Daddy used to treat the gorilla just as badly as Sonny-Boy, and thus pretty much had it coming. Of course you realize where this is going. After the show, the handler starts whacking the poor ape with his stick over some rinky-dink provocation, and the gorilla decides it’s had enough. The ape reaches out through the bars of its cage, grabs Sonny-Boy by the throat, and breaks his neck. This fortuitously occurs right as some other knucklehead drops some kind of flaming thing on the hay-strewn ground inside the main tent, turning the whole circus grounds into an inferno. The gorilla, understandably upset at this turn of events, smashes its way out of the cage and runs off, just as a few of the panicked performers spot the gravely wounded handler lying on the ground in front of the cage.
The injured animal handler is brought to the home of Dr. Adrian, which ends up being not quite as good a thing for the patient as his colleagues might have hoped. Adrian has his maid, Jane (Gertrude Hoffman), help him set the wounded man up in his backroom laboratory, and after everyone else has left, he gets to work. Telling his patient all sorts of alarming things about how he’s about to “make history,” Adrian sticks a syringe into the handler’s spine and draws out an ampule of fluid. The next day, Adrian comes to see Frances again. He tells her he has developed a radical new treatment that he would like to try on her. He warns her that the therapy will be extremely painful, but that when it’s all over, she’ll be able to walk again, just like she did before she came down with polio. The doctor then injects her in the back with a familiar-looking syringe. Less than a day later, Frances has begun to feel a heaviness in her legs, in which she has never had even the slightest sensation since her paralysis all those years ago. Adrian is ecstatic over his success, but in the midst of his rejoicing, he carelessly sets down his precious vial of spinal fluid serum in such a way that it rolls off of the table and shatters on the tile floor of his lab. So much for Frances’s miracle cure.
Now about that ape... The creature has been running loose in the woods around town ever since its escape, and Sheriff Jed Halliday (Henry Hall, from The Mad Monster and The Flying Serpent) thinks it’s about time something were done about it. He assembles a posse consisting of every able-bodied man in the village (except for the obnoxious and usurious town banker, who is obviously not long for this movie), and sets them to patrolling the outlying land each night. Before the hunters can find their prey, however, the gorilla is drawn to Adrian’s house by the scent of its hated former handler. The ape breaks into Adrian’s laboratory, and smashes things up until Adrian kills it with a massive injection of anesthetic. The doctor then does something utterly incredible. As we learn in the next scene, he skins the dead ape so that he can go out at night dressed in its hide and kill people for their spinal fluid, in order to make another, bigger batch of serum for Frances! I’m going to diverge from my usual practice here, and quote another reviewer; there just isn’t anything I could say that would capture the spirit of this plot twist so succinctly as Michael Weldon did in his brief review. Writing in The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, he says, “What a brilliant idea! Nobody would notice a gorilla killing people!” Indeed.
The first person on “the ape’s” list is that ass-ratchet banker. See— I told you. After strangling the son of a bitch, Adrian leaves him to be found by Sheriff Halliday’s posse, members of which promptly bring him over to the doctor’s house. More spinal fluid extraction naturally follows, and again, the refined serum is administered to Frances the following morning.
Adrian has two problems, though. The first and less serious is Danny, who doesn’t trust Adrian or his experimental therapy. The sticking point for him seems to be that he can’t comprehend how anything that causes Frances pain (the feeling has come back into the girl’s legs in a big way, and what the nerves down there have to say isn’t pleasant) could be helping her. “I don’t understand it,” he says, “and I don’t like what I don’t understand.” Hey, at least he’s honest. The bigger problem is another doctor from out of town, a guy named McNulty (Selmer Jackson, from Revolt of the Zombies and Doctor X), whom the sheriff has brought in to act as coroner and medical examiner on the gorilla case. McNulty notices the marks left by Adrian’s syringe on the two victims’ backs, and that gets him thinking in directions that Adrian might not like. McNulty and Adrian go way back, you see. The new doctor works for the research foundation that expelled Adrian years ago for his unethical experiments in the treatment of paralysis— even back then, Adrian had gotten it into his head that spinal fluid from healthy people might be turned into a curative serum for paralytics, and the implication is that he wasn’t too much pickier about how he got the stuff back then than he is now. It looks like the game might just be up for Adrian, but he knows something we may have forgotten: that this is a 1940’s horror movie, and in 1940’s horror movies, no doctor, whatever his background or credentials, has an ethical bone in his body when confronted with evidence that a morally questionable experiment has panned out. When Adrian introduces McNulty to Frances, and shows him the results of his therapy so far, McNulty doesn’t just back off, he offers to reinstate Adrian to his old position with the foundation! I guess nothing succeeds like success...
But not too much success. Frances can move her legs a bit, but she still can’t walk, and that means Adrian is going to have to get out his gorilla skin again. This time, though, Sheriff Halliday thinks he knows how to catch the “ape.” He’s noticed that his ape-sniffing dogs go nuts whenever they come near Adrian or his house. Figuring that there must be something around there that attracts the gorilla, he stations his heavily armed deputies such that they can keep a close eye on the place, and on all the approaches to it from the woods. Looks like Frances might not get the full use of her legs back, after all.
Oh, Boris, Boris, Boris... We expect this kind of foolishness from Lugosi— in fact, Bela starred in (get this) an even sillier movie involving mad doctors, apes, and spinal fluid three years later, during the Monogram Pictures phase of his career— but surely Karloff had more self-respect than this?! Nope. Apparently not— at least not in 1940, when no one could have predicted that he’d still be a bankable property, even in the late 1960’s. The amazing thing is that Karloff’s career survived this anything-for-a-buck period, while Lugosi’s was destroyed by a similar string of injudiciously chosen acting gigs which sent him off on a downward spiral toward morphine addiction and Ed Wood Jr. I’d like to think it was Karloff’s superior talent that saved him from sharing Lugosi’s fate, but I have a sneaking suspicion it was really just dumb luck.