The Ape Man/Lock Your Doors (1943) -***
Two of my favorite bits of movie trivia concern what two of my favorite actors thought were the stupidest movies they ever made. John Carradine— who had as wide a range of howlers to choose from as anybody— reasonably singled out Billy the Kid vs. Dracula as his personal standout turkey, while Peter Cushing cited The Vampire Beast Craves Blood as the nadir of his own career. What I wouldn’t do to learn how Bela Lugosi would have answered that question if it had been put to him. After all, Lugosi stooped lower as a matter of course than Cushing ever even considered, while his career-ending collaboration with Ed Wood Jr. represents an abdication of thespian dignity at least the equal of Carradine’s later work with Al Adamson. Something tells me that if Lugosi were alive today to nominate the dumbest movie on his resume, he’d be likely to pick one from the series of films he made for producer Sam Katzman at Monogram Pictures during the early 1940’s. That phase of his career paired him up with Angelo Rossito, brought him face to face with the Bowery Boys— twice— cast him as a plastic surgeon and spymaster in the employ of Imperial Japan, and involved him in some of the maddest mad science of the decade. You want an example? Fine. Is turning yourself into The Ape Man by shooting up with a gorilla’s cerebrospinal fluid mad enough for you?
Professional ghost-hunter Agatha Brewster (Minerva Urecal, from The Corpse Vanishes and 7 Faces of Dr. Lao) has just returned from a year-long sojourn in Europe (hunting ghosts, of course); she is met at the Port Authority building by Dr. George Randall (Henry Hall, of The Ape and The Flying Serpent), a longtime friend and colleague of her brother, Dr. James Brewster (Lugosi), and the man has a bit of bad news to convey. As Agatha would have learned already had she not been on the other side of the ocean, James has gone missing. The story is all over the papers, and a reporter from the Daily News by the name of Jeff Carter (Wallace Ford, from Freaks and The Mummy’s Hand) starts pestering her for an interview the moment he lays eyes on her. (As a matter of fact, Jeff is put up to this by a man [Ralph Littlefield, of Voodoo Man and The Monster that Challenged the World] whose name we never will learn, but who will repeatedly pop up throughout the film to steer one character or another either into or out of danger. It’s all just a very long lead-up to what might be the most mind-bendingly silly twist ending I’ve ever seen.) Both Agatha and Dr. Randall are eager to get rid of Carter, but for very different reasons. Ms. Brewster just wants to be left alone, but Randall has a secret he urgently needs to tell her— which he of course cannot do if there’s a newspaper reporter around. James Brewster, you see, hasn’t really disappeared at all. The whole story was concocted by Randall himself in order to conceal something much stranger. As he tells his partner's sister, “prepare yourself for quite a shock.”
Finally shaking off Carter, the twosome drive out to the Brewster mansion, where Randall leads Agatha through a secret passage and into the laboratory hidden in the cellar. It is here that Agatha will face that shock Randall warned her about, for locked in a cage beside a none-too-convincing gorilla is James Brewster... and oh, my God— he’s gone and turned Amish!!!! Actually, no. It isn’t quite that bad. Brewster has that ridiculous beard not because he’s become a Mennonite, but because he’s become an ape man. It’s the kind of thing that could happen to anybody, really. One day he and Randall were screwing around in the lab, giving Brewster “ape fluid injections,” and the next thing you know, James has turned halfway into a gorilla, and there doesn’t seem to be anything he or Randall can do to rectify the situation. Like I said, could happen to anyone.
As it happens, Brewster himself believes that there is a cure for his condition. Because his transformation was brought about by an infusion of spinal fluid from an ape, it seems logical that a similar injection from a human being would have the opposite effect. That isn’t the kind of thing you can just pick up at your local RiteAid, however, and it is the complications that will inevitably result from acquiring the spinal fluid that accounts for Dr. Randall’s refusal to cooperate with his partner’s scheme. What James neglects to tell his sister when he explains his plan for a cure is that getting a sufficient quantity of human spinal fluid to treat him will mean murdering the donor. We all know where this is headed, of course. Randall and Agatha may balk at killing for a cure, but Dr. Brewster has no such compunctions— and he’s got a pet gorilla to help him commit the crime. And because Randall has set himself up as an obstacle between Brewster and his cure, it seems only fitting that the donor of Brewster’s first injection should be his partner’s butler. With an audacity that is rare even in cheap horror movies, Brewster and his ape climb in one of the windows and dispatch the luckless servant even as his master talks to a pair of police detectives (The Frozen Ghost’s Charles Jordan and Wheeler Oakman, of The Phantom Empire and The Bowery at Midnight) about the supposedly vanished James in the very next room. The only clue that greets the cops when they follow their host into the backroom laboratory is the clump of black fur in the dead man’s hand.
Meanwhile, Jeff Carter and his new photographer, Billie Mason (Louise Currie, from You’ll Find Out and Voodoo Man)— and yes, the movie does indeed mine Billie’s androgynous name for ever speck of ersatz hilarity that can be extracted— have been taking a closer look at the Brewster place, and they think they smell a scoop. Mason just happens to have caught an eavesdropping James in the background while snapping a picture of his sister, and the distinctly ape-like countenance of the unknown figure in the photo could put an interesting new spin on the recently released police report claiming that Randall’s butler was slain by a gorilla. If the drug Brewster made from the stolen fluid had worked, then this might not really have mattered, but because the injection only partially restores the doctor’s humanity— and temporarily, at that— the near-constant presence of two nosy reporters in the vicinity of the Brewster estate spells real trouble for the ape man. What’s more, James multiplies the chances of his getting caught a zillion-fold when he leads his ape out on a three-night murder binge, hoping to store up enough spinal fluid to effect his complete and permanent restoration. But even that rash action avails Brewster nothing, for Randall, knowing the enormous cost at which his partner obtained the new round of drugs, refuses to administer them to James, dashing the beaker against the laboratory floor instead. If you think the less-than-grand finale might involve a thwarted Brewster trying to drain Billie Mason’s spine in a last-ditch effort to make up the loss, well duh. How the hell else was this story going to end?
Those of you who know his other work will not be surprised to discover that William Beaudine is the director responsible for the fiasco that is The Ape Man. Beaudine was in many was the perfect man to helm a Monogram picture— at the very least, he knew better than anyone how to bring a movie in under budget, and far be it from Sam Katzman to complain about the corners Beaudine would cut in order to do it. These were men to whom quality simply was not an issue, and boy does it ever show in this movie. As is the case with the somewhat earlier (and even cheaper) Lugosi vehicle, The Devil Bat, there would have been more than enough stupidity to tide the movie over inherent in the basic premise alone, but the filmmakers apparently weren’t satisfied with that. So not only do we have that “ape fluid” lunacy and the ridiculous gorilla man makeup that follows from it, we also have Lugosi and his gorilla-suit sidekick repeatedly engaging each other in hierarchy-establishing intimidation contests. (There’s a good chance that nothing in the world is less dignified than a 60-year-old Hungarian attempting to act like a silverback gorilla.) We get more hard-boiled 40’s reporter banter than any 64-minute movie could possibly need. We get, as I’ve already mentioned, a kicker ending so ludicrous that I would be doing you a terrible disservice even by hinting at what it was. We even get a few of Beaudine’s trademark continuity flubs, such as the scene in which Jeff Carter, while fast-talking his way into the Brewster mansion, keeps taking off his hat, which apparently teleports back up to his head whenever the camera changes angles. The Ape Man is too forthright about its “ah, who cares— it’s only a horror movie” attitude to elicit the same species of awed wonder from an audience as Bride of the Monster or Glen or Glenda, but in its mercenary way, it is no less crappy than either of those films, and no fan of Bela Lugosi at his most debased should miss it.