Bride of the Gorilla (1951) **½
Considering the great success of the horror films Val Lewton produced for RKO’s B-unit during the 1940’s, it’s odd that so few copies of those movies were mounted by other studios. What’s stranger still is what a large proportion of those few Lewton-wannabes that do exist didn’t come out until the 1950’s, long after the Lewton pictures themselves had faded away to a vampire existence of revival house engagements and TV syndication. Strangest of all, though, is that the copycat movie that best tapped into the true Lewton spirit should be Bride of the Gorilla, a cheaply made Lon Chaney Jr. vehicle from the producer of the infamous Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla.
Klaas Van Gelder (Paul Cavanagh, from The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake and The Son of Dr. Jekyll) owns a rubber plantation somewhere in the South American jungle, where he lives with his wife, Dina (The Four-Sided Triangle’s Barbara Payton), and Barney Chavez (Raymond Burr, best remembered in these parts for being edited into the US versions of Godzilla: King of the Monsters and Godzilla 1985), the man whom he has hired to manage his armies of native workers. Inevitably, there are serious problems around the Van Gelder place. Klaas and Dina seem never to see each other; he’s always burying himself in his books, while she frankly prefers the company of Barney Chavez and neighborhood physician Dr. Viet (Tom Conway, of Voodoo Woman and The Atomic Submarine), both of whom are quietly (or not so quietly in Barney’s case) in love with her. Further complicating matters is the fact that Barney is only in it for himself, whatever “it” may be taken to be. He does his job in a slack and lazy manner, and his love for Dina hasn’t stopped him from stringing along her chambermaid, Larina (Carol Varga, from Space Master X-7 and Untamed Mistress), at the same time. Van Gelder has finally caught on to him, though, and he dismisses the tomcatting overseer right in the middle of dinner. However, before getting on his way, Barney accosts his boss out on the plantation grounds, where the ensuing argument between them escalates into a fist-fight, which ends with Van Gelder being first knocked out, and then bitten by a poisonous snake. The whole altercation is witnessed by Al-Long (Gisela Werbisek), a tribal shamaness (and possibly Larina’s mother) who also works as a servant of some kind in the Van Gelder household, and she comes to Van Gelder during his dying moments to lay a curse on Barney, avenging not only the planter, but Larina as well, who has finally figured out just how little she really means to Chavez.
Strange stories emerge at the inquest the next afternoon. Both Al-Long and Dina Van Gelder offer perjured alibis for Barney, despite what would seem (at least for Al-Long) to be their natural interest in putting him away, and Dr. Viet appears curiously reluctant to give Police Commissioner Taro (Lon Chaney Jr.) his honest opinion regarding Van Gelder’s death. Though he obviously thinks something more than a snakebite befell Klaas, he limits his comments to assessing the immediate cause of death. Taro is quite open about believing that Chavez is somehow to blame, but he concedes that the evidence thus far presented to him offers insufficient basis upon which to arrest him. But what really troubles the commissioner is something that was found on the ground beside the dead man’s body— leaves from the peli-guan plant, which figures prominently in the local Indio tribe’s magical pharmacopoeia, especially as a vehicle for curses. Taro reluctantly heads back to town, leaving Chavez free to do as he will.
Barney and Dina marry with positively indecent speed once Klaas is out of the picture, which seems to be just a bit more than the degree of affection which we’ve thus far seen between them could support. And despite Chavez’s earlier suggestions that he and Dina should sell the plantation and leave the jungle behind them, he steps instead directly into the shoes left empty by his predecessor. There may be more at work there than meets the eye, though, for the specific curse Al-Long laid on Barney was one of savagery; he is to see himself as a beast of the jungle, and to know contentment only when prowling among its secret paths by night. Inconveniently enough, the first manifestation of this curse comes on Barney’s wedding night, when he gets it into his head that he has transformed into a gorilla, and leaves his new wife alone in the plantation house. Dina believes Barney has simply come down with some sort of brain-addling fever, and she does not initially draw a connection between her husband’s weird nocturnal ramblings and the rumors circulating among the field hands of a deadly animal that stalks the jungle on two legs. Dr. Viet doesn’t make the leap either, although he is sharp enough to suspect that somebody has been poisoning Chavez with a psychoactive drug. In fact, the only person who seems to have any inkling at all that the crazy man roaming the woods in the dark might be identical with the humanoid jungle demon that has the plantation workers scared out of their wits is Commissioner Taro. But even he does nothing at first, insisting that solid evidence be produced before he’ll act on his unspoken hunch. He might not be doing either Barney or Dina any favors, though— think of what might happen when the side of Chavez that thinks he’s an ape starts to share the human side’s interest in that pretty blonde who lives in the big, white house.
More than any other non-RKO film I’ve seen, Bride of the Gorilla captures the defining quality of the best of the Val Lewton horror films, their capacity to work equally well whether you want to credit the reality of the supernatural or not. Barney Chavez turns into an ape only in his own mind (we never see the distinctive gray-furred gorilla suit except in reflection and in pieces— hands, feet, etc.— shown from Barney’s point of view), and it is a matter of interpretation whether he does so because of a brujería curse, because Al-Long is spiking his food with hallucinogenic herbs, or because his own guilty conscience is slowly driving him insane. This legitimate ambiguity, combined with a solid performance from Raymond Burr, raises Bride of the Gorilla above the level of its tacky title, stingy budget, and generally awkward and unbelievable dialogue. For once, we have here a movie that’s a bit more clever than it thinks it is, and while there’s still plenty of stuff wrong with it (Chaney, for example, is way out of his depth as the Western-educated Indio policeman torn between his superstitious instincts and the dogged rationalism instilled by his training), it would be a mistake to focus too much on the missteps. Bride of the Gorilla was supposed to be a disposable second feature, so the bare fact that it turns out to have a brain in its head somewhere is a kind of small triumph.