Jungle Woman (1944) **½
If 1942 was the year RKO issued the first real challenge to Universal’s dominance of the Hollywood horror scene, and 1943 was the year Universal answered that challenge with a two-pronged more-bang-for-the-buck strategy of lower budgets and monster rallies, then 1944 was the year the venerable old studio conceded defeat, at least from a creative standpoint. While RKO was continuing to experiment with hitherto untried ways of giving audiences the willies, Universal contented itself with cranking out one sequel after another. 1944 gave us the absolute nadir of the Frankenstein-Dracula-Wolf Man series (at least until Abbot and Costello came along), a pair of staggeringly dim-witted entries in the saga of Kharis the Mummy, a serviceable but unambitious Invisible Man retread, and two— count ‘em, two— sequels to Captive Wild Woman. Now don’t get me wrong, here; I enjoyed Captive Wild Woman, and it proved to be far better made than I had any reason to expect. But can I honestly say it deserved two sequels? Hardly. Then again, the first of those sequels— Jungle Woman— is almost as unexpectedly rewarding as the original, even if it shares and in some respects intensifies its predecessor’s flaws.
Jungle Woman also incorporates a recurring defect of Universal’s monster sequels, the inordinately long time spent bringing the audience up to speed on the events of the previous film. In this case, we’re talking about fully fifteen minutes out of scarcely an hour between one set of credits and the other. We see again Captive Wild Woman’s climactic chaos, as a lightning strike on the central support pole turns the big top of the Whipple Circus into a bedlam of screaming, fleeing spectators and rampaging, panic-crazed big cats. We see Cheela, the ape with a human brain and a human endocrine system, being mistakenly gunned down by the police after rescuing her erstwhile trainer, Fred Mason (Milburn Stone again), from an attacking lion. We see Paula Dupree (Acquanetta, who’ll also be sticking around after the stock footage), Cheela’s apparently human alter-ego, being shown around the circus by her mad-scientist creator (John Carradine, who will not) in the days not long before the opening night disaster. And we see Beth Colman (Evelyn Ankers, the last of the holdovers from Captive Wild Woman) putting the pieces together and figuring out that Cheela and Paula are one and the same. (Note, by the way, that all this footage recycled from Captive Wild Woman is itself heavily freighted with footage recycled from The Big Cage!)
But there’s a new wrinkle being exposed amid all this recap. It turns out that among the spectators at that fateful circus performance was a second endocrinologist (and apparently a psychiatrist, too) named Dr. Fletcher (J. Carrol Naish, from Dr. Renault’s Secret and The Beast with Five Fingers). Fletcher noticed how human the gorilla acted when it came to Mason’s rescue, and he arranged to buy the carcass for study. The thing is, though, that Fletcher also notices something everyone else missed when he gets Cheela home— she’s not quite dead, after all! The vital signs are very faint, but they’re definitely there.
Naturally, Fletcher sets about nursing the gorilla back to health, and while he’s at it, he looks up Fred Mason to get some background information on Cheela. It is from Mason that Fletcher learns about the late Dr. Walters, and the strange coincidence between his unsuccessful attempt to buy the ape from Mason’s boss and Cheela’s unexplained disappearance from the circus. This leads Fletcher to put in a bid to buy Walters’s old clinic, and when he succeeds, he wastes little time in delving into Walters’s notes regarding his trailblazing research on glandular secretions. But Fletcher must have stopped reading before he got to the part about turning Cheela into Paula Dupree by means of brain and gland transplants from two most unwilling human donors, because he has no idea what’s going on when the recovered Cheela escapes from his lab, and a beautiful but apparently mute woman turns up wandering around the clinic grounds on the same night.
The girl is, of course, Paula Dupree. She behaves docilely enough while Fletcher tries to figure out who she is and what seems to be troubling her, but she will speak to no one, and is actively hostile toward Fletcher’s retarded inmate-handyman, Willie (Eddie Hyans). In fact, it isn’t until Fletcher’s daughter, Jean (Lois Collier, from Cobra Woman and The Cat Creeps), comes to visit, bringing her boyfriend, Bob (Richard David), along with her, that Paula starts to open up. Paula looks to be taking quite a liking to Bob, which is a bit odd, considering how vehemently in love with Fred Mason she was in the last movie, set only a month or so before the events of Jungle Woman. In any event, Paula starts trying to put the make on the unattainable man, and just like last time, that leads her straight into confrontation with her intended paramour’s woman. Another rampage of simian jealousy results, but this time it is thwarted not by its intended victim, but by Dr. Fletcher, who finally figures out what’s really going on when it’s already almost too late.
You could say that Jungle Woman is just like Captive Wild Woman, only more so. It’s another ridiculously short, astonishingly cheap time-waster with a bit of big-studio gloss to distinguish it from something like The Devil Bat or The Corpse Vanishes. It suffers a bit from the decision to give Acquanetta actual dialogue this time (Ouch! Her delivery is bad even for a gorilla!), and J. Carrol Naish is much less compelling in the mad (or at least misguided) scientist role than was John Carradine. Jungle Woman also lamentably lacks its predecessor’s comparatively strong female lead (Beth Colman and Fred Mason disappear from the story shortly after they’ve finished reminding us what happened the last time around), and it is hampered by a flashback-heavy story structure that emphasizes talky exposition at the expense of action. On the other hand, that very defect has the effect of compressing what action we see into an even tighter package than the film’s extremely brief running time would have required to begin with, which is a very good thing in this case. And besides, I’m dead certain this is the first time I’ve ever seen stock footage within stock footage. I think Jungle Woman might be worth its inoffensive hour just for that.