Return of the Ape Man (1944)
Brought to us by Producer Sam Katzman and directed by Phil Rosen, this Monogram production represents the ninth and final film that Bela Lugosi starred in for the Poverty Row studio. Joining him in this less than stellar outing is John Carradine who was himself no stranger to ghoulish low budget affairs. Then there’s third billed George Zucco who arguably doesn’t show up at all sans for a brief profile shot.
But what the hell! It’s Bela and John scoring plenty of screen time in this thriller that has absolutely nothing to do with Bela’s earlier Monogram atrocity that in the end proved to be a fine addition to one’s list of guilty pleasures, 1941’s The Ape Man.
“A true scientist is married to his profession.”
Bela is just that as we see him bringing to life Willie the Weasel. A local barfly whose disappearance has made the newspapers. Turns out that Bela and John had poor Willie frozen solid for four months in suspended animation before reviving him proving that Bela’s genius is hard at work once again in the lab with more than capable assistance by the head of the Carradine clan. Now it’s time for the “what if” of our story. Can Bela and John embark on an Arctic venture and find a specimen frozen in ice since early men walked the Earth? That they do and with luck on their side just as John was ready to give in, an avalanche of ice unveils their prize.
All with the use of some stock footage mingled with some newspaper headlines to advance our story.
At just 60 minutes in length, the film is largely confined to Bela’s downstairs laboratory at his home and it’s here that he’ll take a blow torch to a large block of ice while Carradine is entertaining friends and family at his home. For the record John’s the married man. His wife is played by Mary Currier but it’s Teala Loring (billed as Judith Gibson) that caught my eye. A stunningly beautiful gal who had a Rita Hayworth look about her. A little research and it’s no wonder I found her quite attractive. She’s an older to sister to Debra Paget by eleven years. Miss Paget is another natural beauty from Hollywood’s past. Rounding out the Carradine homestead is Tod Andrews as Miss Loring’s fiancé. He too is billed under an alias, Michael Ames.
Now it’s time for the one remaining member of the cast to make his appearance. While it looks to be George Zucco in profile coming out of the ice, it is in fact Frank Moran looking like Shemp Howard in a beard and shaggy wig who plays the part of our thawed out man of the past. It’s at this point one can’t help but wonder if this Monogram special somehow influenced the next generation of filmmakers who put together 1984’s Iceman starring John Lone and Timothy Hutton.
Getting back to the key plot points, the Ape Man is clearly a man out of his time and dangerous. Bela’s quick with the whip and the blow torch. “Get back I say!” Yes the good Dr. Lugosi has a cell to keep his somewhat less than domesticated pet penned in. Carradine isn’t exactly overjoyed and believes they need to put the poor fellow back to sleep. Perhaps permanently when he proves to be violent. Bela has a far better idea befitting an actor of his reputation. A brain graft where the donor gives up a portion of his own to be joined with the Ape Man’s thus giving our newfound friend the education and manners of modern society. Carradine is appalled and when Bela almost uses poor Mr. Andrews as his guinea pig, Carradine walks out on Bela and condemns him.
What he’s really done is condemn himself to the scalpel. Bet you didn’t see that coming.
So in effect, Bela, has become a Dr. Frankenstein. He’s got his monster to do his bidding but one with serious drawback. On one hand the Ape Man can play the piano soft and sweet as Carradine had while on the other hand, the violent side of the brain takes over and leaves anyone in his wake dead or seriously injured. Looks like Miss Loring and her beau will have to discover for themselves the reason for Carradine’s sudden disappearance and his not returning to home at the dinner hour.
More fun to follow that includes cardboard walls that move when the Ape Man rattles the walls of his cage. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the cheap sets as images of Martin Landau, Johnny Depp and George Steele came flashing through my mind thanks to the Lugosi factor and Tim Burton’s memorable recreation of the film Bride of the Monster in Ed Wood.
Not only was this the last of the Monogram Nine but it’s the only one I’d never seen until now thanks to its’ surfacing on blu ray via Olive Films. It’s nostalgic fun for us fans of “Poor Bela” and while I wish I’d seen it as a child on late night TV as I had the majority of his Monogram efforts and beyond, it’s still enjoyable for mostly the wrong reasons. To see Carradine join in the fun only adds to that nostalgia feeling. Unlike Voodoo Man that had starred John with Bela, this time Carradine actually plays the good guy as opposed to a creep with the IQ of a doorknob looking to do Bela’s evil bidding with attractive young ladies. As for George Zucco, he also starred with Bela and John in Voodoo Man released earlier in 1944 but his appearance here is purely for the trivia hounds. Zucco apparently was signed and outfitted for his part as The Ape Man but fell ill early on in production or quietly walked away after realizing how ridiculous he looked. Both stories have been bandied about. Still, his third place billing remained so keep your eyes peeled or you’ll miss his split second appearance.
One time silent film director, Rosen, was by this point working mainly for Monogram and PRC cranking out some of the last films in the Charlie Chan series, Cisco Kid adventures and this, his second of the Monogram Nine with Bela. He had earlier helmed the 1941 release, Spooks Run Wild, with Bela and The East Side Kids (Bowery Boys if you prefer). The director would pass away in October of 1951.
Zucco would join Bela one last time in 1947’s Scared to Death. The only color film of Bela’s career. As for Carradine, he too would appear one last time with Bela in 1956’s The Black Sleep, another title that is easy to recommend for it’s cast of horror icons and subject material of ghoulish experiments led by Basil Rathbone.