This 1944 faux-sequel to Monogram’s The Ape Man marked the end of Bela Lugosi’s stint at the Poverty Row studio. Here he is joined by a good cast and a seasoned director who nonetheless fail to bring life to this illogical “thawed-out-cave-man” yarn. It is better than its predecessor, though. 3/10
Return of the Ape Man. 1944, USA. Directed by Phil Rosen. Written by Robert Charles. Starring: Bela Lugosi, John Carradine, Frank Moran, Teala Loring, Tod Andrews, George Zucco. Produced by Sam Katzman. IMDb: 5.0/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
In 1943 Monogram released The Ape Man (review), directed by William Beaudine and starring Bela Lugosi playing a mad scientist. The next year Monogram released Return of the Ape Man, directed by Phil Rosen and starring Bela Lugosi playing a mad scientist. But despite the apparent similarities, Return of the Ape Man is not a sequel, and the plots have no connection whatsoever.
In the first movie Lugosi played a nutty doctor who experimented on himself — turning himself into an ape — for the benefit of … well, apparently just because. In Return of the Ape Man Lugosi plays Prof. Dexter, who has perfected a cryogenic technique (or more precisely, it would seem, a technique of reviving cryogenic patients). After having successfully kidnapped, frozen and revived a local bum, Dexter and his assistant Prof. Gilmore (John Carradine) decide to hitch up the stakes a few rungs, and travel to the Arctic in order to find a prehistoric man on ice, in order to definitely prove to the world that their resuscitation technique works. Never say that Mr. Lugosi wasn’t thorough in his research. Said and done, the film team relocates to a backdrop of the North Pole, where they are aided in their task by “real Eskimos” (conveniently hidden under big hoods), and lo and behold, they manage to dig up a real prehistoric ape man (not George Zucco).
Back at Prof. Dexter’s private lab (why do all mad scientists live in sprawling fin-de-siecle mansions?) the two scientists successfully thaw the ape man (Frank Moran) out of a block of ice. Unfortunately, he isn’t very talkative, and instead attacks his rescuers. But when Bela Lugosi is on hand with his trusty mad scientist whip, a gas torch and a convenient holding cell in his basement, there is no cause for alarm.
Now, this is the point where a non-mad scientist calls up the scientific community and announces his breakthrough in cryogenic resuscitation. Not Prof. Dexter. No, Dexter is annoyed that the ape man is too primitive and isn’t in possession the faculty of speech, so he could actually tell us what life was like during the ice age. Solution: Transplant half a modern brain into the head of the ape man. Whose half a brain?, you ask. Well, naturally the half a brain belonging to the boyfriend of his assistant’s niece, Steve (Tod Andrews)! Why Steve?, you ask. Well just because he seems to be conveniently available at a dinner party. Unfortunately, Professor Gilmore doesn’t take too kindly to the idea of having his niece’s boyfriend killed and cut open in the name of science, so he pulls a gun on his boss, thus saving poor Steve, who, drugged, remembers nothing of what happened. Still, instead of alerting the police that there is a crazy scientist kidnapping and killing people for science, Gilmore happily goes on assisting Prof. Dexter as if nothing had happened.
So the collaboration commences happily between Prof. and Prof., until Dexter, having devised an ingenious electrical trap/stunner, knocks out Prof. Gilmore and promptly uses his brain instead. Operation completed and Gilmore dead, the ape man still can’t talk. Bummer. Instead it escapes and runs amok in town. Meanwhile Prof. Gilmore’s niece Anne (Teala Loring) and good old Steve are noticing her uncle’s suspicious absence, and actually go the police. Not that this does any good, as they are awarded with the Monogram equivalent of the Keystone Cops. They investigate exactly one room in Prof. Dexter’s house, and just as they are about to leave, Steve suggests that — perhaps — they’d want to check the mad scientist’s lab as well. The answer “Well, I suppose we might look there as well, seeing as we’re here anyway”.
In the meantime the ape man returns to the home of Prof. Gilmore, sits down at the piano and plays the Moonlight Sonata (he’s got half of Gilmore’s brain, remember). But when stumbling upon Gilmore’s wife (Marie Currier), his animal instincts take over and he kills her. Because that is what men did during the ice age — they went around strangling their wives every time they walked into a room. And without revealing the finale, I think we can all agree that these films never end with the mad scientist getting a lecture hall at the university named after him (no, actually that did happen in one film).
Return of the Ape Man has an IMDb rating of 5/10, which is slightly above The Ape Man, a film I gave a 1/10 rating. As you may notice above, I give Return of the Ape Man a 3/10 rating, as it is one of those rare Golden Era horror “sequels” that is better than its predecessor, even if that is no great feat in this case. It’s still a terrible movie, but its production values are perhaps slightly better and it moves along at a much better pace than The Ape Man. In one sentence, it isn’t remotely as boring as is The Ape Man. The script and dialogue are atrociously bad, but Return of the Ape Man has the same kind of wild lunacy as did one of my favourite bad movies, Voodoo Man (1944, review), released by Monogram earlier the same year. And surprise, surprise, the two movies share the same screenwriter, Robert Charles. These are the only two films he is credited with having written. Film historian Tom Weaver informs us that “Robert Charles” was not in fact a real person, but a pseudonym.
There are a couple of things we need to discuss. The first is Monogram’s idea of what an ape looks like. In The Ape Man, the titular character looks like, as Mark Cole puts it at Rivets on the Poster, Bela Lugosi playing “an Amish Farmer with a bad haircut”. In Return of the Ape Man the titular character looks like former heavyweight contender Frank Moran with a wild beard and frazzled hair, dressed in rags. What is important here is that they do not, even with a good dose of suspension of disbelief, resemble apes. One could argue that the phrase “ape man” could be used metaphorically to describe a primitive man. But Monogram makes clear that they mean it literally. In a scene in The Ape Man, the protagonist catches a glimpse of Amish Lugosi in a window, exclaiming: “It looked just like a gorilla!”. And in Return of the Ape Man, Steve tells the police that “it wasn’t a man! It was some sort of giant ape!” No, Steve, it wasn’t. It was Frank Moran with a beard.
The other thing we need to discuss is George Zucco. Zucco, a favourite Ersatz mad scientist on Poverty Row, was third-billed on all posters for the film. Lugosi, Zucco and Carradine had all teamed up earlier in 1944 for Voodoo Man and The Return of the Ape Man was part of a package. According to the deal, Zucco was to receive third billing on the movie. As it turns out, Zucco is nowhere to be found in the picture, or perhaps shows up only for a few seconds, according to some accounts. There are a few competing theories as to why he didn’t play the ape man as he was supposed to, but the generally accepted one is that he fell ill shortly after the costume fitting. So the role went to former heavyweight boxer and bit-part actor Frank Moran — who actually wasn’t a bad actor. Still, a deal’s a deal, and Zucco got third billing. To compensate, Frank Moran received the only featured billing of his career, in slightly smaller print than Zucco and second-billed Carradine. This was the very last of Lugosi’s infamous “Monogram Nine” films, and in a way it’s a shame he didn’t get to finish the series off with both Carradine and Zucco.
Return of the Ape Man, like all Lugosi films, gets a lot of love from certain corners of the internet. Dr. Svet Atanasov at blu-ray.com gives it a sympathetic 3/5 star review, noting that it contains “a good dose of the exotic atmosphere that the majority of the monster films are liked for”, but concedes that “at the same time it is virtually impossible to ignore the many limitations of the production”. Derek Winnert also awards it 3/5 stars, calling it “delirious at times, imaginative at others, and always jolly good fun”. Mark Cole seems to enjoy the whole affair, writing: “It doesn’t have time to get boring and there are even a few good moments along the way. Which isn’t bad for a Monogram horror film. Better than average, in fact.” Ian Shane at Rock! Shock! Pop! calls the film “a lot of ludicrous fun, showcasing Lugosi and Carradine“. Granted, he also claims that it contains “some great work from George Zucco“.
Not everyone are wooed, though. Andreas Poelz at German site Hard Sensations writes: “Rosen seems to have simply filmed the rehearsal: Carradine constantly looks as if he’s tranquillised, and even Lugosi seems lost at times. A cotton ball falls down when he opens a syringe? No problem! He looks off-camera and nods (but there is nobody in the room except him and an ice block?) Well, after all, he’s mad. During the “resurrection” of the ape-man he looks like he’s just pulling our leg: Okay, Bela, you’re now parodying Lugosi, and John, you look like you didn’t get the script, just the fee, and you had to get drunk before the check bounces.”
Jon Davidson at Midnite Reviews gives Return of the Ape Man a middling 4/10 rating, writing: “Classic monster buffs and B movie fans may enjoy Return of the Ape Man, which benefits from the combined talents of Lugosi and Carradine. Viewers of a strictly serious inclination, however, should avoid this film for its inconsistent characters, subpar make-up effects, and tiresome hijinks of the Ape Man himself.” AllMovie gives it 1,5/5 stars. Michael Popham at the Horror Inc. Project is downright livid: “Each of Return of the Ape Man‘s idiotic plot points aggravated me as though it was a personal insult, until by the end I was pacing around my living room, furious at everyone involved in the production. […] From stem to stern, the screenplay is dreadful. […] what really outs this movie as a Monogram production is its air of complete indifference. No one involved with the production seems to have exerted a moment’s effort more than was necessary to pick up a paycheck. […] This movie doesn’t deserve to be lauded, or even watched ironically. I suspect it isn’t a movie at all, but a fraudulent imitation of one.” Popham doesn’t give stars, but I suspect this would have been a 0/5 effort. In another post Popham elaborates, a little less agitated: “People like to cite movies like Plan 9 From Outer Space or Robot Monster or Teenagers From Outer Space as the worst movies ever made; but those movies weren’t even close. Those movies were made by filmmakers who, though inept, were following an inner vision, trying to make something good, and it shines through even the incompetence and lack of money and lack of imagination. But movies like this are so much worse, because there is no beating heart anywhere inside them.”
While I can agree with Popham on the issue that cheap films can often rise above measly budgets thanks to heart and passion, I think he is perhaps slightly hard on those Hollywood professionals who were trying to eke out a living as filmmakers without necessarily reaching the creme-de-la-creme of the business. Film is not only an artform, it is also a commodity, and the Poverty Row studios were often in the business of turning out commodities. Monogram horror cheapos were not the kind of films that anyone involved in particularly wanted to be involved in, but there was market for them, and for a lot of actors and filmmakers films like these could mean the difference between paying the next two months’ rent or not. That some of the actors sometimes phoned in their performances and the set designers “made do” doesn’t mean these films are necessarily without qualities or cannot be enjoyed for what they are.
That said, Return of the Ape Man is a clunker. The script is atrocious, the dialogue worse. Phil Rosen’s direction is slapdash and lazy. It’s often unclear in whose house we’re supposed to be and there is no sense whatsoever in the film of either geography or time. Bela Lugosi and John Carradine are supposed to carry the film with their famous scene-chewing, but this is a rare case of them both phoning in their performances and there is little to be seen of their charisma here. The best performance in the movie is given by Frank Moran, who picks up the slack where the two stars drop the ball.
A dentist, marine veteran and prize-fighter, Moran (born 1887) fought twice for the heavyweight championship of the world, in 1914 against Jack Johnson and 1916 against Jess Willard, but lost both bouts. After appearing on Broadway, he made his film debut in 1928. Between 1932 and 1957 he played in nearly 150 movies, often credited with roles as heavies, brawlers, henchmen and the occasional police officer. In the forties he was part of Preston Sturges’ stock company. During his career he appeared in such classics as John Ford’s The Informer (1935), Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and The Lady Eve (1941), Raul Walsh’s High Sierra (1941) Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe (1941) and Cecil B. DeMille’s Unconquered (1947). His genre films were few and far between.
Tod Andrews does a rather bland, but surprisingly sympathetic romantic lead. He appeared, as was his habit in films in the forties, under the pseudonym Michael Ames. Primarily a stage actor, Andrews did most of his movie work between 1941 and 1947, and in the fifties transitioned to TV. He did sneak in a few movie appearances here and there, though. While seldom celebrated, Andrews’ contribution to SF and horror films should not be sneered at. He actually played the “hero” lead in three different science fiction movies: Voodoo Man, Return of the Ape Man and Allied Artists hilarious From Hell It Came (1957). If he is not much remembered for these roles, it probably has to do with the fact that the villains and monsters were so much more interesting than the often useless romantic leads in this fare. In addition, he had a supporting role in Warner’s SF comedy The Body Disappears (1941, review) and as the ill-fated Skipper in Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970).
Teala Loring is likewise forgettable in the female lead. Loring was the less famous sister of movie star Debra Paget. Loring started off her movie career in 1942 with mostly uncredited bit-parts, and had a hard time breaking into even the supporting cast at the major studios. If she seems a tad uninterested in her role in Return of the Ape Man, it is probably because she made ten movies with Monogram between 1943 and 1947, and almost as many at the other “major” Poverty Row outfit PRC. Seeing as her career wasn’t going anywhere, she more or less hung up her acting gloves in 1947.
If director Phil Rosen seems somewhat uninterested in the film as well, then it’s probably because he is. Born to German parents as Philip Rosen in 1888 in what is today Malbork, Poland, and his family emigrated to the US when he was still a child. In 1912 he started working for the Edison movie company as a cinematographer and soon rose in the ranks as a sought-after, efficient director during the silent era. While his silent films are little remembered today, his reputation is evidenced by the fact that he was the person brought in to take over the direction of MGM:s Exquisite Sinner (1926) when the infamous Josef von Sternberg had gone over schedule, over budget and generally made a mess out of the production. But as was the case with many well-regarded workhorses of the silent era, Rosen found himself fallen out of vogue with the major studios after the advent of sound cinema, relegated to churning out B programmers for Monogram, PRC and other Poverty Row outfits. Today he is best known for the seven Charlie Chan films he directed for Monogram in 1944 and 1945, including the pseudo-SF film The Jade Mask (review), and for the Bela Lugosi meets the Bowery Boys comedy Spooks Run Wild (1941), Lugosi’s first Monogram feature.
Return of the Ape Man was one of the last “straight” films that Bela Lugosi had the chance to make before his career took its final nosedive, although one shouldn’t forget the startlingly good The Body Snatcher (1945), in which he once again teamed up with Boris Karloff shortly after finishing this one. Fortunately Return of the Ape Man was not the swansong for Lugosi, even if it was the last of his Monogram collaborations. All things considered, Lugosi could have done worse for himself in 1941-1944 than making nine pictures for Monogram. However, the end of Lugosi’s Monogram stint also marked the beginning of the end for the Golden Age of the Hollywood horrors. Universal still tried to milk the last drops of blood out of their dying franchise with House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945, review), hoping to make a last cash-in by throwing all their famous ghouls in the same pictures, and bade a final farewell with Bud Abbot and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).
Return of the Ape Man. 1944, USA. Directed by Phil Rosen. Written by Robert Charles. Starring: Bela Lugosi, John Carradine, Frank Moran, Teala Loring, Tod Andrews, Mary Currier, Eddy Chandler, Ernie Adams, George Zucco. Cinematography: Marcel Le Picard. Editing: Carl Pierson. Set designer: Dave Milton. Sound engineer: Glen Glenn. Special effects: Ray Mercer. Produced by Sam Katzman for Sam Katzman Productions and Monogram.