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DVD Review: The Ape (1940)

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Watching Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster last weekend got me hankering for the kinda movie that's a sure-fire source of pleasure in my home: a good old-fashioned man-in-a-gorilla-suit flick. Fortunately, I have a small pile of public domain DVDs for just that very need, so this weekend I spent some teevee time with The Ape, a 1940 Monogram cheapie starring Boris Karloff. "Suggested by the play by" Adam Hull Shirk and adapted by Curt Siodmak (a prolific horror writer, one year away from his script for The Wolfman), the movie centers on small-town doctor Bernard Adrian (Karloff), a kindly, if obessed, sawbones living in the movie small-town of Rock Creek.

Though Doc Adrian is the subject of much harsh gossip in the village — and his house the target of regular rock throws by local kids — he still has one patient: paralyzed Francis Clifford (Maris Wrixon), who appears to be the last victim of a polio epidemic which struck the community not long after the doctor arrived. Her grease monkey boyfriend Danny (Gene O'Donnell) remains suspicious of the good physician ("I don't like things I can't understand," he states during Francis' treatment), but the wheelchair-bound girl has faith in Doctor A. Since she appears to be Adrian's only patient, we can't help wondering how he's able to live in a comfy house with a private lab — and keep an aged housekeeper in the place besides — but The Ape never answers that question.

Adrian's been experimenting on runaway dogs, and believes that an injection of fresh spinal fluid is just what Francis needs to be able to walk again. So when the Posts Combined Circus comes to town and a brutal animal trainer is bloodlessly mauled by a mistreated gorilla (portrayed by an uncredited Ray "Crash" Corrigan, who also played the beast in Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla), Adrian steals the dying trainer's spinal fluid to give to Francis. The injected fluid seems to help — our girl can feel her legs for the first time in years — but before the doc can give her a second injection, the vial of fluid rolls off a table and smashes to the floor.

What to do? When the escaped gorilla shows up at Adrian's house after scenting the trainer’s jacket, Adrian improbably subdues the creature, kills it with just one stab in the back, then removes its skin to impersonate the gorilla on a rampage. Fortunately, Doc's skinned gorilla suit looks perfectly like a store-bought gorilla suit — right down to the simian face and protruding mouth — so nobody can tell the difference, even though the gorilla-suited Adrian walks in a suspiciously upright fashion.

First victim of the mad doctor's faux gorilla rampage proves to be the town's greedy and adulterous banker — a good choice since no one in town appears the least bit distressed by his death — though the moneyman proves as stingy with the spinal fluid as he apparently is with loans since Adrian is only able to get one good injection's worth from his body. His next two times out in the ape suit prove remarkably ineffectual, however. He's shot with a 22. by one of the rock-chucking kids, then stabbed and ultimately shot some more by sheriff's deputies after wheelchair Francis sees him staggering in his costume towards his home. Rolling up to the house just in time to see the sheriff take off his gorilla head, she rises from her wheelchair and slowly walks toward the dying Doc Adrian. Guess the doctor didn't need to get that third bottle, after all.

Called "the silliest movie of his entire career" by Psychotronic movieguide man Michael Weldon (hard-core Karloff-ians may choose to offer up other entries: I'd nominate The Terror, if only for Jack Nicholson's legendarily miscast performance as a Napoleonic Era French Lieutenant), The Ape is a mercifully brief (the budget DVD I watched claims the flick is 62 minutes long, though the version it showed only had 57 minutes of actual movie) slice of cinematic dopiness that — while it doesn't deliver as much monkey time as you'd like — still managed to momentarily satisfy my burning desire for man-in-gorilla-suit action.

Only thing that would've been better: one of Toho's King Kong movies (King Kong Versus Godzilla, King Kong Escapes – now there's a hefty chunk o' hard-core gorilla suit fun!

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About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.
  • Iloz Zoc

    Okay, what really frightened me was the “suggested by a play.” Oh my god. I still don’t understand the fascination with gorillas in all these poverty row films.

  • Bill Sherman

    I think it’s mainly a matter of gorilla suits being comparatively easy to come by. . .