A Film Journey into the Heart of Darkness: 'Return of the Ape Man' and 'The Vampire's Ghost'
These two '40s-era B films offer a contrast in style and intelligence.
Olive Films is simultaneously releasing no-frills Blu-rays of two '40s-era B horror cheapies made within a year of each other. One lives up to the low expectations people generally have of the genre, although it packs star power. The other is the type of gem we indefatigable fishers in these minor waters hope to catch.
The star power, or at least the favorite character players we like to think of as stars, can be found in Monogram's Return of the Ape Man ( Phil Rosen,1944), entitled to mislead people into thinking it's a sequel to Bela Lugosi's 1943 item The Ape Man. Lugosi plays the allegedly brilliant Professor Dexter, who utters lines like "Murder is an ugly word. As a scientist, I don't recognize it." The redoubtable John Carradine plays his colleague, Professor Gilmore, nominally the stuffier and more law-abiding of the two, though he happily collaborates with Dexter in freezing a homeless bum for two months before sending the revived wino on his none-the-wiser way with five bucks in his pocket.
The equally ubiquitous George Zucco is billed third, supposedly as one of two actors (the other being ex-boxer George Moran) playing the Ape Man, but squint as we might, that never looks or sounds like Zucco and research tells us he dropped out of the project.
Gilmore sensibly believes that the cryogenic stunt is remarkable enough to announce to the world, but Dexter wants to spend ages in the Arctic on the off chance of finding a frozen Pithecanthropus. How one project relates to the other isn't clear, but after several months and some stock footage of glaciers, they succeed in bringing home an iced Ape Man who proves easy to revive. Surely this is enough to stop the presses, and it was enough for a much later movie like Iceman (1984), but still Dexter has other ideas about "partial brain transplants" to make the grunting creature tractable so Dexter doesn't have to keep waving torches at the lunk and locking him in a handy cage. They don't think to feed him.
The fact that the post-transplanted monster promptly aims to strangle his human donor's unsympathetic wife in favor of carrying off a pretty young heroine (Teala Loring, billed as Judith Chapman) implies something about his previously repressed libido, and that's as interesting as it gets. Directed by Phil Rosen and shot in a stony, clodhopping manner with people gabbing on stagy sets and a little balcony-climbing in the last act, this is mostly a stilted bore that depends entirely on our affection for the charm of its main players. That doesn't include a dull Tod Andrews (billed as Michael Ames) as the standard-issue handsome hero.
The description sounds like a lot happens in an hour, but it's a longer hour than it should be. We're not surprised to realize that the writer's credit is absent, and that may have been his smartest decision. He worked without credit while Zucco got credit for not appearing; who had the better deal? Anyway, the package identifies the writer as an obscurity named Robert Charles.
Now compare with an almost equally cheap Republic item: The Vampire's Ghost (Lesley Selander, 1945), devoid of stars and saddled with a senseless title. From the opening moments this draws the audience in with a dynamic style of camera movement and design. The first thing we see is a stereotypically costumed African native beating on a huge drum, which will be a continual motif, even becoming central to the plot.
Then we hear an elegant narrator speaking poetically as the camera creeps across a nighttime village, the shot culminating in a closeup of a hand with a distinctive ring just as the narrator makes it clear he's the villain of the story and not just a disembodied voice. Wait -- the Voice of Authority is the bad guy? Hold that thought.
Then we cut to an attractively coiffed young African woman, fresh from Hollywood makeup, waking up and screaming in terror at her visitor. The sociologically inclined may pause to consider the implications of a black woman waking to a predatory white man in a movie with a colonial setting.
We quickly learn that this fictional village in the middle of a fictional African country in the middle of nonfictional Africa is populated by primitive black people who dress in beads and towels and also by a few white foreigners who run the place, apparently for the facility of the Liberty Rubber plantation -- a beautifully subtle detail. The rash of violence is an economic crisis because the natives aren't showing up for work. There are some old white fuddy-duddies in authority, including a Catholic priest (Grant Withers) who knows too much about evil to dismiss native beliefs.
In fact, the African characters are the ones who understand the nature of what oppresses them throughout this picture and consistently take the most active and effective steps against it. Their cooperation and local system of communication (the drums) prove crucial in this screenplay by veteran pulpist John K. Butler and the illustrious Leigh Brackett (one year before she co-wrote The Big Sleep), with Brackett getting the story credit. According to Wikipedia, she updated John Polidori's The Vampyre, a story originating in the same weekend Mary Shelley created Frankenstein.
If the white colonists are there to exploit local labor, the louche British expatriate Webb Fallon (John Abbott, excellent), at once effete and down-at-heel, runs a nightclub and gambling joint to exploit the white sailors as well as feeding on the native populace and all young and beautiful people in his path, for he wears the ring we saw in the opening scene.
By calmly announcing himself as a weary adventurer from the reign of Elizabeth I, he handily symbolizes centuries of British expansion. His predatory and non-discriminatory nature, willing to vamp anyone for his perverse unquenchable thirsts, is the real evil. It's not clear whether his semi-girlfriend and exotic dancer, Lisa (Adele Mara), is mulatto, but the implication is there if you sniff for it. In his "web", Webb Fallon quickly enslaves the handsome he-man hero (Charles Gordon) with his hypnotizing domination -- the sap is sapped -- and next on the agenda is the hero's superstition-scoffing girlfriend (Peggy Stewart).
This is heady stuff, shot with vivid style as is always clear on this perfect print, in much better shape than the Lugosi picture. Prolific director Lesley Selander mostly made B westerns; this is one of two intriguing noir-ish horrors he made in the mid-40s, the other being The Catman of Paris (1946). While both films seem like knock-offs of more popular items, they offer their own handsome virtues.
You have to love Lugosi and Carradine, as do we all, to sit through Return of the Ape Man. We can only hope the lack of stars and reputation don't prevent viewers from discovering the attractions of The Vampire's Ghost.