(From now until Halloween, the Canadian Cinephile will be taken over by pure, unadulterated FEAR. No, I’m not commencing an Adam Sandler marathon. I will be reviewing some of the most spine-chilling, bloodcurdling horror movies, with this year’s trip covering those freaky films released prior to 1970. There will be a special focus on Universal’s classic monster pictures, so bring your hot cocoa. It’s going to be a dark and scary ride. Sort of.)
William Nigh directs The Ape, a 1940 creature feature cheapie that happens to star Boris Karloff. This film features one of the more preposterous schemes to come out of the mad scientist genre, but it’s all in the name of curing a young woman with polio. The mad scientist of Curt Siodmak, Adam Shirk and Richard Carroll’s screenplay is therefore kind of morally conflicted.
It’s hard to imagine that The Ape was inspired by a play by Adam Hull Shirk, but Nigh does his limited best with what he has. The filmmaker is perhaps best known for his Mr. Wong series, which commenced in 1938 with Karloff as the titular character in Mr. Wong, Detective. He also directed Thunder, which was Lon Chaney’s final silent movie.
Here, Karloff stars as Dr. Bernard Adrian. He’s a kind-hearted scientist trying to help Frances Clifford (Maris Wrixon) contend with her polio, which has confined her to a wheelchair. There was actually an “epidemic of paralysis” in the town and Dr. Adrian lost his wife and daughter to the condition, which for some reason has caused the neighbourhood kids to vandalize his house.
As is usually the case when there’s polio afoot, a circus comes to town. Frances and her beau Danny (Gene O’Donnell) head off to the circus on a date, enjoying the sights and sounds before an ape breaks out of its cage and goes on a rampage. The ape makes its way to Dr. Adrian’s laboratory, as apes are wont to do, but the scientist kills it and wears its skin to continue his pursuit of curing Frances’ ailment.
Yes, the scientist skins the ape and wears its skin so that he can cure polio. Now, said cure for polio is found in the spinal fluid of people and the ape’s laboratory rampage wiped out all of Dr. Adrian’s reserves. He’s really doing the only sensible thing by dressing up as the primate, though, as people will inevitably blame the primate for all the murders.
This is one of those pictures where everyone involved save for the twisted protagonist hates the idea of science. The local townspeople are dumber than a box of hammers, while the kids pretty much around wrecking things. And Frances’ boyfriend is a mind-numbing goof who loves the bloody circus to pieces but doesn’t trust anything he doesn’t understand.
There is also a posse, as there often is in these sorts of horror movies. They wear hats and run around looking for ape-related trouble, which means Dr. Adrian has to work out ways to hide the ape and get his work done with all the lunkheads pestering him. The townspeople don’t like the scientist much because, well, he’s a scientist.
What The Ape essentially comes down to is the sacrifice of a pile of morons to cure a beautiful woman’s polio. She can walk again thanks to the unbeknownst sacrifice of a few dumbasses, which is a perverse kind of justice. This sense of morality works perfectly with Karloff’s depiction, which never makes Dr. Adrian seem like a psychopath and always errs on the side of sympathy.
Most of the budget for The Ape was blown on the ape costume, which gives the picture a great deal of entertainment value. It’s hilarious to watch the primate go ape (sorry) on the doctor and his lab equipment. It’s even funnier when the ape goes down and hits the ground with a hysterical thump.
The Ape won’t change the world, even if it does cure polio. It’s a decent-enough madcap horror film, however, and it features enough passable B-movie glee to push through its 62 or so minutes. It has little artistic value apart from Karloff’s performance, but it does pose some interesting if prodigious ethical questions about spinal fluid, idiotic townsfolk and a damn dirty ape.