Monday 18 May 2009

The Ape (1940)

Director: William Nigh
Star: Boris Karloff

The circus is coming to the town of Red Creek but the local kids are far more interested in throwing rocks at the house of Dr Bernard Adrian. That's not a particularly nice thing for them to do, granted, but Dr Adrian is played by Boris Karloff so it's far from unlikely that he could be up to any kind of nonsense you could comfortably imagine and a bit more to boot. Certainly some of the local adults, led by ice cold, selfish and philandering bank manager Henry Mason, think he's up to no good too but he's really just driven and dedicated, to save young Frances Clifford from the ravages of polio.

She's the personification of the disease to him, a disease that had already claimed both his wife and daughter. Unable to save them, he's merely transferred his unfulfilled desire to save them onto her, with a little too much obsessive zeal, perhaps, but definitely with his heart in the right place. He's even made breakthroughs experimenting on animals, something that many of today's audience would see as far more sinister than those watching on initial release in 1940, people who may have been more queasy at the mention of things they didn't understand, like the extraction of spinal fluid, experimentation of any sort and the paradox that feeling pain is better than feeling nothing.

And into Dr Adrian's house breaks the ape of the title, a killer ape no less who had already killed one abusive circus hand and promptly does the same to his son under the same circumstances. It escaped during the struggle, which also burned down the circus. This circus hand doesn't die straight away though, being taken to Dr Adrian for medical treatment, and the ape hones in on the scent of his coat. Of course, the critter is of major use to the doc but I won't spoil quite how.

This ape is played by the other star of the film, a star known primarily for being stuck in such roles. He's Ray 'Crash' Corrigan, both a Mesquiteer and a Range Buster in two separate long running western series, but he was also probably the most prolific occupant of gorilla suits the business ever saw. In 1932 he played an ape in his first film role, in Tarzan the Ape Man and twenty years later he was the latter half of the title in 1952's Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla. In between he played a couple of dozen apes of various descriptions, like here often the title character and yet still uncredited.

Unfortunately however good you are at moving around in a monkey suit, it's hardly a versatile choice of profession and so I'm never likely to recognise his work without the aid of IMDb, but I've seen him many times over the years in many different gorilla suits. He's hardly memorable here, but he doesn't have a lot of competition. Karloff steals the show of course, but the script doesn't really provide for anyone else. Maris Wrixon is a decent delectable young lady as Frances Clifford but she gets only a little more to do than her token boyfriend Danny, played by Gene O'Donnell. The most memorable characters have to be Dr Adrian's housekeeper Jane and Henry Mason, the evil bank manager; but the former never speaks and the latter gets killed off without letting his character develop.

The story is surprisingly sparse, given that it was written by no less a name than Curt Siodmak, but this is early in his American career, having worked his way over from Germany via England. He'd soon excel in the horror genre, with The Wolf Man coming a year later and further films to come including I Walked with a Zombie, The Beast with Five Fingers and Donovan's Brain, which was based on his own novel. However this time out he must have at least been partly limited by the source material, a play by Adam Hull Shirk, also titled The Ape. Who should shoulder most of the blame I don't know but it's disappointing to see a Karloff movie so mild. It isn't bad, it's just there and there's not much more to say about it.

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