I don’t like things I can’t understand.– Danny Foster
A shaggy shape prowls the night, hunting for victims. Men and women are slaughtered by simian hands, their spines shattered, the fluid within…stolen. Is it an escapee from the low rent circus that just left town under a cloud of misgivings, or something worse?
The camera draws back. The shape scrambles into view. A hairy mask is torn aside, and Karloff the Uncanny glares at the audience, his eyes wild, face twisted into a grimace of righteous madness.
The Ape (1940) was one of the slew of low-budget horror films that graced cinema screens in the wake of Universal’s success. It’s also one of the several starring Boris Karloff, taking a turn on the other side of the electrodes as the melancholy Dr. Adrian, a mad scientist intent on curing his daughter’s mysterious illness via a healthy application of human spinal fluid.
When an overly-aggressive circus ape breaks loose and goes on a rampage, Dr. Adrian is caught in the middle, much to his detriment. When he makes the mistake of treating the ape’s abusive trainer for wounds suffered during the creature’s escape, he draws the bestial ire of the monster.
It breaks its way into his lab in a surprisingly effective sequence, ripping a window right out of the wall and proceeds to destroy the hapless scientist’s lab. Adrian manages to kill the beast, but not before it ruins his life’s work, and any chance Adrian has of curing his daughter’s illness.
Luckily for the girl (and the audience), Adrian is just cracked enough to hit upon the perfect scheme, namely skinning the ape and wearing it for nightly jaunts out on the town, where he’ll collect more spinal fluid by cracking the backs of handy victims. An unorthodox scheme, but effective, at least until the end. Mistakes are made, things go badly and Adrian is outed and slain, without having cured his daughter.
All told, it’s a cheap effort, but entertaining for fans of Karloff, who does his best despite things. It’s a rough patch when compared to, say, Universals’ The Wolf-Man which came out a year later, with less-than imaginative special effects and a watered down script that drowns what could have been an interesting morality play in standard second-rate horror cheese.
Interestingly, while we’re on the subject of The Wolf Man, the two scripts share a writer-Curt Siodmak. Siodmak would later state that he wrote The Wolf Man with Karloff in mind for the lead role. One wonders whether or not seeing Karloff bound around in an ape costume gave Siodmak the inkling of the idea that would eventually become The Wolf Man.
Regardless, we have Monogram Pictures to thank for Karloff’s turn in said monkey suit. Monogram, one of the so-called ‘Poverty Row’ B-movie studios of the time, churned out a large number of low-budget films between 1931 and 1953. The output was a melange of mysteries, westerns, thrillers and, of course, horror films.
In 1938, Monogram adopted a policy of building films around actors with face-name recognition, including Karloff, who starred in a number of thrillers for the company.
The Ape was the last in the long string of films Karloff took the top-billing in for Monogram. Previously, he had been in the lead as the eponymous Asian detective in the Mr. Wong mysteries, Monogram’s answer to Warner Oland’s more successful turn as Charlie Chan at 20th Century Fox.
By the time The Ape rolled around, however, Karloff was growing tired of the pound-the-pavement pace of working for Monogram (and perhaps tired of playing Wong, an obvious caricature of and on the whole less interesting character than either Charlie Chan or Mr. Moto) and was looking forward to getting out of Poverty Row pictures. Monogram decided that after five relatively unsuccessful Mr. Wong pictures, Karloff’s last film with the company should play to his perceived strengths. Thus, The Ape.
After Karloff’s departure, his slot at Monogram would be taken by another icon-Bela Lugosi. At Universal, Lugosi famously turned down the role of Frankenstein’s brute creation, only to play a hunchbacked second-fiddle to both Karloff and beast in The Son of Frankenstein (1938). He continued to haunt the career of the man he’d inadvertently gifted with stardom, appearing with Karloff in several other films, including The Black Cat and The Raven. If there was ever the slightest fancy in anyone’s mind that poor Lugosi seemed doomed to follow in Karloff’s footsteps, his tenure at Monogram turned fancy to fact.
After 1942’s Bowery at Midnight (ostensibly a zombie film), in 1943 Lugosi appeared in The Ape-Man (which was followed by a sequel in 1944, The Return of the Ape-Man) for Monogram. The Ape-Man was a remake of The Ape, with a few tweaks to get the most out of Lugosi, who had to lope around in yak hair for a bit before getting strangled by a gorilla.
The story elements are slimmed down some, and the Jekyll/Hyde elements that simmered under the surface of The Ape are played for thrills, but it’s still recognisably Siodmak’s script. Later in the year, as if to trap him forever in Karloff’s shadow, Lugosi would don the makeup he had rejected years earlier and appear as Frankenstein’s monster in Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man.
Monogram continued cranking out films until the early Fifties, when television put a stake in the heart of the Poverty Row film studios. Monogram was absorbed by Allied Artists and disappeared from cinema screens. Nowadays, many of their films are in the public domain and easily found in part, or in whole on the internet for download, if you’re of a mind to seek them out.