Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Going Ape With Scream Factory, Part I

Philip Terry as Scot, Charles Gemora as his simian alter ego in THE MONSTER AND THE GIRL. 
Scream Factory's UNIVERSAL HORROR COLLECTION VOLUME 5 focuses on Universal's Paula the Ape Woman series (CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN, JUNGLE WOMAN, and JUNGLE CAPTIVE, 1943-1945) and appends a well-chosen, earlier ape-meets-mad-science B-title from Paramount, THE MONSTER AND THE GIRL (1941). 

An early directorial achievement by former editor Stuart Heisler (PETER IBBETSON), THE MONSTER AND THE GIRL is a remarkably sensitive potboiler about Scot Webster (Philip Terry), a young man from small town America, who moves to "the Big City" with his sister Susan (Ellen Drew), where he is quickly framed for murder by gangsters (spearheaded by Paul Lukas) who have dragged his innocent sibling into prostitution. Scot is tried, found guilty, and sent to Death Row, where he is approached by the hat-in-hand Dr. Parry (George Zucco, in the first of many demented doctor portrayals), who persuades him to bequeath his brain to science. Scot is too depressed to be anything but amenable, and when the big day comes, he dies only to reawaken inside the body of a powerful gorilla - inter-species transplantations being Dr. Parry's pet project. The soulful-eyed primate then embarks on a spine-crushing spree, eliminating the crooks who played him for a patsy and are making his sister's life a living hell.
George Zucco and Gemora in another portrait pose.

Working from a script by Stuart Anthony, who had previously written Heisler's breakthrough film THE BISCUIT EATER (1940) as well as Charlie Chan's forays into London and Paris, the early scenes of Heisler's film are surprisingly Lewtonesque - muted, soulful, introspective, noir-like - which is odd because this film was released in February 1941, while Lewton's first horror picture CAT PEOPLE didn't come out until December of the following year. It wouldn't surprise me if Lewton had chosen Ellen Drew to star in ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945) on the basis of her work and general look in this film. It's a similarity that Tom Weaver tags in his commentary as Drew makes her first appearance stepping forth from an abstract plane of mist, over dubbing her opening words with "I walked with a zombie...", though he takes the comparison no further. But the film's early scenes, establishing a flashback structure interweaving the sibling's small town life, their gentle mutually supportive relationship, and the subsequent trial, share much of the way Lewton had his characters portrayed in CAT PEOPLE, THE LEOPARD MAN (1943), and particularly THE SEVENTH VICTIM (also 1943), where another sheltered small town girl follows a sibling to a dark metropolis, only to be confronted with the myriad dark dangers of Gotham. Photographed by Victor Milner (LOVE ME TONIGHT, DARK CITY), the film never forfeits its noir atmosphere even as its story shifts gears into a horror pulp "body count" saga. 

What holds the film's schisms together is the performance of Charles Gemora as the ape, in an ape suit of his own design. Gemora had previously played apes in Tarzan films, in Universal's MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, and BLONDE VENUS with Marlene Dietrich, but he created his most ambitious ape suit for this film. Some 80 years later, this film's gorilla illusions remain among the most convincing ever filmed, and its not only due to the impeccable costume but to Gemora's soulful performance. Only Rick Baker has exceeded Gemora's work in this area, adding contact lenses to his masterworks, but Gemora is here portraying a gorilla with a man's brain, so the appreciably human gaze behind his bestial features is what finally sells the whole picture. But Heisler doesn't stop there, peppering the cast with numerous names we happily exclaim when these familiars of ours loom into view: Joseph Calleia, Gerald Mohr, and Marc Lawrence as Lukas' supremely slimy cohorts, plus Edward van Sloan, Robert Paige, Cliff Edwards, and Dave Willock, to name a few. There's also a little dog, Skipper, who has a heart-tugging relationship with Scot that picks up where it left off when he crosses paths with the ape.

To paraphrase what UNIVERSAL HORRORS author Tom Weaver (intending to shock) says in his commentary: pound for pound, Paramount might actually have been THE top horror studio of the 1930s and '40s, given the consistently high quality of such pictures as ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, Rouben Mamoulian's DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, MURDERS IN THE ZOO, SUPERNATURAL (now available from Kino Lorber with my audio commentary), THE CAT AND THE CANARY, AMONG THE LIVING, and particularly THE MONSTER AND THE GIRL. Despite its bland title and relatively short running time, it is an indisputable gem of the period and well worth discovering. 

Tomorrow I'll begin dealing with the Paula the Ape Woman films as a set.

(c) 2020 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

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