ACIDEMIC Journal of Film and Media

RETURN OF THE APE MAN: Revisiting the Wartime Savage from a Post-Modern Persepctive

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Erich Kuersten

The recurring themes of wartime dehumanization and post-modernism in the oeuvre of infamous quickie producer Sam Katzman are shamefully overlooked by most film scholars. These traditionalists prefer to waste their time analyzing the more obvious explorations by the likes of Kubrick, Godard, and Welles. Idiots! Bombastic ignoramuses! I have just seen the forgotten 1944 Poverty Row classic The Return of the Ape Man, and at first glance yes, its pretty damn bad, but under the same examination usually reserved for acknowledged masterpieces, Return of the Ape Man yields a complex and fascinating study of the masculine psyche.

Like most thawed cave man movies there is a stifling sadness to the 'future' that the titular ape man 'returns' to. Perhaps this is due to the no-frills budgetary approach but even for a low-budget B-quickie this movie's sets are awfully bare. Our titular ape man has awakened into a world that remains entirely and obviously within the confines of a sound stage, a world with all the drab flatness of a bad dream. And like a dream, all the characters are merely aspects of one dreamer, archetypes of a masculine unconscious ever trying to transcend its prison.

The very title Return of the Ape Man suggests a dream cycle wherein no stage of evolution can ever be permanently transcended, no repressed animal instinct repressed, or paleolithic age ever truly 'past.' Not a sequel to Monogram's The Ape Man, the 'return' in the title may as well refer obliquely to the film's year of release, 1944 (during WWII), a time when the ape man archetype had definitely returned; a time and place (Europe, the Pacific) wherein men once more reverted to savage killers. In Return of the Ape Man, primitive, civilized and infantile aspects of the self stand next to each other in a dream basement, like the many stages of the astronaut Bowman interacting at the conclusion of Kubrick's much more widely praised 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The ape man is the past unleashed into the present, and he's there fore a reason; something about him was lost and must be re-found; some necessary new/ancient ingredient for adaption to a changing world. The return of the ape man completes a cyclic form, opening the stairwell to a new floor of evolution, a floor where man's veneer of culture caves in on itself, and savagery emerges, free at last to rampage unchecked.

The movie's title cards depict a gorilla behind bars; the beast locked away in all of us. And they are misleading: we are promised the actor George Zucco as the ape man (he will in fact never appear, except in make-up test shots and publicity materials which he made before becoming to ill to continue on). We fade into a shot of the local paper, it reads that a local vagrant is missing and the residents of his park bench are beginning to worry. Right off, the world of this movie is established as fragmented, and surreal, resembling the under-populated realm of dreams. When has any newspaper ever written about a missing vagrant? How can a man with no address be truly missing? It doesn't make sense; it works to paralyze the conscious mind of the viewer, opening up the unconscious dream-viewer. It's natural, this being a dream, that things run counter to logic.

Our next image is of a round white clock or thermometer, with its black arm pointed due south, splitting the round symbol in half. Like a Zen yin/yang this sets the stage for the parade of split/opposites we will later encounter.

Next we see Bela Lugosi as Dr. Dexter and John Carradine, as his friend/colleague Gilmore, working down in the basement in the lab, thawing out the missing transient after a four month test freeze. Excited about their success in reviving the frozen hobo, the pair talk about what it would mean to revive someone frozen for a hundred years or more. Imagine the contribution to science! Realizing they cant wait that long to find out if their thawing plan would work on such a long-frozen fella, they set out to the arctic to find one already frozen, a prehistoric caveman.

We cut to a rear-projected indoor arctic. Surrounded by stock footage, Dexter and Gilmore argue over their progress--or lack thereof after 10 long months. Meanwhile their two assistants in the background gently wave their pick axes at the hard concrete studio floor, and we understand why they have had so little success. Dr. Gilmore, beginning to show his adult difference from Dexter, says he wants to go home. He misses his wife. Dexter scoffs. Dexter is "married to science." Dexter implicitly knows that in all the Iron John myth variations, the Wild Man lays hidden in the bottom of the lake, and the hero has to spoon out the water from the lake to find him, a daunting task especially when the water is hardened to ice, but Dexter is ready to take as long as needed to accomplish it. The sterilized and harnessed Gilmore, however, only wants to give up and go sulking back to his wife.

Before these two can part ways, an ape man is found, as we knew it would be. Back home in the basement, Dexter melts the ice block encasing it with a blowtorch, eager to open his new toy, so to speak, while Gilmore seems more interested in getting the thing over to the Museum of Natural History, and being rid of it. He wants to go home. The thrill is gone. He is civilized man at his weakest, anxious to turn away from any new discovery and its inherent danger, to turn it over to the authorities as soon as possible, to evade the associated responsibility. Dexter on the other hand is contemptuous of this attitude. He wants the ape man all to himself, to harness it and incorporate it, society and personal safety be damned.

The ape man comes alive as soon as he is thawed, and attacks them. Accessing the wild-man archetype is one thing, controlling it another. But Dexter backs it into a cage with a blowtorch. He immediately concocts the idea of transplanting a part of someone else's brain into the ape man's skull to make him more manageable. This is a unique variant from the plot of most of these gorilla brain-transplant films, for he only wants to use some of the new brain. This unusual approach further cements our theory, as his aim is to unify disparate elements of the psyche into a timeless, post-modern man.

By now these two boys are late for a dinner party. We leave them in the basement and zip up the street to Gilmore's house where we meet his wife, Hilda, his niece Ann and Ann's fiancé, Steve Rogers. The party looks like it will be exceedingly dull. Cutting back to the two scientists in the lab it is made obvious that neither one of them really wants to leave their Boy's Life science project and tread upstairs for the mother's call of dinner-time. But Dexter has promised Gilmore, who is duty-bound to his matriarchal ruler, Hilda. She is the pillar of his culture and civilization, his master in the way Dexter is his own master, and trying to be the master of the ape man. Appropriately, Hilda sees Bela's Dr. Dexter as a threat to her position of dominance, a bad influence that she doesn't want her son associating with.

Bela's character of Dr. Dexter is, of course, the very definition of a bad-influence friend. He certainly has no sense of empathy. However his lack of respect for human life in the context of the film is understandable. All the other characters are mono-dimensional automatons. One look at Dexter impatiently smoking a fat cigar after dinner and his psychopathology becomes apparent. It is as if he realizes he is in a dream and so is no longer obliged to feel compassion for those around him. "Some peoples brain's would never be missed," he comments in the movie's one legitimately funny moment. He is like a boy anxious for dinner to be over so he can resume working on his airplane model down in the basement. He sees the other guests purely as transplantable brains on stilts.

At this point, Aunt Hilda, the organ grinder, urges her trained monkey Gilmore to the piano. While Gilmore dutifully bangs away at Beethoven's Autumn Sonata, Dexter seizes his opportunity. He slyly asks Steven to drive him home, and then invites him in for a drink, which he drugs, thus knocking Steve out. A lot very slow screen time then unravels as Dexter carries him to the basement, lays him on the table, and changes out of his dinner jacket into his white lab coat. Some will dismiss this lengthy stretch as mere padding, but the careful critic knows there are always deeper meanings, even in the randomness of cheap cinema. The black/white coat switching being in this instance an insight into Dexter's dual nature, the clinical sociopath and civilized 'friend' as interchangeable as a coat, foreshadowing the impending operation itself. However, no sooner does he have his white coat on, than Gilmore has snuck up behind him with a gun.

Gilmore: That was the most contemptible thing a man could ever do to his friend.
Dexter: My dear Gilmore
Gilmore: You deliberately tried to murder someone dear to me...
Dexter: He might not have died.
Gilmore: Thats a comforting thought to you. Do you see what it might mean to that boy? If he lived the operation would leave him an idiot!
Dexter: And what about science?

We get our first glimpse of Dexter's childlike but its all for science rationalization and also Gilmore's lack of a suitable response to a situation outside society's norm. The brave thing for Gilmore to do would be to call the police right then, but that would require a masculine decisiveness that civilization has eroded in him. Instead he saunters off, advising Dexter to kill the ape man, and thus symbolically neuter himself the way Gilmore has. Dexter replies in a typically adolescent manner. When I need advice from you I will ask for it, then when Gilmore leaves, Dexter mutters like an angry child; You'll pay for this!

Gilmore returns to the safety of his home while Dexter plots a trap with electricity (he is an adept of both fire and ice). The ape man is used as guinea pig in the trap planned for Gilmore, and then, his bars bendable as rubber (in Dexter's house, the unconscious is not well repressed), escapes through the basement window. However, he soon finds that in this civilized world, there is no longer any outdoors to escape to. One is reminded of the underground town in Harlan Ellison's classic novella A Boy and His Dog. The exteriors are so clearly and obviously sets; barely decorated and almost completely deserted. The ape man finds a woman to menace, however, and an idiotic cop on the beat, who hilariously cant decipher which of them is the threat. Break it up you two he yells, pushing the woman away. The ape man kills the cop with one of the phoniest looking punches in all of cinema. Dexter has now come out onto the streets and we seem strolling calmly along with his blowtorch. He finds the ape man hunched over the form of the cop. He puts his arm consolingly around the ape man to lead him back home. You brainless fool, get out! Get home! he says. Suddenly, he remembers he should be brandishing the blowtorch, he waves it menacingly and the ape man snaps out of his stupor to resume his pose of harried, fearful savage. The ape man is now revealed to bonded in some way to Dexter, his sadistic father. Dexter's home is the ape man's prison. He is both safe and trapped, the same fate as his mirror opposite, Gilmore, suffers at his house up the street.

Note that we have already heard much use of the words idiot and fool, reflecting the adolescent mindset of much of the characters. Name-calling is a childhood weapon, a means of establishing dominance. Coupled with the amateurish, child-like play fighting that passes for action in the movie, we feel that in this dream, every male character in the film is a child, and this is all dream/play or regressive drama therapy.

Fade to morning of the next day as Gilmore cracks open his morning paper to read the headlines: Evidence of Brute Force in Slaying of Policeman! He puts down his paper to answer the phone. A delighted Dexter is on the line, voice laden with false pathos over the incident; "its terrible."

"I was just about to finish my breakfast and go to the police," Gilmore replies, passionlessly. You would think the fact that a prehistoric man he helped thaw out has recently murdered a policeman might inspire him to phone the cops before continuing with his breakfast, even cause him to raise his voice, but not our Gilmore. There is then a very long pause in the film as Gilmore seemingly listens to something Dexter is saying, but the blankness on Carradine's face is astonishing. More than ever, in these long seconds of dead air, our conception of Gilmore as a civilized automaton is affirmed. Eventually he agrees to come right over and help Dexter dispose of the ape man.

On the way out his wife reminds him don't forget the concert this afternoon. The matriarchal overseer is cracking her whip in a gentle reminder that, though ape-men may run rampant at the Dexter house, Gilmore is one monkey who is most definitely on a leash.
Down in the basement Gilmore refuses to shake hands with Dexter. I wouldn't have come for any other reason than the killing of the ape he says. The civilized adult will not return for any reason except to destroy forever the reminder of his savage past. He has agreed to reverse his forward evolution and re-enter the basement of adolescent experimentation only if it will mean permanently silencing the jailed savage within. Of course, this is a trap that civilized man has been falling into time and time again throughout history. And on cue, Dexter paralyzes him. "So my self-righteous friend was going to tell the police, eh? You trusting, stupid fool." Gilmore is now the fool, and will become the idiot, a fate he saved his future son-in-law from the night before.

Dexter begins to bind the paralyzed Gilmore in one of the most unconvincing tie-up jobs in screen history. "The ape man, after Ive finished with him, will no longer have the primitive instinct to kill," Dexter explains. "He'll be a righteous citizen, just like you are you know why? because part of your brain, the righteous part, will be in him."

The ape man with Gilmore's brain will be similar in many ways to Dexter himself, an incorporation of civilized and savage elements. Dexter predicts sarcastically that he will be even better, since he will have morals. Though he is hardly tied up at all, Gilmore cannot resist Dexter's commands, displaying only tired resignation. "I'm glad its me," he confesses. "I feel partly responsible for this whole mess." The complete repression of his natural instincts has caused a riff in the masculine psyche of which all the male characters in the film are somehow part. In allowing himself to become isolated at the top of the civilization ladder, he has let himself grow stagnant as a man.

"Spoken like a true scientist," says Dexter. Though he has betrayed his true nature by becoming a trained, monkey-suit wearing robot, Gilmore still can, by submitting to this operation, aid the masculine science which in the context of this film is more like Jungian alchemy. Dexter's sewing a piece of Gilmore's brain into the wild man will not just tame the wild-man, but untame Gilmore.

Dexter helps him onto the table to begin his operation. As we cut back and forth to reaction shots from the ape man, the scene to take on decidedly pre-sexual S/M proportions. The bonds of Gilmore are easily escapable, and the bars of the ape mans prison are just as easily removable. The fact that neither tests their bonds in attempt to escape shows an agreed on sense of imagination among the three. They play like children acting out a horror movie they've just seen on TV.

Back at the Gilmore house, the civilized family waits for Dad to come home so they can go to the concert. Without their father figure, the family automata cannot move forward. The head of the household is essentially neutered, but still the head. They wonder what to do, agree they should do something, and do nothing. They are just as paralyzed as Gilmore himself. Back to Dexter's basement: The partial brain transplant is already over and Dexter is trying to communicate with his now semi-cultured ape man. This Gimore/Savage construct cannot seem to remember much of either identity, however.

These things take a little time, Dexter assures him in a comforting, fatherly tone. But when he suggests another operation, the ape man runs off, shrieking. Once again it is out on the streets, but of course it can only go back to the Gilmore house (the closeness of the two houses once again has a childish parallel, like two neighbor children who are always visiting each other.)

Ann suggests calling the police because she is worried about her uncle, but Aunt Hilda forbids it, saying, that would only cause a scandal. We are reminded of H.G. Wells eloi in The Time Machine, for whom the most rudimentary survival skills have been lost through over-civilization. Meanwhile upstairs, the ape man crawls into the house, sees the piano and begins playing. Hilda comes into the room; the ape strangles her. He runs off, chased by Mark. The cops come. In an interesting blooper Ann mispronounces the word fiancée. She says to the police, My fiancé (fee-ance) chased him across the garden. With this mispronunciation, Ann reveals her difference from the other female, the devouring mother Hilda. Like the men in the film, she is playing and doesn't even know how to pronounce the words of adulthood.

The cops arrive and are shown to be inept, ineffectual enforcers of society. They look at the body of Aunt Hilda and try to figure out the motive or cause of the death. Just plain murder by the looks of it, one deduces.

Then in the garden. "Hey Sarge, a footprint!"

"Nah, it looks to big to be real," says the sarge. Like the Gilmore family, they have lost the ability to think outside the parameters of their stagnant culture. Because the footprint is big, it cant be real. They are all living in denial of that which doesn't conform.

The ape man/Gilmore now returns to Dexter's basement. Dexter admonishes him like a weary, harried husband, like Ricky Ricardo might chastise an errant Lucille Ball

Dexter: Where have you been?
Ape Man: (grumbles) my home.
Dexter: Did you kill somebody again?
Ape Man: I killed Hilda.
Dexter: Mrs. Gilmore? Why did you kill her?
Ape Man: (pause) didn't mean to.

But of course he did the wild ape rebelling against his zookeeper, returned ape man reclaiming the phallus his civilized double surrendered to the devouring mother.

Steve and the cops converge on Dexter's place. Steve is beginning to forge, under the pressure of this situation, his new identity --a real man. Dexter answers the door: "Monster? I don't know what you're talking about." He has locked the ape man behind a sliding wall in the basement, and when the cops come down to search it, Dexter's confidence gradually crumbles, as the ape man pounds his way out of the wall. Dexter comes up with the excuse that it must be from next door, and the cops, ever the sheep, are ready to run and look. But by now Steve has developed a free will of his own, and he stops them. In the movies one exciting piece of action, the ape man bursts through the wall and kills Dexter who is unable to get his blowtorch started in time. The cops shower the ape man in a hail of gunfire, or rather, gunfire noises. Obviously no bullets are actually fired since the ape man doesn't even wince. Instead, he mortally wounds Dexter by rubbing his neck gently with his naked arm. Then he scares the cops into total paralysis by waving his arms and roaring, like a child pretending to be a gorilla. Before he dies, Dexter whispers to Steven the truth, that fire is the only way to kill the ape man.

An alchemical change has now occurred that parallels the union of the ape man and Gilmore. Dexter's last words how to kill the ape man instill in young Steven the ability to vanquish this threat. Though Dexter could not manage to successfully father the Gilmore/ape man he does succeed in fathering Steven, passing along his alchemical knowledge to the boy/man with his dying breath. Steven is thus transformed from potentially neutered automaton into real man. In his hands now falls the task of continuing the evolution and change begun by Dexter.

Meanwhile the ape man runs back to the Gilmore house and abducts Ann. One is reminded of Dr. Morphius' Id in Forbidden Planet, killing everyone who stands in the way of his repressed desire for his own daughter. He carries her over the rooftops and in a post-modern fourth-wall moment, even carries her off the sets of the film and into the prop closet and lighting rigs of the soundstage. But he is clearly lost and intimidated outside the close confines of Dexter's basement, so that is where he returns.

They will not find you now he assures her back in Dexter's laboratory. Like a restless child he is forever running away and back to home. No sooner has he said this however, than the police come through the door. Struggling to utilize his vague memories of science, the Gilmore/ape man attempts to freeze Ann, to preserve her in ice, or subjugate her to his own unconscious. But when the freezer doesn't work he ends up pulling out the electric cables and starting a fire. The savage instincts are not the part of man that preserves; they only destroy, their only contribution is necessitating change. The ape man has come up against the brick wall that is his stage's evolutionary limit. Steve meanwhile gets the door open, and tries to run down the steps into the smoke and rescue Ann. The police try and stop him.

"Dont be a fool, you cant make it!" they say to Steve. Again the word fool is used, but this time Steve is ready to ignore the negativity of their rational minds, thus permanently transcending from civilized automaton afraid of scandal to a hero who has incorporated the strength of the Wild Man. He becomes the archetypal hero of myth who rescues the girl from the dragon of the fire. The policeman cower in fear, like the ape man, but Steve has mastered the mystery of flame.

The final shot, unforgettably bleak, shows the ape man dying in the back of the frame. In the foreground are rows of beakers and test tubes, and all around the super-imposed fire. We fade to black, the end, and the gorilla image in the cage repeated from the opening credits. The cycle is complete. We are allowed no epilogue shot of the happy couple enjoying some civilized honeymoon, just a quick, nihilistic fade-to-black. While this may seem like Katzman economics, it goes much deeper. The final shot, with its chemistry equipment and wild mans symbolic sacrifice is an alchemical equation for the future. The ape man has done his job; he has wrought the necessary havoc to jump-start the stale society that revived him. However his own limitations doom his physical survival just as Gilmore did him. Shrinking back into the shadows, hunted by the cleansing flames of evolution, the ape man is destroyed until his inevitable future re-return. Ann and Steve are escorted out of the burning house and into the unknown. Their honeymoon exists outside the parameters of this movie. It as if the final shot of the film is in itself some sort of a deep freeze.

One wants to walk away from this movie depressed and angry that an hour or so of their lives has been wasted, but the scholar with too much time on his hands will exit with profound insight into the evolutionary masculine psyche. If we bear in mind that this film was shot in 1944 and therefore those involved in the production were not serving over there, this indictment of the cultured male becomes doubly significant. It is as if with this film, everyone involved is trying to atone for their non-participation in the far-off bloodshed.

Today the Wild Man remains in a deep freeze. Few comparatively sheltered males have the courage to thaw the ape man out and start the necessary havoc that prefigures real human change. If our collective masculine psyche is to recapture that primitive energy, if the ape man is going to, in fact, truly return to us, we need to pull the cables from the wall and not be afraid of rushing headfirst into the flames of our burning basements. If contemporary men are ever to successfully merge their primitive and cultured minds, they will have to ignore the warnings of the police, and head down those smoky stairs alone. When they do, only then will there be the epilogue of young lovers shrugging off the "Monster Slain" headline with a vacant chuckle on the way to their endless honeymoon beyond the credits, where George Zucco finally appears.

Originally appeared in Midnight Marquee, #69/70
- 2003 (Gary J. Svehla, publisher)

CREDITS: Producer: Sam Katzman & Jack Dietz; Director: Phillip Rosen; Screenplay: Robert Charles; Cinematographer: Marcel Le Picard; Editor: Carl Pierson

CAST: Bela Lugosi (Dr. Dexter); John Carradine (Dr. Gilmore); Fred Moran (Ape Man); George Zucco (?); Mary Currier (Hilda); Michael Ames (Steve Rogers); Judith Gibson (Ann)

Next: Ed Wood, Savior of Lost Boogeymen

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