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
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
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
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
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
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)
C. 2012 - Acidemic Journal of Film and Media
- BFG LCS: 489042340244