• Classic Horrors Club

Ripped from the Headlines: Return of the Ape Man (1944)


Return of the Ape Man (1944) opens with an ominous headline:

A hand pulls a lever in a laboratory and Professor Dexter (Bela Lugosi) talks about a discovery that will rock the scientific world. He and his assistant, Professor John Gilmore (John Carradine), roll out a body on a gurney and prepare an injection that they’ve been waiting to use for four months. His eyes twitch… there’s life. Gilmore says that he feels “all right; but, holy smokes, he’s cold!” This is apparently the notorious tramp that’s been missing. His revival proves, “If we can suspend animation for four months, we can do it for four years, or 400.

The next thing you know, the two professors are in the arctic, the habitat of primitive man. Indeed, they unearth one frozen in ice and their real work will begin when they return home…

Of course, Dexter is mum; he’s keeping the body of a prehistoric man in a block of ice in his lab. When Gilmore leaves to attend a family party, Dexter uses a small torch to melt the ice. (At the party, we learn that Gilmore’s wife, Hilda, played by Mary Currier, doesn’t think much of Dexter.)

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When Gilmore returns, Dexter tells him they have a perfect specimen, neither man nor ape… and it’s alive. When it tries to attack Gilmore, Dexter uses the torch to drive it into its cage. Dexter explains that he intends to transplant a section of brain from a present-day man into the ape man. He needs just enough to maintain his memories. Gilmore reminds him that he would need a living man and that is murder. Dexter responds, “As a scientist, I don’t recognize it [the word murder.]”

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Back at the party, or another party… I’m not sure, Dexter asks young Steve Rogers (Tod Andrews, not Chris Evans) if he’s interested in science. When Rogers offers to give Dexter a ride home, he’s drugged and carried downstairs into the lab. Gilmore arrives just in time to force Dexter at gunpoint to revive Rogers.

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Gilmore tells Dexter he’s done a most contemptible thing and that science does not require murder on its behalf. “You’re quite mad!” He advises Dexter to destroy “that thing” and storms out. Dexter has the last word, “If I need advice from you I’ll ask for it!”

Bela puts down his book and smiles. He carries a metal plate into the lab and connects some wires to it. As he guides the ape man onto the plate with his torch, Dexter tells it, “It’s a test. This isn’t intended for you, my friend.”

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The ape man soon figures how to wrap its arms around the bars to bend them and escapes, forcing Dexter to make a torch our of rolled-up paper. “Back! I’ll show you who’s master.”

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The ape man leaves the house and attacks a woman. A policeman hears her screams, but meets his fate as the “strange monster” kills him.

Gilmore puts down the paper as Dexter calls him. We see Dexter grinning from ear to ear as he tells his colleague, “It’s terrible.” Gilmore agrees to help Dexter “do away with it.”

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Cage suddenly repaired and ape man safely inside, Dexter covers the metal plate with a rug. When Gilmore arrives and steps on the rug, Dexter activates the plate. Gilmore proclaims, “Now I know you’re insane.”

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At the Gilmore house, the matriarch is missed and the entire family decides to go look for him.

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Dexter finds his experiment a success; he’s advanced the ape man’s mind a few thousand years in only a few hours.

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Anne Gilmore (Teala Loring) feels her woman’s intuition and wants to call the police. Her boyfriend, Steve Rogers, tells her they can’t jump to conclusions.

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One again, the ape man easily escapes the lab and goes to Gilmore’s house. He observes Hilda saying that she doesn’t want to call the police because it would cause a scandal. The ape man/Gilmore, climbs the trellis and plays the piano, causing the family to conclude that, “Maybe he’s been in the house all the time!”

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He’s nowhere to be found when they open the door to the piano room, but that’s because he’s in Hilda’s room strangling her. Rogers spies someone outside the window and descends the trellis to find the ape man waiting to clock him.

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The police discover Hilda has a broken neck like “the other.” Outside, the find a footprint that’s too big to be human. Rogers tells them he has a good idea where it came from.

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The ape man returns to Dexter’s lab and tells Dexter he killed Hilda, but he didn’t mean to. He gets in the cage, which Dexter hides with a secret panel.

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The police and Rogers burst in and enter the basement, finding nothing. Then the ape man bursts through the secret panel. “For the love of Pete, what is it?” Multiple gunshots do nothing to slow the angry creature. It attacks Dexter and runs away. With his last breath, Dexter tells the police there’s only one way to stop it… fire.

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The ape man returns to the Gilmore house and abducts Anne, slinging her over his shoulder. He heads downtown and scales across two building with a cable, causing the police to climb to the roof of one, then go back down and climb to the roof of the other one.

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They all converge in a theater, where the police spot the ape man and Anne above on the catwalk. “Light your torches and spread out!”

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The action concludes in Dexter’s lab, though, as the ape man inadvertently starts an electrical fire. Rogers braves the smoke and flames to rescue Anna, leaving one of the policemen to say, “This is one time I hope the fire department lets it get a good start.”

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Thoughts

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Perhaps it was the print I watched on YouTube, but I did not enjoy Return of the Ape Man as much as I did The Ape Man. (By the way, the two movies are unrelated; this is not a sequel.) This could be due to a simple matter of taste, or I was in a different mood when I watched it. In some ways, it’s a more interesting production.

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For example, George Zucco is billed third in the cast, but appears briefly in only one scene. The first time the ape man lies on the table, it’s Zucco; however, after that, it’s Frank Moran. Apparently, Zucco left the production early, but retained the billing due to his contract. Speculation for the reason include illness, age, and/or that he refused to play the part.

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Return of the Ape Man has John Carradine going for it. After a decade of uncredited roles, then a phase of career-making performances, including in Stagecoach (1939) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Carradine entered the genre in 1943 with Captive Wild Woman (1943.) It’s nice to see him play the straight man here, the good guy to Lugosi’s villain.

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Producer Sam Katzman took his Banner Productions to Monogram Pictures in 1940 and, in the eight years he was there, produced (among many other films) several Bela Lugosi thrillers. This is only the third of them that I’ve seen, but considering I adore Invisible Ghost (1941) and enjoyed this and The Ape Man, I think I’ll bump up the others on my watch list.

Written by Robert Charles

Directed by Phil Rosen

Starring Bela Lugois, John Carradine, George Zucco, Frank Moran, Teala Loring, Tod Andrews, Mary Currier

RT 60 min.

Released on July 17, 1944

Home Video Olive Films (Blu-ray)

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