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Ripped from the Headlines: The Ape Man (1943)

Updated: 5 days ago


The Ape Man (1943) opens with members of the press waiting for a ship to dock. A newspaper story provides further exposition:

Doctor James Brewster (Bela Lugosi) has gone missing. His colleague, Dr. George Randall (Henry Hall), fears that he’s a victim of amnesia. He waits to greet Brewster’s sister, Agatha (Minerva Urecal.)

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When she arrives, he tells her that six months ago, her brother made “an astounding discovery.” He decided to be a guinea pig for himself and his experiment was “unfortunately” a great success. The newspaper story was a fake; Brewster is alive. Randall says, “Prepare yourself for a great shock, Agatha.”

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Back at the house, Randall steps on a particular spot on the floor and the fireplace swings open, leading downstairs into a basement laboratory. “I warn you, it’s frightening.” Inside a cage is a gorilla and Dr. Brewster, looking like a character from planet of the apes… without the muzzle and brow. Agatha shrieks, but her brother can speak and tells her he won’t hurt her. Randall lets him out and he exits, hunched over with arms swinging.

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The editor of the newspaper wants reporter Jeff Carter (Wallace Ford) to get a personal interview with Agatha Brewster, not because of the mystery surrounding her brother, but because she’s a renowned ghost hunter. Carter and his new photographer, Billie Mason (Louise Currie), head to the Brewster house and verbal sparring begins between the two.

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Back in the lab, Dr. Brewster tells Agatha that he keeps himself locked in the cage with the gorilla because he’s afraid he might do “something terrible.” The only way to counteract the injection that made him an ape man is to have human spinal fluid injected into him. Randall won’t do it because it would require him to commit murder. Besides, there’s only a chance it would work.

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At the front door, Carter and Mason overhear the gorilla downstairs. Greeting them, Agatha explains they heard a recording of ghost noises. During her interview, she says, “All houses are haunted. All persons are haunted. This room is crowded right now.” When Mason takes a picture of Agatha, Dr. Brewster watches them through the curtain…

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“What a lot of hooey,” says Carter in the car leaving the Brewster house.

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An impatient Dr. Brewster puts on a coat and hat and takes the gorilla out for a walk. At Randall’s house, they climb through his window. He explains, “I had to; I’m desperate.” The police arrive to get more information about the missing person’s case. While he’s detained, Dr. Brewster and the gorilla kill Randall’s butler. When the police leave, Randall discovers the body.

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The police investigate and determine that the butler was strangled by someone with terrific strength. Holding a fistful of hair, one of the policemen examining the body says, “Whoever it was sure needed a haircut.”

Billie Mason learns that she caught Dr. Brewster in the photo she took of Agatha.

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Dr. Brewster tells Agatha he got the spinal fluid. As he expected, Randall arrives; however, not as he expected, he refuses to give Brewster the injection… that is, until Agatha pulls a gun on him.

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Later, Dr. Brewster rises from the operating table and hops around the room trying to straighten his back.

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Randall starts to leave, but must hide when Carter arrives at the front door. He tells Agatha he’s been asked to work on her brother’s case. “I heard something about his terrific experiments.” Agatha replies, “Yes, he has a very scientific mind.” When he asks if he had a lab in the house, she says, “Not that I know of.”

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Randall finally leaves, but Carter is sitting in his car outside and watches him.

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Suddenly, Dr. Brewster is hunched-over again. He cries for Randall, “I need more!” He and the gorilla head out again, and before you know it:

Three murders have been committed and Dr. Brewster holds a full jar of human spinal fluid. If Randall won’t come to him, he will go to Randall. Agatha tries to stop him, “You can’t! The police are watching him.” In anger, Dr. Brewster strangles his sister.

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Dr. Brewster climbs through the window. He shows Randall the jar of fluid, but when he gets his hands on it, he throws it to the ground and breaks it. Dr. Brewster attacks and the police come running. He escapes, but the police find Randall dead with a broken neck. Agatha arrives, but promptly faints.

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Back at the Brewster house, Carter arrives and hears the gorilla. Sneaking in behind him, because he told her she could not come, is Mason. Dr. Brewster returns home and sneaks around behind the two of them. He catches up, knocks out Carter, and carries Mason to the lab.

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The gorilla gets mad when Dr. Brewster and Mason struggle, and it breaks out of the cage. Mason runs upstairs to the back side of the fireplace while Carter, who can’t find the button to open it, stands on the front side calling for her. The gorilla kills Dr. Brewster and heads toward Mason. The police arrive with Agatha and make her open the secret door.

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Mason runs into Carter’s arms. The gorilla barges out. The police shoot it. Agatha runs down into the basement and finds her brother dead.

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It’s a happy ending for Carter, who tells Mason he wants to put her over his knee and paddle her good for disobeying his orders. And the man who has been lurking in nearly every scene, peeking through windows and interacting with the characters, breaks the fourth wall to tell us he’s the author of the story. “Screwy idea, wasn’t it?”

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Thoughts

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I enjoyed The Ape Man a lot. It was fun and simple, with an ending that generates a surprising amount of suspense as the secret door to the laboratory keeps Carter and Mason separated as the angry gorilla approaches his next potential victim.

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Sure, it's predictable... when Mason takes a picture of Agatha with Dr. Brewster lurking behind, you know it's going to become a plot point. And the way Dr. Brewster mistreats the gorilla, you know it's ultimately going to be it that delivers what he deserves.

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Realistic makeup or not, it's clear that Dr. Brewster is suffering. Lugosi is both sympathetic and crazed. He's sympathetic when he tells Randall that he's desperate. He's crazed when he tells him, "it's my life against someone else's.

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The obligatory banter between Carter and Mason is sometimes clever and always entertaining. For example, when he tells her he thinks something funny is happening at the Brewster house and that he feels it in his bones, she says, "Maybe it's rheumatism."

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The whole thing is reminiscent of the much better Lugosi film, Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), but so were a lot of "gorilla suit" movies of the era. With stationary face and single-movement mouth, this isn't the best gorilla suit. But, that doesn't matter; it's Lugosi who's the "ape man" and the real star of the movie.

Written by Barney A. Sarecky

Based on the story, They Creep in the Dark, by Karl Brown

Directed by William Beaudine

Starring Bela Lugois, Louise Currie, Wallace Ford, Henry Hall, Minerva Urecal, Emile Van Horn

RT 64 min.

Released on March 5, 1943

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