RETURN OF THE APE MAN (1944) was the last of the infamous "Monogram Nine", a group of very low-budget horror films from that Poverty Row studio starring Bela Lugosi. It has nothing to do with THE APE MAN (1943), which was also released by Monogram and starred Bela. Both movies do have a number of similarities--the main one being that they are as goofy as all get out. RETURN OF THE APE MAN has just received an official home video release from Olive Films.
The story starts out with two Professors Dexter (Bela Lugosi) and John Gilmore (John Carradine) thawing out a tramp who has been in frozen suspended animation for four months. The poor fellow wakes up with no memory of the experience, and since he seems hale and hearty, the scientists immediately send him on his way, with Gilmore giving him five bucks for his trouble! (The professors don't even worry about keeping a tab on the homeless guy to see if there's any aftereffects--for all they know, the guy could have dropped dead five minutes after he left the laboratory.) Dexter (we never learn his first name) is now convinced that a human being can be kept in frozen preserve for years and years. Dexter decides to go to the Arctic in an attempt to find a frozen prehistoric being, and Gilmore, despite his misgivings, goes along.
In a very tacky looking fake "Arctic" indoor set (augmented by stock footage), the scientists do find a frozen man, and they take him back to America. Lugosi proceeds to thaw him out (with the use of a blowtorch), and the ancient fellow is alive! Dexter next plans to use brain surgery--and a modern man's brain--to advance the prehistoric man's intelligence. Dexter sets his sights on the fiancee of Gilmore's niece, and he manages to get the young man into his house and put him under, but Gilmore stops him at the very last moment before surgery. Gilmore isn't smart enough to tell the authorities about what's going on, and sure enough the "ape man" escapes from Dexter's Laboratory (sorry DeeDee) and creates havoc. Dexter convinces Gilmore to help him destroy the beast--but it's all a ruse to get Gilmore's brain in the creature, which does happen. The "ape man" is now advanced--well, advanced enough to talk like the MGM version of Tarzan. Of course, Dexter can't control him, and the part-Gilmore escapes again, killing Gilmore's wife and kidnapping his niece, leading to a fiery climax.
As usual, merely describing the plot of a Bela Lugosi/Monogram picture in no way does it proper justice. All the events I've described take place in about an hour's running time, but due to Phil Rosen's rather generic direction, it seems longer. Both Lugosi and Carradine here seem a bit more reserved than usual. Bela's Prof. Dexter is a perpetually grumpy sort of fellow--the only time we get to see the expected wicked gleam in Bela's eye is when he finds out his brain surgery on the ape man is a success (if you want to call it that). Carradine's Gilmore is so high-minded that when he's captured by Lugosi he almost begs the man to use him as a guinea pig so no one else gets hurt. The two actors do an okay job here, but I expected a little more verve out of them (I'm sure though that it was hard for any performer to get fired up over acting in a movie like this).
If you have seen the photo above, you'll notice that the great character actor George Zucco gets third billing in this film. That was because he was supposed to have played the Ape Man. Zucco did not play the role--Frank Moran did. Some say that when the creature is first thawed out and is lying on a table in Dexter's Laboratory (again, DeeDee) that it is Zucco, but it's hard to tell. Most monster movie experts say that Zucco left the project saying he was "ill"--others say that Zucco was so angry at his role he simply walked away from the movie. There is one still that does show Zucco as the Ape Man, so he did actually appear on set--but how much time he spent on the film, and what, if anything, was shot with him remains a mystery. Even esteemed classic horror historians Greg Mank and Tom Weaver don't really know the exact details of Zucco's involvement in RETURN OF THE APE MAN. One thing is for sure--Zucco does get billing on the film's credits. I hope he at least got paid for that! Monogram did a lot of crazy things--but casting the erudite and very British Zucco as a half-witted brutish caveman takes the cake. My own personal theory is that because Dexter gave the ape man part of Gilmore's brain, the creature's intelligence was supposed to develop over the movie's running time, and Zucco's version of the creature would have had more dialogue and more scenes which required expressive acting. But we'll never know.
Just about all that remains of George Zucco's involvement in RETURN OF THE APE MAN
(Zucco is in the middle, flaked by Bela Lugosi and John Carradine)
Frank Moran plays the thawed-out throwback as a typical movie caveman--he's shaggy, unkempt, and has limited vocabulary. The movie does try to show that something of Gilmore is striving to come out of the creature after Dexter's operation. The Ape Man does return to Gilmore's home, and once there he begins to play "Moonlight Sonata" on the piano (earlier it had been established that was Gilmore's favorite piece of music). When the Ape Gilmore encounters his wife, he seems to try and make some sort of contact with her, but then winds up strangling the woman. (Did Gilmore have some issues with his wife?) This idea of a victim of a forced brain transplant going back to his home and not being recognized by a mystified wife would be examined far much better in Hammer's FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED. The very beginning of RETURN OF THE APE MAN, with has a sequence involving a man being restored to life after being frozen, also reminds one of a later Hammer film: FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN. For all its inherent goofiness, RETURN OF THE APE MAN does present a few interesting themes that later movies would take better advantage of.
What makes RETURN OF THE APE MAN really goofy is its climax, which has the prehistoric man running around with Gilmore's niece slung over his shoulder like a sack of laundry. (The Ape Man's interest in the pretty young niece makes one wonder if Gilmore had repressed feelings for the girl.) The niece is played by Judith Gibson, who would later change her stage name to Teala Loring, and her fiancee is played by Michael Ames, who would later change his name to Tod Andrews. (In his fantastic book POVERTY ROW HORRORS!, Tom Weaver jokes that it was RETURN OF THE APE MAN that caused the actors to assume different monikers.) Lugosi winds up getting killed off ten minutes before the film ends, which is a waste....while the Ape Man is cornered in Dexter's...er, lab and is burned to death. (The cops on the scene talk about how they hope the fire department takes their time getting to the blaze.)
Olive Films has released RETURN OF THE APE MAN on Blu-ray and DVD. I bought the DVD to save a few bucks...this is, after all, a low-budget film in full-frame black and white. The visual quality on this Olive presentation is acceptable, nothing more. While some sequences look a bit better than others, for most of the time the image is very soft. I doubt that the Blu-ray version of this film would look that much better. As usual with Olive Films, there are no extras whatsoever.
I wouldn't rank RETURN OF THE APE MAN as even one of the best Lugosi/Monogram pictures, but it is nice to see it get an official home video release. Any film with Bela, John Carradine, and a crackpot caveman can't be all bad.