When looking back to the heights of Old Hollywood, what we’re really getting nostalgic for is the glut & extravagance of the old studio system. The high production values & workman sense of craft that went into each studio production in that era are missing from modern cinema’s more routine, mundane releases. For a brief, glorious time, even horror had its day in the sun during that studio era, particularly thanks to Universal’s Famous Monsters brand. This, of course, birthed the iconic career if Bela Lugosi, who starred in prestigious horror productions like The Black Cat & Todd Browning’s Dracula early in his career. Horror was treated as a flash-in-the-pan trend by the Hollywood studio system, however, and Lugosi’s leading man work eventually dried up. Shortly after putting in his final top-bill performance for a major studio in Columbia Pictures’ Return of the Vampire (which is widely considered to be an unofficial sequel to Dracula), Lugosi was nudged out of the major studio system and into B-picture work in the less nostalgia-worthy territory of Old Hollywood’s so-called “poverty row” studios, purveyors of schlock. The step down from Universal horror to poverty row B-pictures was exactly as drastic as it sounds and Lugosi’s first work for Monogram Pictures, The Ape Man, was clearly the actor’s first major “Oh, how the mighty have fallen” moment.
Although far from the worst, The Ape Man may be the first major embarrassment of Bela Lugosi’s career. It was also one of the few instances of his earlier works where he wasn’t asked to play a vampire. Instead, the Hungarian-born icon plays the titular ape man, the monstrous result of a failed experiment by the other horror movie staple he was often typecast as: a mad scientist. Weirdly enough, the film begins after the scientist has already transformed to his hideous ape man visage (which just looks like an especially hairy member of The Monkees). In later works like Alligator People or The Fly, that kind of introduction would mean that his failed experiment downfall would then be portrayed in a longform flashback. Instead, we’re simply told that he was once fully human and are asked to watch in horror as he hunts down innocent victims for their spinal fluid, which he shoots directly into his arm like heroin as a makeshift, temporary cure for his ape-ificiation (an image that would be just as shocking in the 40s as it is now, given heroin addiction’s prominence at the time). The ape man scientist dresses like a typical gangster when venturing out for these kills, equipped with a fedora and a cape. The difference is that instead of using a gun to slay his spinal fluid-providing victims, he uses his accomplice, an actual ape. The film’s main conflict is in following two news reporters as they get to the bottom of these mysterious killings, increasingly getting hot on the ape & ape man’s metaphorical tails. (Apes don’t have tails.)
The basic plot of The Ape Man has promise to it as a Bela Lugosi cheapie, but the film itself is a total embarrassment. The score is punishingly repetitive; Lugosi’s given nothing interesting to do outside donning the ape make-up; his primate accomplice is clearly just a dude in a costume shop gorilla suit; and the two reporters who chase them down cynically poke fun at the frivolity of the film’s premise, since horror had become something of a derided fad by the time of the film’s production. It probably doesn’t help that Monogram Pictures allowed The Ape Man to fall into public domain status, so the only commercially available prints are horrifically shoddy DVD transfers with nearly incomprehensible visual & aural clarity. I might’ve been better off streaming the film from YouTube than watching my bargain bin physical copy (purchased from a yard sale), but at least I got to exercise my rudimentary lip-reading skills?
The worst part about all of this is knowing that things only got worse for Bela Lugosi’s career. He might’ve had a couple decent Universal productions left in him as second fiddle to rival Boris Karloff (1945’s The Body Snatcher is especially great), but the rest of his career as a leading man would be relegated to works exactly like this slice of poverty row dreck. Even though The Ape Man was a nothing of a film, that wouldn’t stop Lugosi & Monogram from teaming up again for its sequel, Return of the Ape Man. Lugosi would even work again with The Ape Man director William Beaudine, whose prestigious credits include titles like Billy the Kid Versus Dracula & Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter, on the infamously terrible Martin & Lewis knockoff Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla. At least that poorly-remembered gem is notably terrible, though. It’s possibly the most shrill & aggressively unfunny film I’ve ever seen, but The Ape Man is an even worse kind of awful: the unforgivably bland kind. It’s the first truly sour note in a career that had outworn its welcome in the Old Hollywood studio system, even if that career persisted endearingly in horror fans’ hearts in the more forgiving decades since. Yet, its worst offense is in being an entirely forgettable bore.