Bride of the Gorilla (1951)

As monumental as the 1930s King Kong was in influencing special effects innovation in early cinema, there was a nasty undercurrent of racism that flowed from that picture & dispersed into the larger cultural pool. Many ape-themed B-pictures that followed in King Kong’s footsteps preyed on societal discomfort with interracial romance, horrifically coding their villainous primates as African or South American invaders stealing square-jawed Americans’ refined white women. It’s not a genre I tend to pay much attention to as a result, despite my bottomless appetite for schlock, unless there’s a hook like witnessing Bela Lugosi’s decline into poverty row Hell in The Ape Man. 1951’s Bride of the Gorilla is a strange exception to the rule. It’s a deeply racist picture, to be sure, but its avoidance of the usual tropes & grooves of the genre makes it a bizarre, fascinating work as an outlier. More of a melodrama than a B-grade horror and a complication of the way its villainous ape is coded as a racial Other, Bride of the Gorilla surprises & subverts in its participation in a genre that doesn’t deserve the effort. It’s a morally repugnant, but oddly compelling as a cultural artifact.

Presented as a story about “how the jungle itself took the law into its own hands”, this is a tale of adultery, guilt, and the white man’s sense of displacement in the Amazon. A rubber plantation owner’s young wife falls in love with one of his workers. The pair consummate this passion after a fight over their affections leads to the old man’s accidental death. Haunted by their own guilt and a criminal investigation from the Amazonian country’s police commissioner (?) & audience narrator (horror cheapie veteran Lon Cheney, Jr.), the new union is cursed & ultimately tragic. This is compounded by a local witch who poisons & gaslights the new husband/former employee into believing he’s turned into a gorilla. He hallucinates that his body is changing and he is losing his humanity to the jungle, where he begins to spend most of his time instead of comforting his new, wealthy bride. There isn’t a lot of gorilla action in the picture; it’s mostly colonialist melodrama. Still, the psychological horror of this transformation (which is never confirmed to be real) has interesting thematic implications & moments of dread.

Bride of the Gorilla’s thesis that white people don’t belong in the Amazonian jungle is a technically accurate conclusion derived from deeply faulty reasoning. According to the film, “White people shouldn’t live too long in the jungle,” because it “brings out their bad side.” The transformation horror at the center of the film brings into question the sexual threat of the Other that usually permeates its genre. The movie practically functions as a horror of racial transformation, where a white man loses his privilege & civility as be becomes more in tune with the “primitive” culture of the jungle. Because this is a poverty row cheapie rapidly fired off to fill out a double bill, there likely wasn’t much intentional thought put into how the film would participate in, complicate, or subvert the racist tropes of its genre, but the results are fascinatingly muddled all the same. The movie takes an unintended anti-colonialist stance and breaks down the barriers that separate its white man lead from the jungle community he fears. It even does so with an almost exclusively all-white, American cast, which makes it all the more bizarre.

For all of Bride of the Gorilla’s grotesque, Darwinist implications as a racist participation in colonialist narratives, it does have occasional moments of genuine psychological terror. Raymond Burr (of Perry Mason & Rear Window fame) sells the fear of his primitive de-evolution nicely, especially in a scene where he punches in the glass of a mirror that displays a gorilla’s reflection. Late in the film his gorilla form stalks his titular bride through the jungle and the movie takes his first-person POV. It’s a decision that’s intended to mask the truth of his transformation, but accidentally telegraphs the aesthetic of an 80s slasher in the process. Most of Bride of the Gorilla works this way. Its indulgence in prolonged melodrama is likely an effort to limit its special effects budget, but makes it an interesting B-horror outlier in the process. Its subversion & complication of racist ape movie tropes was likely a thoughtless act in the pursuit of a quick, cheap-to-shoot script, but makes for an fascinating discussion anyway. The psychological & bodily horrors of its central transformation, which likely isn’t even “real,” shines through despite the many faults holding it back. I wouldn’t normally recommend anyone explore this particular B-movie territory, but if you find yourself doing so, Bride of the Gorilla is an interesting outlier within a cursed genre.

-Brandon Ledet

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