Psycho Ape! (2020)

The mini-DV backyard horror comedy Psycho Ape! proudly promises to be the “dumbest, cheapest” ape movie of all time, and then it delivers exactly that.  In case the audience dare question the scope of that mission statement, the movie is careful to catalog as many dumb-and-cheap ape movies as it can for context.  It treats retro ape-movie ephemera as sacred relics: an official Congo boardgame, a pristine Blu-ray restoration of Schlock, a store-bought gorilla suit you’d expect to see in a Bowery Boys comedy, etc.  Single-scene characters debate their personal rankings of famous primate franchises like King Kong, Planet of the Apes, and Mighty Joe Young as background-noise hangout banter.  When it devolves into a traditional bodycount slasher (with a gorilla-suit murderer instead of a kitchen-knife killer, naturally), the psych expert on the monster’s trail is Dr. Zoomis: a cheeky portmanteau of Dr. Zaius & Dr. Loomis.  Psycho Ape! goes absurdly overboard proving its credentials in dumb-and-cheap ape cinema scholarship, so that when it claims to be the “dumbest, cheapest” ape movie of all time, you have no choice but to take its word for it.  I’m probably supposed to be aging out of this kind of bad-on-purpose, Troma-tinged schlock at this point in my life, but it’s impossible not to be charmed by something so lovingly reverent of such a disreputable, outdated subgenre – especially since it cites my personal favorite title, Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, as one of the all-time greats.

On a dark & eerie night “25 years ago” (so, say, 1995), a “teenage girl slumber party” is crashed by a violent gorilla with an unquenchable bloodlust.  His weapon of choice is a standard-issue Chiquita banana, but it wreaks the same bloody havoc as kitchen knives & meat cleavers in traditional slashers.  Although most of the slumber-party teens are bludgeoned, stabbed, and choked to death by the phallic fruit, the titular psychotic primate does leave behind one anointed final girl: the obsessive ape-movie cineaste Nancy Banana (played by Kansas Bowling, director of the similar retro-schlock throwback B.C. Butcher).  In the following decades, the gorilla continues to kill at random, while Nancy Banana pines for the love that could’ve been, dedicating her life to becoming “the next Jane Goodall” (by which she means she really wants to fuck that ape).  They inevitably re-unite, and the film takes wild detours from its initial slasher template into retro romcom & beach party tropes.  If you’re at all familiar with the history of ape-falls-in-love-with-platinum-blonde cinema, you know that their cutesy romantic bond can only end in tragedy – complete with an obligatory spoof of the genre’s iconic “Twas beauty killed the beast” stinger.  The main difference is that this example also starts with tragedy and is careful to intersperse as many bloody banana stabbings it can afford in-between its cutesy romcom gags.

I just put more effort into pulling a coherent plot out of Psycho Ape! than director Addison Binek intended his audience to bother with.  Structurally, it’s more of a loose sketch comedy than it is a linear narrative.  Binek raised $7,500 in production funds through Kickstarter, then spent it all on goofing off with a gorilla costume, a camera, and as many friends as he could gather (seemingly including a ton of Troma alumni).  It’s basically a hangout movie for sickos, Motern for edgelords.  As proudly dumb & cheap as Psycho Ape! is, though, it’s anything but lazy.  Most hodgepodge horror comedies shot in this scatterbrained, tangential style are infuriatingly lazy (see: Da Hip Hop Witch), but Psycho Ape! establishes a distinctive internal logic that transcends any need for plot or scene-to-scene logic.  It’s a temporal mash-up of schlock ephemera from the past half-century: 50s Benny Hill grabassery, 60s lava lamp psychedelia, 70s first-wave slashings, 80s splatstick gore, post-Kevin Williamson 90s meta horror, 2000s digi-cam backyard movies, 2010s YouTube pranks, sub-Sarah Squirm 2020s gross-outs, and timeless scat & murder gags to tie them all together.  Some of the most sublime moments of the entire picture are just throwaway transition shots of Nancy Banana dancing with her gorilla beau in a vintage yellow bikini, with everyone involved openly laughing at how idiotic the project is on a conceptual level.  The fun they’re having on-“set” is infectious.  It’s a reckless party movie dressed up like a bodycount horror, but it’s oddly sincere in its dedication to having a good time and to honoring the ape-horror comedies that came before it.  I had a blast.

-Brandon Ledet

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