Written by: Robert Charles
Directed by: Phil Rosen
Starring: Bela Lugosi, John Carradine and George Zucco
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
You'll be frozen to your seat in terror!
Despite the title and the presence of Bela Lugosi, Return of the Ape Man isnít nearly a sequel to The Ape Man, which was released a year earlier and must have garnered enough interest for Monogram Pictures to try to cash in on it with this wholly unconnected film. In fact, this is one of the earliest examples I can recall of a studio pulling such an egregious bait and switch (oddly enough, another contender, Curse of the Cat People, was released the same year, but it at least tried to connect to its predecessor). Anyway, at least they got Bela to come back, which is more than The Devil Batís Daughter could boast (thereís another one that was pretty much a sequel-in-name-only); at this point, Lugosi was still about a decade away from his infamous collaborations with Ed Wood, but things were still hit and miss. For every Val Lewton production (The Body Snatcher) or Universal vehicle (Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman) there was something like Return of the Ape Man and its pseudo-predecessor: cheap, creature feature junk spawned down on Poverty Row, a place Lugosi found himself frequenting in the 40s.
Return of the Ape Man keeps a similar premise as the first Ape Man: Lugosi is an overly ambitious scientist, only this time heís concerned with preserving and resurrecting bodies on ice. After he and his assistant manage to successfully reanimate a man after a weeks-long stasis, the duo decides to hunt down a prehistoric man. The two trek up north, where they happen to stumble upon the body of a Neanderthal thatís been frozen for centuries. Upon unthawing the man, Lugosi just isnít satisfied; displeased with the cavemanís primitive mental state, he decides that heíll also attempt a brain transplant (because resurrecting a centuries-old guy isnít enough!).
Itís pretty easy to see how this one has absolutely nothing to do with The Ape Man: for one thing, thereís no damn apes (except on the title card), just a caveman. Plus, it would have been pretty difficult to explain how the titular ape man could return in the first place considering his fate in the first movie. Return isnít much better than Ape Man, either; in fact, itís probably a little worse since the concept is even more trite and warmed over than the first one (which was kind of a Murders in the Rue Morgue riff). This one is a little amorphous and never really settles into one mode; instead, itís just a procession of clichťs that starts with Carradineís moral reservations about his partnerís glib insistence on killing an innocent person and basically stealing their brain. When Lugosi decides to wine and dine a mutual buddy, Carradine interrupts and implores him to stop and kill the beast instead.
Being the surrogate Frankenstein he is, Lugosi just canít stop, so you know what happens next: the old brain switcheroo eventually happens, and the resulting abomination goes on a bit of a rampage and is sure to hit all the clichťs along the way. Of course, the whole thing ends with a nightgown-clad dame slung over his shoulder as he attempts to elude authorities in a dowdy attempt to recall King Kong. Granted, the film really moves once it gets going--thereís a handful of murders, and, by the end of it, neither Lugosi nor Carradine figure into the proceedings very much, so itís a herky-jerky 60 minutes that breezes by without much fuss or style. Nothing about Return of the Ape Man is truly noteworthy, save for some odd moments, such as the sometimes inappropriate score (for example, the ape manís kidnapping of the girl is accompanied by something thatís more suited for a western). Plus, the whole movie feels like it was scripted depending on its lead actorsí availability, so itís got a real slipshod and lazy structure that just unfolds out of obligation to its clichťs.
I suppose Return of the Ape man holds some intrigue due to those leads. Lugosi and Carradine found themselves sharing the screen a few times over the course of their career, and this was one of two Monogram films that paired them up in Ď44 (the other was Voodoo Man). Technically, the two were also in the Universal Black Cat a decade earlier, but Carradine was an uncredited bit player in that one, so Return of the Ape Man is vaguely historic since you can almost feel Lugosi passing the B-movie baton to Carradine; really, he was already following in the Hungarianís footsteps, as heíd already amassed an impressive B-movie resume on the heels of starring in stuff like Stagecoach and The Grapes of Wrath. Carradine is pretty wooden here both before and after he finds himself in his assistantís brain-clamp device. His co-star doesnít fare a whole lot better in the standard issue mad scientist role that of course comes with the obligatory and forced tragic moralizing. Lugosi occasionally gets an unhinged glimmer in his eye, and he embraces just how casually nuts his character becomes (seemingly without much motivation--he seems pretty normal until heís unreasonably disappointed that his caveman is a brute).
Arguably, both are a little upstaged by the title character, not so much due to the performance (which is credited to both George Zucco and Frank Moran even though the former only appears for a few seconds), but because itís an interesting concept. Lugosiís intentions are actually ambitious if not for the whole homicidal slant to them. He wants to somehow meld the manís memories with a brain that will empower him to speak and relay his experiences; of course, this is misguided in more ways than one since it never crosses his mind to just, you know, teach the poor bastard. I guess heíd just be sort of a wacky scientist if he tried to do that, so he goes for full on madness right there on the spot. The result is typical Frankensteinís monster stuff, with the poor guy stomping around with his brain all tangled and rewired. Thereís something tragic about that, but Return of the Ape Man doesnít give a damn about that, of course, and it seemingly canít wait to wrap it all up, presumably because most of the crew probably wandered straight over to another Monogram set to churn out something else shortly thereafter. This is neither the best nor worst movie to hail from Poverty Row, and, like a bunch of its forgotten brethren, itís popped up on Netflix. Poverty Row and similar cheapies almost deserve their own label on there; it could be the streaming equivalent of a public domain dumping ground. Somehow, Return of the Ape Man avoided being dumped on a bunch of budget packs over the years, but it would have fit in pretty well there. Rent it!
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