Written by: Aubrey Wisberg, Jack Pollexfen
Directed by: Ewald André Dupont
Starring: Robert Shayne, Joyce Terry, Richard Crane
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Those whom the gods will destroy they first make mad."
I could start out this review bemoaning that The Neanderthal Man is another movie intoning the dangers of ambitious science, but it’s my own dumbass fault for watching it less than a week after Metamorphosis. Instead, I’ll focus on one of the film’s few positive aspects: it could have the most arrogant and condescendingly loathsome mad scientist I’ve seen in one of these. Robert Shayne’s Clifford Groves doesn’t just sneer at the plebs unable to comprehend his genius: he’s absolutely contemptuous of them and mankind in general. His solution? Turn himself into an even lower evolutionary state of man to prove he’s still superior. Take that, Darwin.
It takes a while before that happens. In fact, without the film’s title, you’d think that The Neanderthal Man was a different sort of movie altogether for the first half hour, which introduces us to a merry bunch of yokels. One of them claims to spot a saber-toothed tiger (achieved through stock footage of an actual tiger that suspiciously has no fangs until the close-ups), much to the disbelief and delight of his buddies, who dismiss his story. The local game warden (Robert Lang) is curious, though, and spots the beast himself, prompting him to consult with zoologist Ross Harkness (Richard Crane). Both men attempt to appeal to Groves but only find his daughter (Joyce Terry), fiancée (Doris Merrick), and a deaf-mute housekeeper (Tandra Quinn). Groves is actually out of town attempting to convince a bunch of stodgy scientists that Neanderthals were actually just as intellectually capable as their descendants. After being spurned, he tries to prove his point by injecting himself with his own experimental serum, which…well, you know. It ends badly.
And if you’ve seen even a half-dozen of these, you know it ends quickly, too. At 78 minutes long, the setup for this one eats up a ton of time for a payoff that’s limited by the film’s various constraints. Its most immediate limitations are its own effects and threadbare plot; despite its pretenses of scientific theories and late-in-the-game moralizing, The Neanderthal Man is another empty-headed romp in the tradition of the Z-grade creature features of the day. The effects aren’t just unable to compensate—they exacerbate the problem by making the premise even more laughable. An expected Wolf Man-style dissolve briefly turns Shayne into a believably feral creature until he’s fully revealed to resemble the unholy union of a bullfrog and an ape (with a perm to boot). With this hilariously static apparatus applied to his face, Shayne does his best to terrorize the surrounding area, and his victims do a good job not to laugh him off of the set. Further diluting the horror are the expected 50s restraints: there’s very little on-screen violence and one sequence inevitably ends with the Neanderthal Man carrying off a girl (Beverly Garland in one of her earliest screen appearances).
If there’s one instance where the film attempts to be genuinely disturbing, it’s the aftermath of that encounter. Dr. Groves (in Neanderthal form) carries her off, and she mysteriously turns up later; when relaying her story, she can’t bring herself to reveal exactly what happened after he made off with her. The implication seems pretty clear to me, which is kind of outrageous given the time period, and, within this context, it comes off as so much schlock in the guise of highlighting the animalistic qualities of the Neanderthal. Even more troubling is the film’s attempt to suddenly empathize with Groves; by the end of the film, we’ve learned that he’s committed several heinous acts, including experimenting on both animals (the saber-tooth running around is his mutated housecat) and humans without their consent. In its attempt to hew to every expected beat, though, we get the treacly deathbed moralizing and contrition.
The turn is a truly stark about face given how absurdly smarmy Shayne is for the entire run-time. Most mad scientists come across as simply misguided, but this guy is set up as a supreme asshole that seems to be getting his just desserts for screwing around with nature. There’s not even room for much indifference here since Shayne plays him with such blustery, unabashed camp: Dr. Groves deserves to meet a horrific fate. Of course, The Neanderthal Man doesn’t comply here, either, but there is a correct sense of karmic retribution to his comeuppance (the specifics of his fate are one of the few things that’s unspoiled by this point). If nothing else, it does come quickly, but only after an overwrought, talky setup that only features some brief moments of excitement. Incredibly, there are sequences that feature a stuntman wrestling with an actual tiger, so it’s somewhat amusing (or horrifying) that someone risked their life for a movie that’s been all but forgotten.
Thanks to Netflix, that tiger-wrestler’s effort was not in vain, as The Neanderthal Man is yet another cheapie to show up on its streaming service. Someone at MGM apparently took the time to restore it, too, as the film looks to be in remarkable shape since it never made it to DVD. One might scoff at such an obviously cheap movie even needing such a restoration, but Stanley Cortez’s photography is refined and attempts to recall the elegance of a Val Lewton production. Cortez seems to be slumming it here given his other credits (among them: The Magnificent Ambersons and Night of the Hunter), but his effort gives the production the faintest air of polish and respectability. Even though the film seems pretty derivative all the way around, a stronger effort from all involved might have lifted this one from its Z-grade status; in fact, Jack Arnold and company provided proof of this five years later with Monster on the Campus, which takes the same central concept and employs it to greater effect. Check that one out first, and only resort to The Neanderthal Man if you still need to go ape (ugh, I’ll see my self out on that note). Rent it!
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