Scream Factory’s march through the Universal vaults continues with the fifth volume of its Universal Horror collection series. This set bundles together 40s primate pandemonium and mad science, including the Ape Woman series, a trilogy of films that obviously didn’t quite have the cache of the studio’s other franchise monsters but did its best to anchor the studio’s genre reputation in the face of stiff competition from Val Lewton and RKO.
The Monster and the Girl (1941)
If you want an accurate cross-section of the genre films populating B-movie bills during this era, look no further than The Monster and the Girl, a Paramount production that stuffs about a half-dozen of them into a blender and sees what sticks. What starts as a courtroom drama detours through gaslighting gangsters and implied white slavery on its way to its final destination: brain-switching mad science. Let me explain: Scot Webster (Phillip Terry) is on trial for a murder he didn’t commit. He happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time while seeking justice for his sister, Susan (Ellen Drew), who unwittingly fell into the clutches of a criminal enterprise who put her in captivity. The tale is too wild for the jury to believe, so Scot is sentenced to death row, where he meets a scientist (George Zucco) with a bizarre request: following Scot’s execution, he’ll take the dead man’s brain and examine it in the interest of science. What he doesn’t tell Scot is that he plans to transplant his brain into a gorilla’s body, allowing him to take revenge on the gangsters who wrecked his and his sister’s lives.
That’s a lot of plot, but if you’re familiar with this era, you won’t be surprised that this synopsis basically comprises the entire movie. Scot’s transformation into the beast happens over halfway through the brisk 65-minute runtime, and the only question that really lingers is how long he’ll be able to take revenge before he’s eventually put down. However, it must be said that The Monster and the Girl is an exceedingly bizarre movie, not only for its eventual premise but for its roundabout way in arriving there. I have to imagine it’d be most effective knowing absolutely nothing about it going in because it is a damn ride, one that twists and turns at a breakneck pace. You come for the rampaging gorilla with the human brain, but you’re also treated to an entirely fleshed-out backstory when Susan explains her ordeal with falling in love with a nefarious man who only wanted to pawn her off to a prostitution ring. It’s scandalous stuff; in fact, the white slavery elements were trimmed down from the original script, leaving only a few implied remnants. Still, the implication was enough for some markets to ban The Monster and the Girl anyway, a stark reminder that nothing was as horrifying to white audiences as the notion that an innocent white woman might somehow be corrupted.
However, a man exacting brutal revenge for that white woman while his brain is trapped in a gorilla? Completely fine, apparently. Of course, very little of this rampage happens on-screen, as the camera cuts away from the actual murders, usually to a scene where the befuddled detectives point out that the victims’ bodies have been completely crushed. It’s one of those movies where the audience knows all of the details, so it’s left waiting for the authorities to come around. The Monster and the Girl is so intent on getting in and out in a hurry that it barely even does that: in one of the most arbitrary resolutions imaginable, Zucco strolls back into the movie, informs a policeman that everyone’s culprit is actually an ape just as the beast makes its presence known for the predictable climax. He doesn’t explain himself or his experiments, though, because The Monster and the Girl just makes a little of a fuss as possible as it sneaks out the door. In doing so, it (perhaps unwittingly) leaves an intriguing ellipsis by completely letting its ill-advised scientist off the hook.
Where so many of these things (most of them starring Boris Karloff) still insist that mad science is still mad science, even when it’s in the service of victims, The Monster and the Girl suggests that, this time, it’s okay because these gangsters deserve everything that’s coming to them. In fact, one of the murder sequences all but invites the audience to see it as lurid entertainment rather than a ghastly shock as some upbeat, ragtime music plays in the background while the gorilla crushes a gangster to death. That’s right: The Monster and the Girl features one of the earliest examples of the ironic needle-drop trope that’s become something of a staple in modern horror.
Captive Wild Woman (1943)
Universal’s Golden Age of horror is synonymous with franchises, most of which have been so firmly embedded in pop culture that they’ve seen various reboots and re-imaginings for decades. Titles like Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolf Man roll right off the tongue in the conversation about iconic characters and franchises. And then there’s the unlikely series of “Ape Woman” movies started by Captive Wild Woman, which have languished in virtual obscurity for nearly 80 years. Like The Monster and the Girl, it also feels like the product of genre cross-breeding as it splices together the era’s fascination with exotic horror and mad science in an attempt to outdo RKO’s burgeoning low-budget fare. While it’s fair to point out that Universal had already produced a couple of werewolf movies before Val Lewton hit the scene, it’s hard to look at Captive Wild Woman and not see the influence of 1942’s Cat People.
In this case, the scientist is Dr. Sigmund Walters (John Carradine), a renowned physician in the field of glandular therapy. He seems completely benign when he takes on the case of Dorothy Coleman (Martha MacVicar), a young, melancholy woman suffering from some kind of malaise. But if you think any doctor played by John Carradine actually harbors any good intentions, you’ve definitely got another thing coming. It turns out that Dorothy is perfect for his next experiment, which involves transplanting human glands into Cheela, a circus gorilla. Toss in the suitable brain of his disposable assistant (Fay Helm) and you have Paula Dupree (Acquanetta), an evolved “ape woman” who soon grows attached to Dorothy’s future brother-in-law and circus star Fred Mason (Milburn Stone).
Less an outright horror movie and more a half-assed love triangle/circus drama, Captive Wild Woman is among the most rugged of the Universal horror movies, at least in terms of sheer exploitation. The titular woman is actually a bit of a footnote to whatever the hell is going on in the movie, which honestly feels like about 30 minutes of wild animal footage with the pretense of a story wrapped around it. I suppose it makes for some astounding—and troubling—displays of animals in captivity, complete with the creatures being whipped and shot at. Most of it is accomplished via rear projection and recycled footage from The Big Cage, but it’s a glimpse into the shameless exploitative tactics studios would resort to during this era to thrill audiences.
It’s one of several cans of worms Captive Wild Woman opens, with the most obvious being the title character herself. An echo of several films from this time period, this one resorts to the familiar tactic of having an exotic actress represent some unfathomable horror. The insinuation here is especially unseemly, as the woman often marketed for her ethnicity (various stories claimed Acquanetta was a Native American, Latino, or even African-American) spends most of the film devolving back into an ape, an unfortunate reminder of the coded racism found in many of these early horrors. It’s especially a shame because Acquanetta’s presence is one of the best things Captive Wild Woman has going for it. Too bad she’s reduced as the third wheel in a trite romance; a more interesting film would have been about the existential horror of a woman being subjected to such a fate, but these Universal productions aren’t too concerned with the psychological aspects of the transformations that drive the stories. In fact, the only real conscience of the story comes at the very end, when a narrator delivers platitudes about men playing god—you know, the old Frankenstein shit, only Captive Wild Woman is no Frankenstein. Hell, it’s no House of Frankenstein.
Jungle Woman (1944)
If there was any lingering doubt that Universal had turn its horror wing into a sausage factory by the mid-40s, then Jungle Woman surely should have erased it. Released just over a year after its predecessor, it was reportedly shot in less than 2 weeks and serves as redux in more ways than one. It opens with Dr. Carl Fletcher (J. Carrol Naish) on trial for murdering Paula Dupree, who did not perish in the climax of Captive Wild Woman. Instead, Fletcher’s testimony treats us to a flashback that reveals he was in the circus audience during the previous film’s fateful climax. He was so fascinated by Cheela the Gorilla’s heroic behavior that he convinced the authorities to let him take its body. Shortly after detecting a faint heartbeat and reviving the creature, he discovers a mysterious woman on the sanitarium grounds who calls herself Paula Dupree. She’s virtually catatonic until Fletcher’s future son-in-law Bob (Richard Davis) visits and stirs up feelings of infatuation and jealousy in Paula. Once again, she finds herself the third wheel in a love triangle and is hellbent on claiming Bob all for herself.
Jungle Woman is at least a bit more straightforward than Captive Wild Woman. There’s no circus subplots or long stretches of animal footage this time out, leaving audiences with an even more obvious rip-off of [bCat People. It’s not really a bad one, as the sanitarium setting allows director Reginald LeBorg to craft a more traditional gothic production that emphasizes the stalk-and-slash potential of the premise. Where the original film only features one such sequence towards the end, Jungle Woman is all about Paula’s attempt to remove Bob’s fiancée (Lois Collier) from the picture. She terrorizes the two lovers while they’re out boating, and even mauls a fellow patient to death when he’s in the wrong place at the wrong time. When you hear the phrase “Ape Woman Trilogy,” this is more the type of movie you’re probably expecting, for better or worse. On the one hand, it feels more focused and tonally consistent; on the other, it really does remind you that you could just be watching Cat People instead, right down to an extended stalking scene that recalls a similar, more iconic sequence from Tourneur’s film.
But in doing so, it at least gives Acquanetta a bigger presence at the story’s center. While we still don’t see the psychological depth afforded to Simone Simon in Cat People, she at least feels more like a character and not just an accessory here. Of course, its sympathy towards her only extends so far: the film actually begins with her being killed, and the entire narrative is framed around proving Dr. Fletcher’s innocence in doing so. Naish has a decidedly less “mad doctor” vibe to him and stands in stark contrast to Carradine’s madman in the previous picture. Jungle Woman depicts Fletcher as misguided instead of outright malicious, and his innocence hinges on proving that Paula was not actually a person but rather an ape, which is weird and troubling for all of the wrong reasons.
Strangely enough, the film ends with a title card insisting “the evil that man hath wrought shall in the end destroy itself,” a platitude that feels like it belongs in an entirely different movie since Jungle Woman treats Fletcher’s exoneration as a triumph. It should also be noted that if the “evil that man hath wrought” here refers to Paula, that’s fucked because a.) that’s a dismissive way to refer to a woman created by mad science and b.) she certainly doesn’t destroy herself. The message here is mixed and confusing, to say the least. Then again, what do you expect from a movie that was hastily scribbled together, so much so that it features the most recycled recap footage this side of Silent Night Deadly Night 2? Jungle Woman is fittingly a strange beast, a sequel that desperately clings to its predecessor before wandering off to imitate a different movie altogether.
Jungle Captive (1945)
The Ape Woman trilogy goes out with more of a whimper than with a bang with Jungle Captive, though it’s an admittedly weird whimper. By this point, Universal seemed unconcerned with showing any pretense with this short-lived series, so it churned out a perfunctory finale that once again reduces Paula Dupree to second fiddle. Shit, that might be overstating it since it’s more like she’s third or fourth fiddle here, resurrected once again by yet another mad scientist in Mr. Stendahl (Otto Kruger), a biochemist whose genteel façade conceals a ravenous thirst for forbidden knowledge. He’ll stop at nothing to resurrect Paula Dupree (Vicky Lane, subbing for Acquanetta, whose contract with Universal was up), going so far as to send his brutish henchmen (Rondo Hatton!) to steal her body straight from the morgue, where we last saw her in Jungle Woman. Her resurrection amounts to her once again awakening in a catatonic state, incapable of explaining who she is or where she comes from. Predictably, she wants to break loose from the rural mansion where Stendahl has her confined, leading to a horrific scene where she kills a dog before she’s recaptured.
That’s actually the extent of Paula’s carnage this time out; in true Frankenstein fashion, this one goes all-in on the mad scientist being the real villain. Kruger is marvelously unhinged if not a tad over-the-top as Stendahl, who repeatedly insists that his quest for knowledge is more important anything, including the innocent people he tramples over in search of it. More accurately, he just dispatches his henchman, who goes on a small murder spree on behalf of his twisted boss. Hatton is arguably the real star here, inhabiting the obedient Moloch with the faintest glimmer of conscience, yielding a subplot where he becomes infatuated with Ann Forester (Amelita Ward), Stendahl’s lab assistant and would-be next victim. The mad doctor assumes that her brain will be a better fit for Paula, so Jungle Captive eventually centers on this familiar damsel-in-distress finale. Hatton was just coming into his own as a featured performer at this point, his distinct acromegalic features making him a natural fit for horror films. Unfortunately, he’d only star in four more films following Jungle Captive after succumbing to a heart attack as a result of his acromegaly. He’s rightfully gone on to become a genre icon, but you still can’t help but wonder what it would have been like if Hatton had lived on to have a more full career. His presence here is magnetic enough to carry Jungle Captive in the face of so much déjà vu and an utter lack of narrative depth.
That, ultimately, is what sinks this one: there’s not even any feigned bit of interest in Paula Dupree as a character here (she doesn’t even grow infatuated with this movie’s other star, Phil Brown). Instead, she’s just a narrative device that sends the characters and viewers retracing familiar steps as Lane stars vacuously into the foggy ether. While it’s impressive that the script here makes direct call-backs all the way back to Captive Wild Woman, it’s odd that the film really is just a half-hearted redux of that film, which we kind of already had in Jungle Woman. Trust me when I say it does these films no favors to watch them in close conjunction because they blur together into a hazy collection of déjà vu with the occasional murder sequence.
I suppose you could say the same about any number of slasher franchises (or even the Mummy movies Universal pumped out in conjunction with the Ape Woman trilogy), but this trio never quite comes into its own. Again, that’s to be expected when the entire enterprise was just looking to riff on another movie in the first place. In some ways, The Ape Woman trilogy is franchise filmmaking as an ouroboros, a snake not content to merely devour and recycle better material but also insistent on feeding upon itself ad infinitum—or should I say ad nauseum?
As has been the case with Scream Factory’s past Universal collections, each film receives its own dedicated disc, giving the transfers and soundtracks more than adequate space to breathe. The resulting presentations are as solid as you can expect given the ages of the film in question. Just about the only noticeable blemish is a strange stretch during Captive Wild Woman, when the frame randomly window-boxes for about a minute. From what I can gather, Scream hasn’t commented on the issue, which is hardly a dealbreaker by any means—it’s just worth noting for those out there who expect absolute perfection (which is also reasonable given the price of these sets). Notably, this is the only one of the bunch to not receive a new 2K restoration, so it might be an issue with the elements, even if I can’t ever recall this phenomenon happening with any other transfer.
Supplements are a little sparse, but, again, that’s quite understandable considering we’re dealing with some of the more obscure titles in the Universal vault. Each film features an audio commentary with various historians: Tom Weaver and Steve Kronenberg take on The Monster and the Girl, while Weaver flies solo on Captive Wild Woman. Gregory William Mank tackles Jungle Woman, with Scott Gallinghouse finishing off the set with Jungle Captive. Trailers and still galleries are included for all of the film except The Monster and the Girl, which features nothing, so if you’re a fan of that one, you might feel a little out of luck.
Of course, at this point, it’s fair to say that Scream Factory has reached the Universal depths where those hardcore fans only need apply. Volume 5 doesn’t feature some of the heavy hitters of the early collections, which had plenty of Lugosi and Karloff classics to spread around, not to mention the unsung films like Murders in the Zoo found in the second volume. This one can boast something no other collection can, though, since Jungle Captive is making its disc debut here, meaning the Ape Woman trilogy is now completely available on home video for the first time since the VHS era. That’s a big deal, and it looks like Scream Factory might be making this a habit since the next volume will boast Shadow of the Cat, another longtime holdout (and a Hammer film to boot!). Good news for those of us hoping to see the likes of The Spider Woman Strikes Back (another Hatton vehicle) or Curse of the Undead (an old west vampire movie!), two other elusive titles that also never even surfaced on DVD.
In the meantime, Volume 5 is a fine example of Scream’s dedication to preserving these smaller entries in the early Universal horror cycle. This quartet especially captures how much Universal’s priorities had changed at this point: no longer were their horror movies meticulously crafted event pictures but rather quickly-produced, cheaply-made programmers that were nothing if not reliable, especially when they featured the likes of Zucco, Carradine, Naish, and Kruger in their revolving door of mad scientist roles. While they lack the grandeur of those early cornerstones, these films nonetheless upheld the Universal standard well enough to keep the studio at the genre’s forefront for another decade.
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