Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)
"Only Poe dared imagine it! Only people who can stand excitement and shock should dare to see it!" So warned the film's theatrical trailer. For their third sound horror production, Universal chose to follow the now-established (and lucrative) pattern of adapting the classic works of nineteenth century authors. Bram Stoker's Dracula, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and now Edgar Allan Poe's Murders in the Rue Morgue were brought to the screen in quick succession.

Despite the trailer's promotional pronouncements, it was actually Robert Florey who "dared imagine it." The writer-director, with help from a variety of scenario scribes, took Poe's admittedly gruesome detective story (arguably the first in that particular genre) and turned it into a horrific, full-blooded Gothic study of a mad scientist's perversity. Said perversity takes the form of Dr. Mirakle (Bela Lugosi at his bombastic best) attempting to "prove [Man's] kinship with the ape" by mixing the blood of his pet gorilla, Erik, with that of human females. (Florey originally attributed Mirakle's intent to "mating an ape with a woman," but this "mating" was toned down to become a mere mixing of blood in the film's final screenplay, which underwent six full rewrites before finally going before the cameras.)

As a specimen of simian cinema, the picture falters when shots of the gorilla-suited actor playing Erik are juxtaposed with close-ups of a real chimp. The live monkey close-ups invariably feature a soft focus that contrasts markedly with the more natural hard focus of the medium and long shots of the gorilla suit. In 1932, however, audience (and critical) expectations were apparently much lower than they are today, as Variety noted that "several switches from the real gorilla to a costume double are neatly veiled." Despite its monkey misstep, Murders in the Rue Morgue remains an unusual, artistic and entertaining bit of monkey business from horror's Golden Age.

The Monster Walks (1932)
The body of Dr. Earlton lies in state at the old Earlton Mansion, and the family all gather for the reading of the will. The dead doctor was a researcher and as such kept a pet ape named Yogi in the cellar. This ape hates Earlton's daughter, Ruth (jealous of his master's affection is the reason given), and she lives in terror that Yogi should get loose.

Soon, a clutching hairy hand emerges from a secret panel and makes for her throat. The incident is dismissed as a nightmare, but the housekeeper later dies by that very hand while sleeping in Ruth's bed. The servants and several family members skulk around the house suspiciously. Something fishy is going on here, for the ape is obviously a red herring. After an (overlong) 57 minute running time, the guilty (human) culprit meets his fate at the hands of the (innocent) ape.

A lifeless production, The Monster Walks has little going for it. The sparse sets are cheaply furnished and show little of the expansiveness evident in many of its contemporaries. Frank Strayer's dull direction and Les Cronjager's static photography add nothing to the dreary settings. (Cronjager's camera moves an average of once every five minutes!) Still, the film might be watchable with some solid characterization and believable acting. Alas, the characters are all stock and the acting is forced and overly theatrical. Aside from one solitary scene of surprise (when a hand enters the frame and extinguishes a candle, we notice that it is covered in hair -- like an ape's hand), there is little action and no excitement. By the way, the "ape" is really a large chimpanzee.

King Kong (1933)
What discussion of Simian Cinema could fail to mention The Great One? Nearly 50,000 people viewed King Kong upon its New York opening on March 2, 1933, and it's a safe bet that not one went away feeling cheated. King Kong has become an institution in modern culture, an oversized icon personifying the Beauty and the Beast theme. But what makes King Kong so captivating, even sixty-odd years after it created a worldwide sensation? (According to TV Guide, King Kong is the second most frequently shown film on American television, beaten only by Casablanca).

Beyond its excitement, its exotic locale and its amazingly lifelike dinosaurs, King Kong possesses an appealing grandeur. It is a film truly larger-than-life in more than just the obvious sense. James Creelman and Ruth Rose's script cleverly lets the viewer participate in this epic adventure through characters that (including Kong himself) are simple, honest and likable. From the very beginning, "The Eighth Wonder of the World" captures our emotions. At first he inspires awe, tinged with fear. But, almost immediately, he also engenders some measure of sympathy, as his monstrous hand gently and solicitously lifts up his golden-haired prize in a very unmonster-like manner. Yes, Kong is a terrifying figure, but he also possesses a grand nobility.

In addition to his innovative and brilliant technical achievements, stop-motion animator Willis O'Brien supplied his title character with a heart as well as lifelike movement. Thirty years later, O'Brien's widow, Darlene O'Brien, remarked (in Famous Monsters magazine): "King Kong was Obie. It was his personality. I could just see Obie in Kong's every movement, every gesture." Though billed in lights as "Carl Denham's Giant Monster," Kong is more than that -- he's a sympathetic character with his own personality and near-human traits. Nowhere does this come to the fore more than at the thrilling climax atop the Empire State Building.

Through O'Brien's effective characterization, we've come to respect, even like this character so that what could have easily been a simple man vs. monster ending becomes a bittersweet moment of poignancy. No amount of time, shoddy knock-offs or terrible remakes can erase the magic of the original King Kong.

On February 10th, 1933, Willis O'Brien participated in a half-hour promotional radio broadcast on the NBC network. "Speaking for myself," the animator said, "King Kong represents the goal of more than 20 years. For that long a time I have delved into bygone periods, studied the life of animals long before the descent of man, preparing myself for the day when someone would dare to reproduce on the screen the giant beasts that once ruled the world. Without knowing it, I was waiting for King Kong -- I feel it has been worth the long years of research." Indeed it was. Standing tall atop his mountain aerie, King Kong sets astride the very pinnacle of Fantastic Cinema.

House of Mystery (1934)
From the Incredibly popular to the incredibly obscure. "Nowhere in this world can you escape the Curse of Kali," relates a weary Mr. Prendergast to his houseguests. Twenty years earlier, Prendergast had led an expedition to Asia where he defiled the temple and rituals of Kali (by killing a sacred monkey) and stole the god's treasure, earning the dreaded "curse." Now a wheelchair-bound recluse, Prendergast lives in constant fear of sounds and shadows, particularly the shadow of an ape.

The investors in the expedition have finally tracked him down and now demand their share of the treasure. Prendergast had hoped to spare the others his fate and so makes one demand. "I'll give you all your shares on one condition -- that you come here and live in this house with me for a week and learn what happens to the possessor of it." During the first night, one of the guests conducts a seance. Mysterious tom-toms begin beating and the shadow of a gorilla passes over the wall. When the lights come up, the medium is dead -- strangled.

Now the film, after having built up a fine atmosphere ripe with dread, slows to a crawl and settles into a typical drawing room mystery. In the end, a Scotland Yard detective (whose British accent is conspicuous solely by its absence) shows up to solve the whole riddle and finally trap the (obvious) guilty party responsible for the killings. Yes, the murderous monkey is real: "The ape was trained to go immediately to the incense when it heard the tom-tom and break the neck of the first person it met." (This particular idea was later borrowed and adapted for the infinitely more enjoyable Bela Lugosi vehicle, The Devil Bat, in 1941.) Slow-paced and slow-witted ("No son of an ape is going to make a monkey out of me!" exclaims the dim detective), this House of Mystery quickly becomes a house of boredom.

The Gorilla (1939)
Like The Cat and the Canary released later the same year, The Gorilla is an adaptation of a hit play. Ralph Spence's popular old dark house story had already been filmed twice (in 1927 and 1931) before 20th Century-Fox transformed it into a vehicle for the Ritz Brothers. The comedy team is a trio of bumbling private eyes (from the Acme Detective Agency, naturally) called in to protect Lionel Atwill, who has been threatened by a "maniac murderer" known as 'The Gorilla'" ("Is It Man or Beast?" asks a newspaper headline). At Atwill's gloomy mansion they encounter strange noises, sliding panels, mysterious notes, clutching hands, a sinister servant (Bela Lugosi, no less) and even a real gorilla (named POE) before a series of unlikely twists and turns leads to the obligatory happy ending.

Just like The Cat and the Canary, The Gorilla possesses a wonderfully sinister old mansion setting, fine supporting players and solid production values. What The Gorilla lacks, however, is a strong female lead (the bland Anita Louise is no Paulette Goddard) and effective comedy -- three Ritzes don't even come close to one Hope. The tepid threesome's brand of lowbrow mugging and inept silliness quickly becomes tiresome, and the only truly funny comedy comes from a sharp-tongued maid (Patsy Kelly).

Bela Lugosi is a welcome presence as the unflappable, enigmatic butler, and it's always a joy to watch Lionel Atwill play (as he does here) a shifty, slightly sinister character. Too bad Atwill disappears (literally) after a couple of reels and Lugosi puts in only sporadic appearances throughout. Physiology aside, in this instance, The Cat rates much higher on the intelligence scale than The Gorilla.

The Monster and the Girl (1941)
This low-grade tale of revenge and simian brain transplants comes off much better than it should, thanks to some superior production work and solid playing by the talented cast. The extremely unlikely story opens with a noirish flourish as an attractive young woman (Ellen Drew) steps out of the fog to stare directly at the viewer and intone, "I'm Susan, a bad-luck penny. I bought a million dollars' worth of trouble -- for everybody." The scene dissolves to a courtroom where Susan's brother, Scott (Philip Terry), is on trial for a murder he didn't commit. Susan desperately relays her story of how she came to the big city where she met and fell in love with a young man, Larry (Robert Paige). After her wedding night, however, Susan learns that Larry was simply the front man for a group of gangsters running a prostitution ring. Now that (the presumably soiled) Susan has nowhere to go (and a substantial hotel bill she can't pay), the racketeers force her into a life of sin. When Scott comes after Susan, the gangsters frame him for the murder of one of their rivals.

Up to this point, the film is a straightforward crime drama, with a noirish edge. It abruptly switches gears, however, when a doctor (George Zucco) comes out of nowhere to ask for the use of Scott's brain after he's executed. Zucco then places Scott's cerebrum into the body of a gorilla! Said simian breaks out of his cage and promptly goes on a vengeance spree, killing off the flesh-peddling racketeers one by one.

Thanks to the absurd brain-switching ploy and assorted ape activities, the movie's second half steps into the ridiculous regions of Monogram territory. Fortunately, Stuart Heisler's stylish direction and cinematographer Victor Milner's shadowy camerawork keep the film from sinking down to its expected level. Heisler and Milner always make sure that the sinister simian is seen only at night and photographed in shadows. This gives the shaggy protagonist (the usual man-in-an-ape-suit -- though admittedly one of the more convincing costumes seen during the 1940s) some added menace while keeping the chuckles usually inspired by such sad sights to a minimum.

As the doctor intending to "step up a million years in the pattern of evolution," Zucco infuses his role with an urbane, calm enthusiasm that adds further weight to a story threatening to fly off into the stratosphere. Sadly, he receives little screen time and only pops up in a few further scenes -- to no real purpose. (Zucco's experimentation with gorillas went even further the following year when he transformed an ape into a man in Dr. Renault's Secret.)

In the end, The Monster and the Girl proves itself a slick, serious, occasionally dull anomaly of 1940s horror. Paramount's high-class version of a low-rent Monogrammer is a stylish production that's too good for Poverty Row, yet not quite good enough to overcome its own preposterous premise.

Captive Wild Woman (1943)
John Carradine plays Dr. Sigmund Walters, a mad scientist who, through some ambiguous use of 'gland extracts,' turns a man in an ape suit into the beautiful Aquanetta. Not the best of plots, nor the biggest of budgets (much of the time is filled with stock footage of famous lion-tamer Clyde Beatty), but this fun cheapie packs its brief 61 minute running time with plenty of vintage thrills.

The film starts out with an exciting sequence in which a tiger gets loose on the shipyard docks and is promptly cornered by Our Hero (a young Milburn Stone (later to play 'Doc' on TV's Gunsmoke). From then on it never lets up, alternating thrilling lion and tiger taming footage of Beatty from The Big Cage (1933) with laboratory thrills (highlighted by some deft transformation scenes a la The Wolf Man) presided over by the ever-villainous Mr. Carradine.

The stock circus footage is exciting filler and well mixed with Stone's lion-tamer close-up scenes. Aside from Carradine, most of the cast proves unmemorable, but Aquanetta looks striking as the gorilla-turned-woman who possesses a strange power over the circus animals ("animal magnetism?"). Sure it's horror hokum, but it's exciting, vintage 1940s hokum nonetheless.

The Bride and the Beast (1958)
A big game hunter marries a girl who was a gorilla in a past life. He then makes the mistake of taking her on safari in Africa for their honeymoon. The jungle urges prove too much and she summons a gorilla who, despite valiant protestations from her human husband, carries her off into the jungle to complete the 'honeymoon'. Sound absurd (and just a little bit kinky?) It is.

This no-budget exploitationer was scripted by none other than the notorious Ed Wood Jr. (best known as the maker of Plan 9 From Outer Space). This explains the rather perverse subject matter and a certain reference to angora (Wood allegedly loved to dress in women's angora sweaters.) Aside from this rather dubious distinction, there is very little of interest here. Most of the running time is taken up by animal stock footage, and poorly intercut shots of the actors either talking or ineffectually shooting at something (six different attempts to shoot a tiger were made, and all of them missed!)

The 'titillation' scenes of a nightgown-clad Charlotte Austin (as the Bride) being embraced by a man in a cheap gorilla suit (the Beast) are just silly. Austin herself seems game enough in her acting, but isn't given much to do except look confused and be carried around. As for Lance Fuller as her great white "Bwana" husband, he seems to have graduated from the John Agar school of acting, (or perhaps "flunked out" would be more accurate, since he's even more expressionless than the direst Agar performance.) The amusingly sleazy bent at the film's opening quickly becomes bogged down in boredom, so that even the film's bizarre premise falls flat. For stock jungle footage fans or Ed Wood completists only.

The Mighty Gorga (1969)
"Mighty Gorga, I know that your thirst for the blood of young virgins is great, but leave our village in peace." -- local witch doctor exercising his powers of persuasion with a 50-foot ape.

There's nothing "Mighty" about The Mighty Gorga, except perhaps that it's Mighty Bad. Clumsy camerawork, dead direction, a silly screenplay, and amateurish acting are the highlights of this no-budget grade-Z King Kong wannabe. The worst part of this "production" (and I use the term loosely here) are the insulting effects, which should be the primary raison d'être of this shoddy piece of celluloid. Gorga is a 50-foot-tall gorilla living on a plateau in deepest Africa -- or so the script tells us-- since in actuality Gorga is a man in a cheap Halloween gorilla suit with an immobile face and plastic eyes. We never really know if he's 50 feet tall or not, since no miniatures are used and the big ape is only shown with the sky or false treetops as backdrop.

The story follows Anthony Eisley as the owner of a down-and-out circus come to Africa to capture the big monkey. He meets a female animal trapper and they set off with nothing more than a couple of backpacks and one small land rover to retrieve this hostile 50-foot monstrosity from the heart of an uncharted jungle. Right. Thrown in there somewhere are those low-budget stalwarts, Scott Brady and Kent Taylor, to try and add at least a modicum of professionalism to the proceedings (but they're onscreen for so short a time they add virtually nothing). A few awful rear-screen projections, grainy and mismatched with the actors; a battle between the Ridiculous -- uh, Mighty -- Gorga and the worst plastic-looking dinosaur ever to cross the silver screen; some high school drama from the overweight witch doctor; and the final expected volcanic eruption (which we're only told about since it happens offscreen); and this mess comes to a close.

"I can't believe this thing's real," exclaims the heroine, and neither can the audience. The more you watch, the more you're convinced that this is actually an expanded 8mm high school project. The Mighty Gorga offers no budget, no sense, and no thrills. The one or two unintentional laughs are only derisive respites from the rest of the painfully bad experience.

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977)
"He's not really a baboon ... is the Prince Kassim."

The third and least memorable of the Charles H. Schneer/Ray Harryhausen Sinbad films (the other two being the superb Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and the lesser but still wonderful Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger is still a fun romp through a wonderful land of mythology as put forth by stop-motion animation effects wizard Ray Harryhausen.

This one concerns a prince and his sister (Sinbad's love interest) who entreat Sinbad to help them find a way to lift the curse that's been placed on the unfortunate prince. You see, the evil queen has turned Prince Kassim into a baboon! So Sinbad and friends set out on a journey to the North Pole, where a lost civilization has created a legendary lush valley with the power to cure the Prince. Sound a bit juvenile? It is, but Harryhausen populates this world with fascinating creatures of astounding realism. There are three ghoulish insect-like monsters that rise out of a hearth fire and engage Sinbad in all manner of exciting swordplay. There is a bronze minotaur statue come to life named "Minaton'." A foot-long wasp tries to put the sting on Sinbad and friends. A 10-foot-tall horned troglodyte fights a huge saber-toothed tiger; and in the film's most impressive sequence, a giant walrus attacks Sinbad and his men as they trek across the frozen wastes. This walrus scene is among the best work Harryhausen has done. A giant walrus (!) you say. The scene starts out a bit comical but then quickly turns deadly serious. With the snow falling about them, and the excellent integration of the live actors tossing spears and throwing nets, there is no question in the eyes of the audience that this house-sized mammal is real.

Unfortunately, several of Harryhausen's creations don't come off so well. For instance, the giant wasp sequence is unconvincing because of the poor matting technique that makes the background appear flat and two-dimensional compared to the wasp. Also, the saber-toothed tiger has more than a passing resemblance to a stuffed animal, with immobile glassy eyes and bulging fur. It moves too slowly for the powerful beast it is supposed to be. This greatly lessens the impact of the climactic confrontation between it and the huge humanoid troglodyte. But the other creatures, including an animated baboon (the Prince) who enjoys playing chess no less, are up to Harryhausen's superb animation standards. The story and screenplay are simplistic and obvious (it even has the evil queen speaking with a distinctly Slavic accent), and the acting unsophisticated (star Patrick Wayne plays the most wooden Sinbad to date). But the real stars are Harryhausen's fantastical creatures. Somewhat uneven but still great escapist entertainment.

Bryan Senn is the author of Drums of Terror: Voodoo in the Cinema, available from Midnight Marquee Press and Golden Horrors: An Illustrated Critical Filmography of Terror Cinema, 1931-1939, available from McFarland & Co.

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