Quite possibly, The Ape, a 1940 movie starring horror legend, Boris Karloff, is the most bizarre of all the many movies dealing with what could be termed something half human and half animal. We’re not, however, talking about anything cryptozoological, or along the lines of ape-men or werewolf-style shape-shifting, however. No: The Ape takes a decidedly alternative approach to the matter of monstrous transformation.
Produced by Monogram Pictures, The Ape was co-written by Curt Siodmak, who also wrote The Wolf Man (1941) and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) and penned the screenplay for I Walked with a Zombie (1943), among many other horror-themed movies.
Although the plotline is utterly ludicrous, Karloff does his absolute best to make the most out of what is, admittedly, a distinctly odd affair. Karloff’s character is the creepy Dr. Bernard Adrian, whose home the local kids throw stones at, and the townsfolk view as being downright sinister.
He’s a man doing his absolute utmost to cure what is seemingly his one and only patient, a young woman named Frances Clifford (played by Maris Wrixon). She has been wheelchair-bound and paralyzed for years.
Adrian believes he can cure Frances, and restore her to normal health, by injecting her with human spinal fluid. Of course, obtaining large amounts of such fluid is hardly the easiest thing to achieve at the best of times, and certainly not in a small town environment. Fortunately for Adrian, fate sometimes works in a very strange fashion.
A marauding gorilla escapes from a local circus that burns down and makes its way to – where else? – the doctor’s home. When the beast comes crashing through the window of Adrian’s lab, he quickly kills it. Dr. Adrian does not dispose of the body, however. At least, not all of it.
What he does do, is to remove the entire hide of the creature, effectively turning it into a “monkey suit” that he can wear, from head to foot, and while completely camouflaging his real identity – although this is not made fully clear to the viewer until the very end of the movie. Adrian is quite clearly a doctor of the “mad scientist” variety, but that doesn’t prevent there being a degree of method to his nuttiness.
In his deranged state, and decked out in his gorilla outfit, the doctor prowls around town attacking whoever he can, with the intent of stealing their spinal fluid and curing Frances.
Since the whole town was plunged into fear when the gorilla escaped from the circus, by adopting the role of the animal, Karloff’s character is confident the gorilla will be blamed, and his real identity will remain a secret and all will be well – aside, of course, for those unfortunate souls drained of their spinal fluids.
At the time of filming, Karloff was fifty-two years of age, and in no mood to go gallivanting around the studio in a hot, stifling, ape costume for hours on end. So, while in ape mode, Karloff handed over the reins to one Ray “Crash” Corrigan, a muscular stunt man who was quite the regular expert when it came to playing marauding, wild apes.
For example, he donned gorilla suits in Tarzan and his Mate (1934), Captive Wild Woman (1943), Nabonga (1944), White Pongo (1945), and The Monster and the Ape (also 1945). As an interesting aside, White Pongo also starred Maris Wrixon, the unfortunately paralyzed Frances Clifford of The Ape.
Inevitably, things don’t work out well in the end: at the height of his final attack, the doctor is fatally stabbed. And, mirroring the closing scenes of a typical episode of Scooby Doo, he is unmasked and shown not to be a violent, killer gorilla, after all, but the dastardly and certifiably insane Dr. Adrian.
There is one bit of good news in this strange story: the doctor’s work has ensured that Frances can finally walk again, something which he sees her do just before taking his last breath. Just over an hour of deranged, horror-hokum comes to an end.
The Ape was never destined to win any Oscars, but, in an odd way it’s… well… oddly watchable!