Saturday (Noon), October 23, 1971: Return of the Ape Man (1944) / The Face Behind the Mask (1941)

Synopsis: Professors Dexter (Bela Lugosi) and Gilmore (John Carradine) are conducting an experiment in suspended animation.  They bring a drunken vagrant (Ernie Adams) back to their laboratory, inject him with a serum, then freeze him solid for four months.  When they thaw him out, he’s as good as new.  He happily takes the five-dollar bill Professor Gilmore gives him, unaware that any time has passed at all.

Professor Gilmore states that this is a triumph for Dexter’s theories.  A man in this state of preservation, he says, could survive for a thousand years.  But Dexter is more circumspect.  There is only one way to prove that a man frozen for thousands of years could be revived, he says.  And that’s to find someone who’s been frozen for thousands of years and revive him!

Nine months later the two scientists are in the arctic, searching fruitlessly for a human body that’s been preserved in a glacier.  Gilmore urges Dexter to give up: they’ve been searching without success for nearly a year.  Gilmore adds that he is a married man, and that his family needs him. Dexter mocks Gilmore’s lack of resolve.

At that moment, the men see the outer edge of a glacier shear off from the rest.  They find the body of a man frozen in the ice, and they carve out the block and bring it back to their laboratory.

Using the techniques they’ve developed, the two scientists thaw out the caveman and restore it to life.  This, Gilmore says, is truly an amazing achievement!  Not yet, Dexter replies.  It will not be a truly amazing achievement until they are able to fully control the caveman.  And the only way to fully control the caveman is to take part of the brain of a modern man and add it to the caveman’s brain!

Gilmore scoffs, noting that it would be impossible to find a volunteer for such an experiment.  But Dexter seems unconcerned by this.  Later, at a homecoming celebration for the two scientists, Gilmore notices that his brainy brother Steve isn’t around.  Steve, we learn, has left with Dexter.  Gilmore rushes to Dexter’s lab, afraid of what he will find….

Comments: Oh lord. We’ve seen a few clunkers on Horror Incorporated since its premiere in November 1969.  But this feature — the very first of Horror Incorporated’s matinee shows — is the first movie we’ve seen that actually made me angry.  Each of Return of the Ape Man‘s idiotic plot points aggravated me as though it was a personal insult, until by the end I was pacing around my living room, furious at everyone involved in the production. But my most profound rage was reserved for screenwriter Robert Charles.  I wanted to drive to L.A. and punch him in the face. But he’s dead, or at least I have to assume he is (his IMDB entry lists no year of birth or death, and exactly two credits: this film and Voodoo Man, which also came out in 1944.  Presumably all the good screenwriters had been drafted — but I digress.)

This isn’t an auspicious beginning for the noontime edition of Horror Incorporated. As a calling card it’s more of an insult than anything else. Return of the Ape Man is a perfect example of everything that’s wrong with Monogram’s output: the grimy-looking sets, the excessive use of stock footage, the weak-as-water dialogue.

But what really outs this movie as a Monogram production is its air of complete indifference. No one involved with the production seems to have exerted a moment’s effort more than was necessary to pick up a paycheck.  That goes for the lead actors as well; and it is somewhat surprising in the case of that old pro  Lugosi, who always seemed to give his all no matter how big the turkey he was asked to play in.

But to be fair, no amount of effort could have salvaged this train wreck.  From stem to stern, the screenplay is dreadful.  The absurdities start right out of the gate and never really stop coming.  The very first shot in the movie is a blaring newspaper headline, “NOTED TRAMP MISSING”. The “noted tramp” is, of course, the same vagrant that Dexter and Gilmore have abducted in order to use in their experiments.  We’re asked to believe that the two scientists picked up the homeless man and experimented on him, presumably because he wouldn’t be missed. But the JAPS-BOMB-PEARL-HARBOR- sized headline indicates that the vagrant was, improbably enough, missed after all.  Yet after the four-month experiment, Gilmore gives the man a five-dollar bill and the noted tramp goes his merry way.  There’s no indication that the man’s reappearance triggers any questions or spurs any investigation that would lead back to Dexter and Gilroy.

In fact, the ethics of using a homeless alcoholic as a guinea pig (or a caveman as a guinea pig, for that matter) is never even brought up; we are apparently supposed to think there’s nothing wrong with it.  Gilmore is presented to us as the scientist with a conscience, reacting in horror when Dexter proposes taking part of a modern humans’ brain and implanting it in the caveman. But Gilmore’s horror seems to be caused more by the prospect of Dexter harvesting his brother Steve’s brain than it is the immorality of Dexter’s plans.

Oh, and while we’re on the subject, what exactly are Dexter’s plans?  Even a mad scientist has to have some goal in mind.  As a scientist, Dexter seems to be quite a dabbler: he first perfects suspended animation, then goes on an expedition to find someone frozen in an ancient glacier, then suddenly he’s talking about brain transplants.  What is Dexter’s area of expertise, anyway?  Is he a cryogenicist?  An anthropologist? A neurologist? Where does his funding come from?  In what journals, if any, does he publish?

I know, we’re not supposed to ask these sorts of questions. But mad scientists are consistent if nothing else. Even Dr. Niemann, crazy as a bedbug, had sense enough to be a specialist.

This opus enjoys a 4.6 rating on IMDB, which is baffling to me.  I can only chalk it up to people who can’t tell good movies from bad ones, or those who think of themselves as connoisseurs of rotten movies, the way some people are connoisseurs of rotten cheese.

This movie doesn’t deserve to be lauded, or even watched ironically.  I suspect it isn’t a movie at all, but a fraudulent imitation of one.  If the Consumer Product Safety Commission regulated movies, they would have taken this one off the market a long time ago.  It’s a cheat from start to finish.

By the way, here are two more cheats in the film.  The title Return of the Ape Man is meant to mislead audiences.  It is not a sequel to Monogram’s previous Bela Lugosi outing The Ape Man.  Moreover, the Ape Man, who does not return from anywhere, is not played by George Zucco


The Face Behind the Mask

Synopsis: Immigrant Janos Szabo (Peter Lorre) is fresh off the boat from Hungary. He’s a nice guy, and on his first day in America he befriends a police detective named Jim O’Hara (Don Beddoe). O’Hara recommends a cold-water flat nearby that he can stay at. Before the day is out, he lands a job as a dishwasher, and he is sure that before long he will be able to find work as a watchmaker. Janos is thrilled at all America has to offer, but that night tragedy strikes: his apartment building catches fire and his face is hideously disfigured.

Even though he is a skilled watchmaker and machinist, Janos now finds he can’t get a job anywhere because of his grotesque appearance. Soon he falls in with a friendly thief named Dinky (George E. Stone). Janos is reluctant to pursue a life of crime, but when Dinky becomes ill, Janos takes a safecracking job in his stead.
 

It turns out that Janos excels at crime, and when he discovers that he can get a detailed rubber mask made of his old face, he is determined to get the money it takes to have it made. When the mask is completed it gives Janos a waxy, heavy-lidded appearance, but women no longer scream when they see him.Soon Janos is the leader of Dinky’s gang, but when he becomes involved with Helen Williams (Evelyn Keyes), a beautiful and good-hearted blind woman, he is determined to quit the gang and lead an honest life. The only problem is, his new friends would rather see him dead than let him go….

Comments: This rags-to-riches crime melodrama only qualifies as horror because its luckless protagonist has been disfigured in a fire, and must wear a mask to conceal his hideous mug. Director Robert Florey might have given Peter Lorre an actual mask to wear, like the one sported by Jack Huston’s maimed war vet in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire. Instead, he decided to simply have Lorre hold his (heavily made-up) face rigid in order to simulate a life-like rubber mask. This may seem a questionable idea, and as a special effect it isn’t all that convincing. But it hardly matters because the mask is really just a metaphor.

 Like a lot of masks in the movies, this one points to a false inner life. Janos Szoba finds he is really good at being an underworld kingpin, but his heart isn’t in it.  No matter what he pretends to be on the outside, he will never stop being a goofy Hungarian watchmaker, with a hopeless crush on the American Dream. This isn’t completely obvious at first, and it isn’t until he meets the sweet and conveniently blind Helen  that he decides he wants to chuck the life of crime that he’d only taken up out of dire necessity.

It all has the potential to become arty and pretentious but never does, thanks to Florey’s direction,  some deft screenwriting and a winning performance by Peter Lorre.

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One comment

  1. RETURN OF THE APE MAN almost makes the idiotic THE APE MAN look better by comparison. Perhaps Lugosi was thinking of Robert Charles as he mulled over who'd make the sacrifice: “some people's brains would never be missed!” George E. Stone was about to start his famous run as The Runt in 12 of Columbia's Boston Blackie features, starring Chester Morris.

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