Saturday, December 15, 1973 (Midnight): Jungle Captive (1945) / Sherlock Holmes and the House of Fear (1945)

Synopsis: Lab assistant Ann Forrester (Amelita Ward) is helping her employer, Dr. Stendahl (Otto Kruger) with an experiment in bringing a dead rabbit back to life. By using blood transfusions and electrical current they are able, after a number of disappointing failures, to restore the animal to perfect health.

That night, brutish Moloch (Rondo Hatton) visits the local morgue, where he kills the man on duty and spirits away the body of Paula Dupree, aka the Ape Woman from the previous movies “Captive Wild Woman” and “Jungle Woman”.

The only clue to the murder of the morgue employee comes from a torn medical smock, which is traced via its telltale laundry mark to Dr. Stendahl’s lab. Suspicion falls on medical student Don Young (Phil Brown), another assistant of Stendahl’s who is engaged to Ann.

Dr. Stendahl asks Ann to go on a late-night medical call with him, and she does so; but he takes her to a house far out in the country, where Moloch is waiting. It turns out that Moloch secretly works for Stendahl, and that Stendahl has arranged for the body of Paula Dupree to be brought to him so that he can attempt to bring her back to life, using the same techniques that he developed to revive the rabbit.

The technique Dr. Stendahl uses requires a great deal of blood, which Ann is forced to provide. She is near death, which concerns Moloch, but she nevertheless survives the procedure.

The Ape Woman is revived, but Stendahl wants to transform her into her human persona — Paula Dupree. He takes more blood from Ann, and succeeds in making the Ape Woman appear human, but her mind appears blank. Realizing her brain is defective, Stendahl decides to use Ann’s brain in Paula’s body….

Comments: This paint-by-numbers mad scientist picture was the third (and thankfully last) in Universal’s anemic “Jungle Woman” series, the first of which — “Captive Wild Woman” — we’ve already seen on Horror Incorporated. We don’t really miss Aquanetta, who starred in the previous pictures, because a) what she was doing didn’t really qualify as acting, and b) her replacement Vicki Lane gets very little screen time anyway.

One thing this movie has that the previous entries lacked is a performance by Rondo Hatton, getting far more dialogue here than he had in any other picture; but giving Rondo dialogue turned out to be such a mistake that he was quickly returned to mute or near-mute roles.

Not only is Hatton a dreadful actor (unable to convincingly utter challenging lines like “Yeah” or “No”) but his voice is anything but menacing. He speaks in a thin, scratchy voice that is utterly unlike his hulking physical presence. Why his dialogue wasn’t simply dubbed by another actor who sounded the way Rondo looked is beyond me, but I suspect there was little time or money for such post-production tinkering. And perhaps the producers simply convinced themselves that Rondo’s work was good enough for a movie that would, after all, occupy the bottom of a double-bill with The Frozen Ghost.

That would certainly square with the attitude that seemed to imbue this picture from top to bottom — who cares about the acting, or the writing, or the production values, or anything else? There’s so little care taken in the making of this picture it might as well be a PRC or Monogram production, and indeed, Rondo’s last outing, The Brute Man, would be unceremoniously dumped on PRC the following year, having been deemed too chintzy even for the bottom barrel of Universal programmers.

The motives of Otto Kruger’s mad scientist are purely of the stock variety. He’s determined to show those fools in the scientific community that they were wrong to have laughed at his theories. As we all know, nothing impresses a skeptical scientist more than stealing the body of a dead ape-human hybrid (that another scientist had created from an ape transported from Africa, which he had first turned into a woman, and then back into a half-ape, half-human), bringing it back to life, and then transforming it from a half-ape, half-human back into a woman, and then transplanting the brain of another woman into her body, thereby proving — um, what are we proving again?

Oh well. Does it matter? Screenwriters of the 1940s leaned heavily on mad scientists when they were too lazy think up a sensible motive for their villain. Why is this guy kidnapping pretty lab assistants and trying to bring dead ape-women back to life? Well, because he’s a mad scientist, stupid, that’s why. The same thing happens in horror films today: hey, why does Jigsaw kidnap people and force them to participate in deadly, sadistic games? Well, he’s a serial killer. Any more questions?

You may remember Otto Kruger, who had played Jeffrey Garth in Dracula’s Daughter (1936), a movie that’s appeared a number of times on Horror Incorporated. I can’t fault his performance, but the part is written as such a lazy caricature of a mad scientist that it must have seemed dreary even in the 1940s.

Amelita Ward doesn’t show a lot of range as Ann, but range isn’t required for this part. Ward was apparently a last-minute replacement, and she’s just fine in it, for whatever that might be worth. Her ability to quickly sub for another actor apparently didn’t help her career, which quickly stalled; by the end of the decade the only film roles she was getting were uncredited.

Phil Brown doesn’t make any more of an impression here than Ward does, though he was a more serious actor; he worked extensively in both film and theater, and was a founding member of the Actor’s Lab. His close association with the Lab got him blacklisted in the early 1950s, and he decamped to London with his family. He’s best known today for playing Uncle Owen in Star Wars (1977).

Sherlock Holmes and the House of Fear

Synopsis: Seven single men called “The Good Comrades” live together in the brooding Drearcliffe House near the Scottish village of Inverneill. One night the men are gathered around the dinner table when an envelope is delivered to one of them. When opened, the envelope is shown to contain nothing but seven orange pips. Later that night, the man is found dead, his body so mutilated he is unrecognizable.

A few days later, another of the Good Comrades receives an envelope at dinner, this one containing six orange pips. He is terrified — and sure enough, his body is later found at the base of the nearby cliffs.

Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) is visited by insurance company representative Chalmers (Gavin Muir) who wants to employ his services. The company holds policies on all the men in the house; nervous that the ongoing body count will cost the insurance company dearly, Chalmers asks Holmes to look into it.

Holmes agrees, and soon he and Dr. Watson (Nigel Bruce) are on their way to Drearcliffe House. But as soon as they arrive, another of the Good Comrades is found dead, this one burned to a crisp….

Comments: This Sherlock Holmes programmer is a pleasant enough time-waster, though like most of Universal’s Holmes and Watson films it jettisons the plot of the Conan Doyle story it’s ostensibly based upon (1891’s “The Five Orange Pips”) and uses only the device of the envelope containing the orange seeds. That’s fine, as the original story (a revenge tale concerning Confederate veterans and the Ku Klux Klan) wouldn’t have worked in modern setting anyway. But rather than plotting a similarly baffling puzzle for Holmes to solve, the movie instead introduces a humdrum drawing room mystery that’s more Agatha Christie than Arthur Conan Doyle. The various “Good Comrades” aren’t particularly well-drawn and we don’t much care what happens to them, even as they’re getting picked off in a orange-seed countdown.

The movie is at its best when it works as an old-dark-house thriller, with people creeping about with candelabras and discovering secret passages and getting knocked on the head by person or persons unknown while a thunderstorm rages outside.

But inevitably the mystery has to be solved, and it’s unfortunate, because the resolution is nothing less than silly. But what comes before then is at least passable. As Universal’s Holmes adventures go, I’d rate this one somewhere in the middle. It’s worth a viewing if you’re stuck at home on a rainy weekend. Or, of course, if you’re ever up past midnight in December of 1973.

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