We open with a title card reading "Bela Lugosi in The Ape Man" which suggests a film far more disturbingly obscene than one might anticipate. It isn't anything of the kind, of course, but I did a slight double-take during the initial scene which contained the following eye-opening line of dialog: "Don't worry, Barney. After today you'll be shooting that one-eyed monster of yours for Uncle Sam." (He was discussing Barney's camera.)
THE APE MAN is exactly the kind of B-movie you'd expect, given that it stars Bela Lugosi, it was released in 1943 and it has the title "THE APE MAN". The film gets right to the point and as our story begins, Bela Lugosi has already accidentally transformed himself into a half-man, half-ape creature. Despite opportunities, no explanation is given as to why mad scientist Lugosi and his mad scientist buddy are involved in such ape experiments. Oftentimes these types of films will give their mad scientist a philanthropic motive: he'll want to find a cure for polio or discover the secret of immortality. Here, however, the point of the experiment seems to be injecting people with ape juice solely for the purpose of becoming apes. The only line of explanation is simply that the experiment worked "too well", leaving him unable to transform back into a man.
The actual ramifications of being an ape-man are left somewhat vague. Physically, he has changed; although, despite being an ape, he still wears pants. His ape make-up is not totally convincing. He resembles less Koko the Gorilla and more the hypothetical love child of Moe Howard and Teen Wolf. It's unclear if this transformation has affected Lugosi's mind in any way, although he does lock himself in a cage at night because he is afraid of what he might do. He's not alone at night, of course; there's a real ape in the cage with him.
This pure ape is played by a gentleman wearing a gorilla suit by the name of Emil Van Horn. A quick check on IMDB lists a total of nine acting credits, all between the years of 1941 and 1948. All nine characters are a variation on "ape" or "gorilla". I wonder if at some point in his career he realized he was becoming typecast. I wonder if he ever stared forlornly into a mirror late one night and - like Withnail's Uncle Monty - sighed and sadly whispered, "I will never play the Dane..."
Getting back to the film, the ape is the source of the ape juice which left Lugosi in his current state. The ape is also Lugosi's accomplice in the crimes he commits later in the film (they engage in a brief but brutal campaign of slaughter on the local area's milk-men). The relationship however is abusive, both verbally and physically. Rarely have I felt so sorry for an actor as I did in a scene early in the film in which Lugosi hobbles over (walking hunched over like an ape with his arms bent) to the cage, grabs a whip and begins to beat and taunt a man in a monkey suit. Lugosi at this point in his life had a large drug habit to support, and presumably was not in a financial position to turn down scripts with names like THE APE MAN. The last time I felt this sorry for an actor was seeing an elderly Boris Karloff in THE SNAKE PEOPLE... and that's only because Karloff was clearly dying before the camera's eye.
Other characters round out the cast. We're introduced to a female journalist/photographer named "Billie". Naturally, this name leads to the requisite scene where her future partner is looking around for "Billy" the man and is stunned to learn that he will be working with a woman. Also, Billie wears a hat that looks like a giant ladybug.
In addition to his fellow scientist, Lugosi is assisted by his sister who has a neutral California accent which contrasts nicely with her supposed brother's Hungarian. The sister is a self-described ghost hunter recently back from a trip to Europe where she recorded several phonographs worth of suspected poltergeists. She is more than happy to play these records to any visitor who happens to wander by her house; the effect is something akin to listening to Dougal McGuire's BBC sound effects album.
Getting back to the plot, Lugosi determines that injecting pure human spinal fluid into himself will change him back into a human. The unintended meta-textual irony being that Lugosi is unable to administer the injection himself. The thought of Lugosi spending any length of time not injecting himself must have boggled the rest of the cast and crew.
In any case, the movie logic posits that injecting ape spinal fluid into yourself turns you into an ape. Injecting human spinal fluid into yourself is supposed to turn you back into a human. After typing this review, I intend to ask a dear friend of mine to inject me with the spinal fluid of a panda, after which I intend to take the rest of the year off.
In movies like this, it can be hard to tell who the protagonist is. Billie's reporter partner would seem the clear favorite... except I've watched the movie twice, and if his character is ever actually given a name on-screen it never entered into my brain. Billie herself is given some good scenes at the beginning and the end, but for the bulk of the film she's left with nothing to do but paint her nails and fix her make-up. The motives of Lugosi's sister initially seem admirable... right until the moment where she begins aiding and abetting her brother's serial killing.
B-movies are usually supposed to be short, be fast-paced and not make the audience leave in disgust before the main feature begins. In this, THE APE MAN is a success. Just try not to notice that almost none of the plot threads ever actually come together by the end. And if you stay to the conclusion, you'll witness one of the most audacious breakings of the fourth wall you'll ever hope to see. It's screwy.