This is one of those films that leaves you wondering why.
I mean, Captive Wild Woman, the first of Universal’s horror films about “Paula Dupree”, an ape transformed into a girl, wasn’t one of their great entries into their horror cycle. In fact the most interesting part of it was that they had managed to transform an old Clyde Beatty animal trainer film into a horror film — with a lot of lions and tigers. I’m not even sure how popular that film was.
But that didn’t stop them from making an even stranger sequel, Jungle Woman, a year later. This time the film’s credited leading lady, the mad scientist (John Carradine), Clyde Beatty, and even ol’ Crash Corrigan in that ape suit of his, only show up in the flashbacks and a recap sequence at the beginning of the film. Instead we are left with Life with Luigi’s J. Carrol Naish as a NON-mad scientist, and one brief sequence with a wolfman-like ape-girl makeup.
And, of course, for the second time, Paula was dead.
Not that that ever stopped Universal from cranking out a sequel.
Otto Kruger, who is definitely slumming here, plays Dr. Stendahl, the sympathetic scientist boss of the hero and his girl, who spends his spare time doing research. His dispassionate love of science means he has no objections to stealing bodies from the morgue, or kidnapping girls to use in his experiments. After all, no one’s going to remember what happened to most of us in the future, but they will remember science learning how to raise the dead.
If Jungle Woman was a mad scientist film with a notable lack of mad scientists, this time around we have a monster movie with a notable lack of monsters.
True, our mad scientist has the de rigeur deformed assistant, Moloch, played by Rondo Hatton. We’re talking about the kind of helper who ends up killing people left and right whenever our dispassionate humanitarian of a Doctor sends him out on an errand. Let’s face it, this isn’t the guy you want to send out to get groceries, or down to the corner to mail off your letter.
Rondo had acromegaly, which causes uncontrolled growth: this meant he was very big and distinctively ugly. After playing bit parts for a decade, Universal decided that they’d spin an entire horror series about “The Creeper” (a character he’d played in the latest Sherlock Holmes film) around him, based solely on his looks. Depending on who you listen to, he was either offended at the way Universal took advantage of his illness, or was totally pragmatic about it and just saw it as a job. Either way, he was under contract, and Universal got the final say. He died before the films hit the theaters, however, and only made two more appearances as The Creeper. But he does get a “cameo” in The Rocketeer, thanks to the wonders of modern makeup appliances.
Ironically, the Creeper films give Jack Pierce, the creator of such legendary Universal monsters as the Frankenstein monster and the Wolfman, credit for make-up effects, which led a lot of moviegoers at the time to believe Rondo was just another of Pierce’s creations.
I can’t say Rondo ever seemed all that scary to me: his raspy voice doesn’t seem to match his monstrous image and even his fictional habit of breaking men’s spines doesn’t help that much. But that may just be because I am aware that his is an all too human face, no matter how distorted. While he may kill a few people here, his character seems less a monster, and more of a powerful but not terribly bright henchman.
The ape girl isn’t much of a monster, either. Instead, she is a sad and pathetic shell of her former self (as, come to think of it, was true of the monster in the later Frankenstein films, and the tanna leaf-driven shambling corpse of the Mummy sequels). Her brain has been severely damaged, so she is left nearly catatonic for most of the film, whether in ape-girl or human form. She tries to escape a couple of times, kills a dog, but it easily persuaded to return to the house by Doctor Stendahl. Some monster!
Acquanetta is missing, so Vicky Lane takes over as Paula. Mostly she just has to stare blankly, so it’s hard to assess her performance. Acquanetta’s career really peaked with Captive Wild Woman (her first film) and she ended up typecast as a lovely native girl, despite coming from Ozone, Wyoming. I have no idea why she wasn’t in this one: having her speak in the last film was a mistake, but it isn’t like she couldn’t have handled the minimal demands made by this film. Vicky Hale looks a lot bulkier in her ape girl makeup, so they may simply have wanted a heftier actress to handle the minimal action scenes.
It says a lot about the breakdown of the heroic image of the scientist in popular culture, though: while this one came out before we dropped the first Atomic bombs on Japan, the war had already shown that the wonders of science could easily turn on us, particularly in the hands of the Stendahls of this world. Certainly, the film makes it very clear that it is his refusal to accept any moral limits on his behavior (under the pretense that it will all balance out in the end because his work will save so many lives) that makes Stendahl a monster.
Well, what do you know? There was a monster after all.
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