Thursday, 26 March 2015

The Ape (1940)



A circus comes to town, putting on a tremendous show that thrills the audience.  There's one member of the cast who is not happy to be there, though: a gorilla that is either so vicious the trainer has to be brutal with it, or has become vicious because its trainer is so brutal.  The creature ultimately escapes from captivity, attacking a man as it does so, when a fire breaks out in the circus.

A local doctor is called to treat the man, but the victim dies.  The doctor then surreptitiously drains some spinal fluid from the corpse.  The doctor, you see - played by an almost unrecognisable Boris Karloff - is more interested in research than having his own practice, and he has a theory that healthy spinal fluid can be used to treat victims of the paralysis caused by childhood polio.  This is a condition which not so coincidentally afflicts a young female patient of the doctor's: one for whom he obviously feels a fatherly affection.

The treatment shows signs of working, and the doctor is fortunately able to acquire more of the spinal fluids he needs when the gorilla commits another murder.  But then the ape breaks into the doctor's own home.  He's able to kill it, but in the struggle his supply of fluids is destroyed.

And thus, in the kind of narrative decision that apparently made 75 years ago, he decides to skin the creature and impersonate it to commit his own murders, so he can gather the ingredients he needs to complete the young woman's treatment.  Really, who can say why "blaming your murders on an escaped gorilla" ever went out of style as a plot device?  Timeless stuff, that.

Will the doctor's dastardly deception be discovered?  Or will his anthropoidal impersonation achieve success?  Honestly, you're not likely to care over-much.  The script seems to assume that "attractive young woman in a wheelchair" will be enough to win your sympathy.  And perhaps in 1940, when many in the audience might have known someone suffering from polio-afflicted paraplegia, this would have been true.  Today I think, audiences are a bit more divorced from that experience.

As Poverty Row productions go, this is a solid one with a mostly decent cast.  It is however somewhat undermined by the cheapness of its production: there's obvious stock footage in use for the circus, and of course the titular "Ape" is clearly a man in a suit even when it's not actually yet supposed to be a man in a suit.  And of course at the end of the day "solid for a Poverty Row production" isn't much of an endorsement.  There are better ways to spend an hour of your time.

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