‘Dead two million years…’
Return of the Ape Man is a 1944 American horror film about a mad scientist who transplants a fresh brain into the body of a thawed caveman. It is a sequel in name only to The Ape Man (1943).
Directed by Phil Rosen (Spooks Run Wild; Man with Two Lives) from a screenplay written by Robert Charles (Voodoo Man). Produced by Jack Dietz and Sam Katzman and released via their Monogram Pictures Corporation distribution company.
The Banner Pictures production stars Bela Lugosi and John Carradine. Although George Zucco is third billed as the Ape Man he appears for just a few seconds before his role is taken over by Frank Moran!
Bela Lugosi is Professor Dexter, a mad scientist obsessed with freezing people and bringing them back to life. John Carradine is Professor Gilmore, Dexter’s sometimes enthusiastic, but mostly grounded and dull sidekick.
Return of the Ape Man opens with a rather poorly written and sensationalist newspaper article that tells us a “notorious tramp” has gone missing. Slow news day, huh? We then cut to said tramp on an operator table, frozen and seemingly dead, with Dexter and Gilmore looming over him. Dexter injects him with some sort of miracle liquid that wakes him up. He’s cold but perfectly healthy. He happily ignores the fact that he remembers nothing about “last night” (he’s actually been frozen for four months) when Gilmore throws a measly five bucks in his direction. Happy with his experiment’s success, Dexter decides to go dig up a caveman and bring him back to life. He finds one and all goes swimmingly until Dexter comes to the conclusion that he must remove part of someone’s brain and place it inside the reanimated caveman and Gilmore has, very understandably, an ethical crisis.
Let’s get one thing straight, just so no one gets disappointed: Return of the Ape Man is a big fat liar. For starters, there is no ‘ape man’. A big and hairy caveman, for sure, but only a man. I suppose throwing the words ‘ape man’ into the title was purely a marketing device.
Personally, I found it pretty funny. This film is also, despite its title, in no way a sequel to The Ape Man (1943), which oddly enough also featured Lugosi. And worst of all – this is hilarious – George Zucco, whose name is so prominent on the film’s poster and the opening credits is in the movie for only a few seconds!
Without Lugosi and Carradine, this would be mostly a waste of time. No matter how terrible some of the films these two starred in over the years, their presence is always nice. Both these screen legends put in more effort than Return of the Ape Man deserves, making the film infinitely more watchable. Here Lugosi is already past his prime, but it is at least before the truly dark times of Ed Wood. The film’s script does Lugosi no favours – that said, it does us many in terms of laughs. Lugosi’s character is a smooth-talking mad scientist, and the script takes “mad scientist” to new levels of insanity.
Professor Dexter begins randomly blowing up mountains of ice in the middle of a random spot in the Arctic on the off chance of finding the frozen remains of a caveman. Sure, the film allows him to find an ‘ape man’, but his wild and random methods are still hysterical. Not only that but there’s also Lugosi’s out-of-the-blue decision to put part of one man’s brain into the caveman’s brain – Carradine’s confused reaction says it all really.
Much like Lugosi’s Professor Dexter, many of the supporting characters in Return of the Ape Man are idiots. The policemen who feature in the film’s action-packed finale are unbelievably moronic; their actions are constantly corrected by a normal civilian. My favourite moment of policeman-idiocy occurs when the ape man is running away with Gilmore’s niece in his arms, a cop takes out his gun to fire at him despite the girl obviously in the firing line. The girl’s fiance literally has to push the cop’s gun out of the way and point out the danger of him firing. The cop, completely befuddled, nervously agrees.
The film’s monster – the caveman/ape man – is the ultimate idiot. In the world of Return of the Ape Man, a caveman’s natural instinct is to strangle everything that it comes in contact with. (When a part of another person’s brain is implanted in the caveman, this strangling instinct actually becomes a little disturbing. The caveman now has part of a brain that tells him not to kill, but still, he cannot help himself.)
Return of the Ape Man is a brisk little film running under an hour in length. You get Bela Lugosi, a cave man, John Carradine, strangling and a silly yet enjoyable story. This is not bad movie-making at its finest, but it provides adequate giggles. On top of that, it’s a fascinatingly odd part of forgotten cinema history.
Dave Jackson, guest reviewer via Mondo Exploito
“This companion piece to The Ape Man (1943) is almost as delightfully absurd, though it bears no relation plotwise.” The Aurum Film Encyclopedia: Horror
“It attempts to imitate a lot of the good things that these genre films did, but while relying on a substantially smaller budget and average at best script. So in it, there is certainly a good dose of the exotic atmosphere that the majority of the monster films are liked for, but at the same time, it is virtually impossible to ignore the many limitations of the production.” Blu-ray.com
“RAM is clearly low-B entertainment with low production values. On its own, it has little to recommend it. But Bela Lugosi gives it life. It has some film-historian value, too, as a dot connecting several threads.” Classic Sci-Fi Movies
“[Lugosi’s] not as self-satisfied as he was showing off his latest aftershave formula (actually the kiss of death for victims of The Devil Bat), nor as pathetically silly and humorously whiny as he was in The Ape Man, but as one of his maddest of mad scientists, Lugosi undeniably entertains here with Dexter’s sheer ruthlessness and determination.” DVD Talk
“For fans of such dark doings in that distinctive Monogram style, this one delivers enough of the goods to make it one entertaining romp. (Needless to say, others beware–you won’t find much to like here.) I love watching two distinguished actors such as Lugosi and Carradine imbuing it with their talent and professionalism, each slumming at Monogram for his own reasons and making the most of the lurid, dime-novel script.” HK and Cult Film News
“This is obviously low rent, cheap B movie type stuff, but I think there’s some fun to be had here. Fans of Lugosi should appreciate his sinister turn here, while it radiates old school, low budget horror vibes throughout. The movie also runs just over an hour, so it is brisk and lively with no real downtime.” Marc Fusion
“Classic monster buffs and B movie fans may enjoy Return of the Ape Man, which benefits from the combined talents of Lugosi and Carradine. Viewers of a strictly serious inclination, however, should avoid this film for its inconsistent characters, subpar make-up effects, and tiresome hijinks of the Ape Man himself.” 4/10 Midnite Reviews
” …the minuscule budget doesn’t hamper things too much, and the film does its job fairly effectively. It is only about fifty-five minutes long, but it gets on with things and finishes quickly. It doesn’t have time to get boring and there are even a few good moments along the way. Which isn’t bad for a Monogram horror film. Better than average, in fact.” Rivets on the Poster
” …a supremely, disastrously goofy movie that it’s easy to hate it. However, it’s so fast-paced and the cast so pleasant that the true awfulness of the film fades isn’t felt as much; unlike so many weak other B-movies, this one is lean and straight to the point. The closest we get to padding is some stock footage of a ship in the Arctic, and a little too much running to and fro during the movie’s climax.” Shades of Gray
” …it’s a real hoot and practically a primer of Poverty Row compromises. The presumed very short shooting schedule left no time for improvements to the often-absurd goings-on […] the caveman/Carradine can’t decide if he wants to play classical music on a piano, or murder his own family members. People and monster-man rush back and forth on interior sets, climb into upstairs widows, and get caught in a ‘paralysis trap’ and the climactic mad lab fire. It’s a real head-shaker.” Trailers from Hell
“Good, inane fun, especially for Lugosi fans.” TV Guide
Cast and characters:
Bela Lugosi … Professor Dexter
John Carradine … Professor John Gilmore
George Zucco … Ape Man
Frank Moran … Ape Man
Judith Gibson … Anne Gilmore
Michael Ames … Steve Rogers
Mary Currier … Mrs Hilda Gilmore
Ed Chandler … Sergeant
Ernie Adams … Tramp, Willie the Weasel
Horace B. Carpenter … Moviehouse watchman
Mike Donovan … Policeman Barney
George Eldredge … Patrolman on the beat
Black and white
Aspect ratio: 1.37: 1