Ze Staff Erich Kuersten The recurring themes of wartime dehumanization and post-modernism in the oeuvre of infamous quickie producer Sam Katzman are shamefully overlooked by most film scholars. These traditionalists prefer to waste their time analyzing the more obvious explorations by the likes of Kubrick, Godard, and Welles. I have just seen the forgotten Poverty Row classic The Return of the Ape Man, and at first glance yes, its pretty damn bad, but under the same examination usually reserved for acknowledged masterpieces, Return of the Ape Man yields a complex and fascinating study of the masculine psyche.
Like most thawed cave man movies there is a stifling sadness to the 'future' that the titular ape man 'returns' to. Perhaps this is due to the no-frills budgetary approach but even for a low-budget B-quickie this movie's sets are awfully bare.
Our titular ape man has awakened into a world that remains entirely and obviously within the confines of a sound stage, a world with all the drab flatness of a bad dream.
And like a dream, all the characters are merely aspects of one dreamer, archetypes of a masculine unconscious ever trying to transcend its prison. The very title Return of the Ape Man suggests a dream cycle wherein no stage of evolution can ever be permanently transcended, no repressed animal instinct repressed, or paleolithic age ever truly 'past.
In Return of the Ape Man, primitive, civilized and infantile aspects of the self stand next to each other in a dream basement, like the many stages of the astronaut Bowman interacting at the conclusion of Kubrick's much more widely praised The return of the ape man completes a cyclic form, opening the stairwell to a new floor of evolution, a floor where man's veneer of culture caves in on itself, and savagery emerges, free at last to rampage unchecked.
The movie's title cards depict a gorilla behind bars; the beast locked away in all of us. And they are misleading: We fade into a shot of the local paper, it reads that a local vagrant is missing and the residents of his park bench are beginning to worry. Right off, the world of this movie is established as fragmented, and surreal, resembling the under-populated realm of dreams. When has any newspaper ever written about a missing vagrant?
How can a man with no address be truly missing? It doesn't make sense; it works to paralyze the conscious mind of the viewer, opening up the unconscious dream-viewer. It's natural, this being a dream, that things run counter to logic.
Our next image is of a round white clock or thermometer, with its black arm pointed due south, splitting the round symbol in half. Next we see Bela Lugosi as Dr. Excited about their success in reviving the frozen hobo, the pair talk about what it would mean to revive someone frozen for a hundred years or more. Imagine the contribution to science! Realizing they cant wait that long to find out if their thawing plan would work on such a long-frozen fella, they set out to the arctic to find one already frozen, a prehistoric caveman.
We cut to a rear-projected indoor arctic. Surrounded by stock footage, Dexter and Gilmore argue over their progress--or lack thereof after 10 long months. Meanwhile their two assistants in the background gently wave their pick axes at the hard concrete studio floor, and we understand why they have had so little success. Gilmore, beginning to show his adult difference from Dexter, says he wants to go home. He misses his wife. Dexter is "married to science. The sterilized and harnessed Gilmore, however, only wants to give up and go sulking back to his wife.
Before these two can part ways, an ape man is found, as we knew it would be. Back home in the basement, Dexter melts the ice block encasing it with a blowtorch, eager to open his new toy, so to speak, while Gilmore seems more interested in getting the thing over to the Museum of Natural History, and being rid of it.
He wants to go home. The thrill is gone. He is civilized man at his weakest, anxious to turn away from any new discovery and its inherent danger, to turn it over to the authorities as soon as possible, to evade the associated responsibility. Dexter on the other hand is contemptuous of this attitude. He wants the ape man all to himself, to harness it and incorporate it, society and personal safety be damned. The ape man comes alive as soon as he is thawed, and attacks them. Accessing the wild-man archetype is one thing, controlling it another.
But Dexter backs it into a cage with a blowtorch. He immediately concocts the idea of transplanting a part of someone else's brain into the ape man's skull to make him more manageable. This is a unique variant from the plot of most of these gorilla brain-transplant films, for he only wants to use some of the new brain. This unusual approach further cements our theory, as his aim is to unify disparate elements of the psyche into a timeless, post-modern man.
By now these two boys are late for a dinner party. The party looks like it will be exceedingly dull. Cutting back to the two scientists in the lab it is made obvious that neither one of them really wants to leave their Boy's Life science project and tread upstairs for the mother's call of dinner-time.
But Dexter has promised Gilmore, who is duty-bound to his matriarchal ruler, Hilda. She is the pillar of his culture and civilization, his master in the way Dexter is his own master, and trying to be the master of the ape man.
Appropriately, Hilda sees Bela's Dr. Dexter as a threat to her position of dominance, a bad influence that she doesn't want her son associating with. Bela's character of Dr. Dexter is, of course, the very definition of a bad-influence friend. He certainly has no sense of empathy. However his lack of respect for human life in the context of the film is understandable.
All the other characters are mono-dimensional automatons. One look at Dexter impatiently smoking a fat cigar after dinner and his psychopathology becomes apparent. It is as if he realizes he is in a dream and so is no longer obliged to feel compassion for those around him. He is like a boy anxious for dinner to be over so he can resume working on his airplane model down in the basement. He sees the other guests purely as transplantable brains on stilts.
At this point, Aunt Hilda, the organ grinder, urges her trained monkey Gilmore to the piano. He slyly asks Steven to drive him home, and then invites him in for a drink, which he drugs, thus knocking Steve out.
A lot very slow screen time then unravels as Dexter carries him to the basement, lays him on the table, and changes out of his dinner jacket into his white lab coat.
Some will dismiss this lengthy stretch as mere padding, but the careful critic knows there are always deeper meanings, even in the randomness of cheap cinema. However, no sooner does he have his white coat on, than Gilmore has snuck up behind him with a gun. That was the most contemptible thing a man could ever do to his friend. My dear Gilmore Gilmore: You deliberately tried to murder someone dear to me He might not have died. Thats a comforting thought to you.
Do you see what it might mean to that boy? If he lived the operation would leave him an idiot! And what about science? We get our first glimpse of Dexter's childlike but its all for science rationalization and also Gilmore's lack of a suitable response to a situation outside society's norm. The brave thing for Gilmore to do would be to call the police right then, but that would require a masculine decisiveness that civilization has eroded in him. Instead he saunters off, advising Dexter to kill the ape man, and thus symbolically neuter himself the way Gilmore has.
Dexter replies in a typically adolescent manner. When I need advice from you I will ask for it, then when Gilmore leaves, Dexter mutters like an angry child; You'll pay for this! Gilmore returns to the safety of his home while Dexter plots a trap with electricity he is an adept of both fire and ice. The ape man is used as guinea pig in the trap planned for Gilmore, and then, his bars bendable as rubber in Dexter's house, the unconscious is not well repressed , escapes through the basement window.
However, he soon finds that in this civilized world, there is no longer any outdoors to escape to. The exteriors are so clearly and obviously sets; barely decorated and almost completely deserted. The ape man finds a woman to menace, however, and an idiotic cop on the beat, who hilariously cant decipher which of them is the threat.
Break it up you two he yells, pushing the woman away. The ape man kills the cop with one of the phoniest looking punches in all of cinema. Dexter has now come out onto the streets and we seem strolling calmly along with his blowtorch. He finds the ape man hunched over the form of the cop. He puts his arm consolingly around the ape man to lead him back home. You brainless fool, get out!
Suddenly, he remembers he should be brandishing the blowtorch, he waves it menacingly and the ape man snaps out of his stupor to resume his pose of harried, fearful savage.
The ape man is now revealed to bonded in some way to Dexter, his sadistic father. Dexter's home is the ape man's prison. He is both safe and trapped, the same fate as his mirror opposite, Gilmore, suffers at his house up the street. Note that we have already heard much use of the words idiot and fool, reflecting the adolescent mindset of much of the characters.
Name-calling is a childhood weapon, a means of establishing dominance. Fade to morning of the next day as Gilmore cracks open his morning paper to read the headlines: Evidence of Brute Force in Slaying of Policeman!
He puts down his paper to answer the phone. A delighted Dexter is on the line, voice laden with false pathos over the incident; "its terrible. You would think the fact that a prehistoric man he helped thaw out has recently murdered a policeman might inspire him to phone the cops before continuing with his breakfast, even cause him to raise his voice, but not our Gilmore.