Directed by Phil Rosen
Produced by Sam Katzman & Jack Dietz
Story & Screenplay by Robert Charles
Cinematography: Marcel Le Picard
Cast: Bela Lugosi (Professor Dexter), John Carradine (Professor John Gilmore), George Zucco (Ape Man – credits only), Frank Moran (Ape Man), Teala Loring (Anne Gilmore), Tod Andrews (Steve Rogers), Mary Currier (Mrs. Hilda Gilmore), Ernie Adams (Willie The Weasel)
The Monogram Nine, a handful of low-budget pictures Bela Lugosi made for Sam Katzman and Monogram Pictures in the mid-40s, are nobody’s idea of quality cinema, but they’re certainly entertaining. Some say Return Of The Ape Man (1944) is one of the worst of the bunch, but so what — it’s a blast.
Bela Lugosi is Professor Dexter, a noted scientist messing around with freezing people. He and his assistant, Professor John Gilmore (John Carradine), thaw out a bum they’ve had frozen in the basement for four months. To prove that people can be kept frozen for extended periods of time, then thawed out safely, Dexter and Gilmore travel to the Arctic in search of a frozen prehistoric man to defrost. They finally find one and bring it back to Lugosi’s basement/laboratory.
They’re able to revive him — after Lugosi thaws him out with a blowtorch, but soon realize he’s an “unmanageable brute” (I’m lifting a Lugosi line from Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein). Lugosi’s solution is to transplant a certain portion of a modern man’s brain into the Ape Man’s skull. From here, Lugosi’s plans go completely off the rails and lead to the kind of supreme mayhem the Poverty Row studios were so good at cooking up.
I love Return Of The Ape Man. It’s so ridiculous, so cheap and so short — what’s not to like? Lugosi’s terrific. He always had a way of making the non-logic of these things almost work. Almost. Once John Carradine questions Lugosi’s methods, we just know he’s a goner — but he’s great at doing his John Carradine thing in the meantime. John Moran is a hoot as the Ape Man — bending bars, breaking stuff, choking people, etc. George Zucco was originally given the part, but he got ill and Moran took over. Why Zucco still gets third billing is anybody’s guess. Some say he’s actually in a shot or two (on the table when the Ape Man is first thawed out). Others say it was in his contract. My theory is having three low-budget horror stars in one movie was too good a thing to pass up. Wonder if Zucco was paid for his name on the poster? Philip Rosen’s direction is clunky, for lack of a better word, at least party due to the tight schedule and budget.
I’ve never seen Return Of The Ape Man looking good. And while this Olive Blu-Ray leaves plenty to be desired, this is far and away the nicest version I’ve come across. The contrast and grain are inconsistent, there’s some damage here and there, and it’s a bit soft in places — 16mm, maybe? — but that’s all part of the experience. A movie like this is supposed to look a little ragged, in my opinion, and I’m so glad Olive Films didn’t hold out for better material. It might’ve never happened, and that would be a real shame. This way, every magnificent flaw is preserved in high-definition, which is the way I like it.
Recommended, along with the rest of the Monogram Nine. By this way, this is not a sequel to the previous Lugosi/Monogram picture, The Ape Man (1943).