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The Ape

From the DVD case: An evil doctor, obsessed with curing a young woman of a dreadful disease, goes around injecting people with spinal fluid. (1940, b&w)

Mark says: I have to begin by apologizing for the DVD description posted above. I’ve seen worse, believe it or not, but this one is truly atrocious. Not only does it sound like it was written by a second grader, but it is inaccurate as well. It comes from one of those “Family Value Collection” DVDs that you find at places like The Dollar Tree around Halloween. Mine came as a second feature combined with Lugosi’s The Ape Man. For 50 cents a picture you really can’t go wrong, but posting such an inane description on my site is a little embarrassing.

Let me give you a more accurate synopsis:

Boris Karloff (Frankenstein, The Body Snatcher) stars as Dr. Bernard Adrian, a dedicated scientist and physician who makes his residence in a tiny town with small-minded people. After losing his wife and daughter to a deadly “paralysis epidemic,” Dr. Adrian is obsessed with finding a cure for the disease (strongly resembling polio, but it is never called by name in the film).

A young woman in the town, Miss Frances Clifford (Maris Wrixon), is wheelchair-bound by the affliction. Dr. Adrian, noting a strong resemblance between Frances and his daughter, dedicates himself to curing the adolescent. However, the townsfolk are suspicious of the physician. Particularly suspicious is Frances’s boyfriend, Danny Foster, played by Gene O’Donnell (The Devil Bat). Danny not only distrusts Dr. Adrian, but he’s annoyed by Frances’s increasing devotion to the man.

By now we’re wondering how an ape is ever going to work its way into this story, but be patient.

Dr. Adrian discovers (through experiments he has performed on local pets) that spinal fluid injected into the afflicted patient will cure the paralysis. The only problem is obtaining human spinal fluid for his human patient.

Nearby, a ferocious gorilla (there he is!) in a traveling circus escapes and attacks his sadistic keeper. Dr. Adrian, realizing the keeper is going to die, taps his spinal fluid. Unfortunately, Dr. Adrian drops the vile rendering the fluid useless.

Meanwhile, the gorilla appears at the good doctor’s house and we witness Dr. Adrian kill the beast. No one but the doctor’s housekeeper (Gertrude Hoffman) is aware that the ape has been killed.

Strangely, the ape still makes appearances in the town and even kills some of the local riff-raff. Simultaneously, Dr. Adrian mysteriously finds a supply of spinal fluid. With each injection, young Frances finds herself getting stronger.

You don’t have to be an astute viewer to realize that Dr. Adrian is using the gorilla’s hide as a disguise to procure victims for his spinal fluid supply. What’s amusing is how the movie treats the de-masking of the ape as some type of epiphany. I doubt anyone shouts out, “Ah-ha!” when they see Karloff’s face revealed. Still, I suppose a little mystery had to be feigned.

The Ape is, for the most part, an unimpressive bit of cinema. Perhaps it was the success of King Kong that inspired filmmakers of the era to include a man in a gorilla suit whenever a picture lacked pizazz. Personally, I find apes (most movie versions, anyway) to be decidedly dull. I would never want to come face to face with such a creature, but compared to what else can be found in the world of horror theater, the ape is fairly humdrum. They also have a way of dating a film.

The Ape, KarloffWhat The Ape does have to offer is Karloff’s portrayal of Dr. Adrian. For such a cheap production, Karloff’s character is wonderfully complex. Initially, we sympathize with Dr. Adrian. He seems misunderstood, and though not socially graceful, he appears to be a good person working for a commendable cause. We find later, though, that Dr. Adrian’s sense of ethics is a bit askew.

It’s interesting to note the slow disintegration of Dr. Adrians moral code. His first “victim” is a sadistic animal keeper who was likely going to die anyway. When the doc needs more spinal fluid, he has to actually murder someone; so he chooses a local scoundrel despised by the community. However, when he gets really desperate, he attacks a random victim who has not done anyone harm. Ultimately, Dr. Adrian’s downfall is caused by a “the end justifies the means” philosophy.

And what of Miss Frances? Does she ever walk again? That’s one mystery I wont reveal.

But I bet you can guess.

Look for Henry Hall (The Flying Serpent, The Mad Monster) as Sheriff Jeff Halliday, and Selmer Jackson (The Atomic Submarine) in the role of Dr. McNulty. That’s famous ape actor, Ray “Crash” Corrigan (The Monster and the Ape, The White Gorilla) in the monkey suit.

The Ape is directed by William Nigh, from a script by Curt Siodmak (Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, I Walked with a Zombie), adapted from the play by Adam Shirk.

Scene to watch for: Dr. Adrian and Danny load Frances and her wheelchair onto the back of truck like a piece of freight.

Line to listen for: “Do apes ever return to the scene of the crime?”

Bonus: Download The Ape for free at the Internet Archive.

Mark’s Rating: ! ! ½ out of 5.




  1. Hi Mark. This weekend I ran across this film in the dollar bin at a local Game Stop. Like you, I have seen several “gorilla” movies in the past and have usually been very disappointed, but your review sparked some interest and when I saw this DVD in the bin, I figured, for a buck, I’d give it a try. (The DVD also contained two other Karloff films where he played Chinese detective Mr. Wong.) Thank goodness I had read your review before watching this copy of “The Ape.” It was badly cut up and had splices every few seconds throughout most of the film, making some of the dialogue sound like gibberish. But since your review had clued me into the basic story, I was able to follow it fairly well. You’re right about no real surprises; in fact the unmasking almost reminded me of the ending of a Scooby-Doo cartoon. The scenes with paralyzed girl brought to mind a later Karloff classic, “The Body Snatchers.”

  2. Paul: I haven’t watched this movie for awhile, but I seem to remember noting that its quality was better than I expected for a dollar movie. It certainly wasn’t in the shape you described, as I had no problem following the basic story. As for The Body Snatcher, that is one of my favorite Karloff films! I need to review it someday.

  3. i liked this a lot better than bela’s the ape man. i wish the skinning of the ape had been presented! do you think the scopes (spelling?) trial may have had something to do with the popularity of apes in horror films during this time? that is my cousin’s theory. ! Mark … i have to give credit to you for your dedication to the art of critical writing. you put in a lot more effort than many of the films actually deserve. keep up the great work. john

  4. John: You’re too kind. I never thought of the Scopes trial being a factor in the strange popularity of apes in early films. Considering that the Scopes trial was tried in 1925, it may have had some type of influence in those early ape pictures. By the time this film came out (1940) though, I would think the fascination of the Scopes trial would have been a little worn.

  5. lol! probably so ! Mark…but, then again…film goers did not have the over exposure of the mass media as we do today. it look longer for news to travel then. lol! keep up the great work. john

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