Since then, of course, I've read all about Phil Rosen's film, Bela Lugosi's last Monogram release for Sam Katzman's Banner Productions unit. I knew better than to expect any confirmation of my ancient memories when I clicked Play on the Netflix stream, but I hoped for some moment of recognition, to see something I could remember seeing nearly forty years ago. Needless to say, the shots of parka-clad Lugosi and John Carradine, with two extras picking away at studio ice, in front of a now-unconvincing backdrop on an ill-dressed set, couldn't be as evocative as the ideas they symbolized were when I was small. The nearest I came to a frisson of recognition, I think, when I saw a closeup of the block of ice in Lugosi's lab, as he's about to take a blowtorch to it. Something stirred then, barely. I could still appreciate how the simplicity of it all would be more suggestive to a child than a more colorful, more musical, more elaborate presentation. There was an emptiness you could fill with your own imagination, if you chose.
Or you could just laugh. To the extent that I saw Return of the Ape Man with fresh eyes, it was pretty damn hilarious. Despite the title, it isn't a sequel to The Ape Man, in which Lugosi had accidentally regressed himself into a missing-link state and could cure himself only with that Poverty Row cure-all, spinal fluid. But the title is literally true if you accept the "Pithecanthropus" specimen ripped from a glacier as an "ape man" who "returns" to life under the dedicated ministrations of Professor Dexter (Lugosi), for whom an anthropological expedition to the wintry, presumed habitat of early man is but a continuation of the experiments undertaken with his colleague, Professor Gillmore (Carradine), in freezing and reviving live human subjects. The film opens with the scientists thawing out a hobo they'd lured off the street and paying him five bucks for his trouble. So far, so good. Dexter believes that persons frozen as the hobo was could be preserved for years or centuries and still be revived as good as new. Gillmore points out that it'd be impossible for them to live long enough to test the theory, but Dexter argues that thawing an early human out of his icy tomb would prove his point without taxing his longevity.
So off to the Arctic they go, the trip illustrated with stock footage and inexplicably festive library music. Gillmore soon grows homesick, protesting to Dexter that he's married, after all. "I'm married, too," Dexter answers, "A true scientist is married to his profession." Gillmore grudgingly perseveres and is rewarded by the discovery of an icebound body moments later.
Transported and thawed, the caveman (Frank Moran) is confused and violent. Dexter can only control him with the blowtorch he used to thaw out the primitive. "He knows his master!" Dexter proclaims, on the presumption that his subject never understood fire in his first life. Getting more information is difficult, since the ape man appears incapable of language. Dexter's solution is a partial brain transplant, grafting just enough grey matter to make the subject articulate if not reasonable while avoiding the confusion over identity that complicates so many brain-transplant pictures of the time. Still, Gillmore is troubled by the idea, since the modern brain matter must come from a live subject, and that would mean murder. "Murder is an ugly word," Dexter counters, "As a scientist, I don't recognize it."
"I'm back!" The returning Ape Man acclimatizes himself to his new surroundings, including Bela Lugosi (left) and John Carradine (right).
Lugosi's Dexter is a classic absent-minded professor. He now wants to harvest brain matter from a live, modern human despite his colleague's qualms. You or I, being practical people, might go about this well out of range of the colleague's scrutiny, choosing a complete stranger, or maybe the hobo again, and maybe taking the extra precaution of disguising yourself in a gorilla skin to throw off suspicion. The guileless Prof. Dexter, however, goes to Prof. Gillmore's party and instantly targets the beau of Gillmore's niece. Dissembling is alien to Dexter's scientific nature. He states what's on his mind quite openly, observing: "You know, some people's brains would never be missed." Gillmore himself figures out quite quickly what's up, thwarting Dexter in the nick of time and breaking off social relations with him.
Unable to improve his charge's mind, Dexter must be constantly careful lest he break free of his cage and run amok in public. During one such misadventure, the caveman kills a cop before Dexter rounds him up with his trusty blowtorch. Now he can think of only one way to redeem the situation: he must lure Gillmore back to the lab with a promise to destroy the primitive, then take the professor's eminently useful brain. Lured, Gillmore steps into Dexter's trap, a carpet wired so Dexter can hit his former friend with a paralyzing current. The paralysis allows Dexter to explain what will happen while allowing Gillmore to chide Dexter some more and nobly resign himself to his fate.
"I have advanced his mind 20,000 years in a few hours," Dexter boasts after the surgically enhanced apeman responds with a nod when asked if he feels all right. He grows more verbal gradually, but it looks as if Dexter has used too much of Gillmore's brain. The poor creature thinks he's Gillmore, and he has the dead man's aptitude on the piano, playing the Moonlight Sonata when he breaks into the Gillmore home one night. As with some brain-transplant subjects, the ape man is torn by conflicting impulses: Gillmore's affection for his family and his own primal compulsion to kill everything that moves. Snap goes Mrs. Gillmore's spine and the conflicted creature is on the run again. Finally, now that the cops are closing in on him, Dexter realizes that the experiment has to be brought to a close. But before he can light up a rolled-up newspaper, the caveman breaks his back and bolts out again, soaking up bullets with ease as he goes. Our ancestors were bulletproof, you see, the best proof of that probably being that they didn't have bullets in those days. But if bullets can't hurt Pithecanthropus, Dexter knows what can. The cops' only hope is fire....
Obviously, Lugosi fans will enjoy some of the great man's mighty utterances here, and the sight of him caveman-wrangling with his blowtorch is an inspiring one. But because the apeman carries the burden of terror for most of the picture, Bela inevitably takes a back seat after a while, making this something less than a definitive vehicle for him. As for Carradine, I don't know whether it was more humiliating for him to play an idiot servant in something like Voodoo Man or a complete straight-man character in this film. His career was clearly in crisis, already, and that seems sadder than Lugosi's situation, since the Hungarian was arguably still at a career peak of popularity here. In any event, Carradine contributes nothing in a thankless role. As the Ape Man, Frank Moran is a fairly unformidable subhuman, but it's still a fairly amusing spectacle to watch him run around. Return of the Ape Man is almost irredeemably dumb, but I still say that its absences and lapses, its very impoverishment, might still allow it to make a moody impression, entirely unrelated to its narrative or performative virtues, on people of an impressionable age or temperament. You never know what a child will make of something.