Way back in 1913, the hand-painted poster for Balaoo The Demon Baboon depicted a demented bulbous-headed ape-like creature hanging by the toes from a tree branch while it clawed at a terrified looking female victim. The shocking image replete with its accompanying promise to ‘break all records’ seemed to prefigure ‘Eighth Wonder of the world’ Kong by a good twenty years. The hairy hands, though much smaller, foreshadowed the enormous mechanical efforts which would pull a screaming Fay Wray out of her plush hotel room window in 1933. It would be one of the earliest cinematic examples of this kind of mashing together of the animal ‘real’ with the horrifically ‘unreal’. Possibly inspired by the H.G. Wells novel The Island of Doctor Moreau, it centred around Dr Coriolis who was able to transform a baboon into a ‘neo-human’ creature. This angle possibly explains its attraction and the appeal of similar films which would roll out in the ensuing years. The ape is our closet relative, and over and above the monsters in other later productions like The Wolf Man (1941) or Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1932), it represents, in evolutionary terms, our not too distant lineage, underlining the point that our bestial nature is not too far removed. We might revel in a vicarious thrill, but secretly fear that what we are seeing on screen might just be who we really are.
I’m not sure I was the only kid to be unnerved by the sight of Ethel the ape’s ballerina dancing in Laurel and Hardy’s The Chimp (1932). There was something about a man in a shoddy gorilla costume, cavorting around in a hat and tutu, berating Oliver Hardy, that just plain terrified me. I got that same feeling watching the truly awful B-Movie Gorilla at Large (1954), when I was five. Goliath, the titular beast of the piece, would plague my imagination. For days afterwards, I would lie awake at night believing I might catch a glimpse of that fake furry hand reaching through a half-closed wardrobe door. King Kong (1933) didn’t help either. Sure, I was fascinated and beguiled by Merian C Cooper’s classic monster movie, but the way in which he chomped down on one of the unfortunate Skull Island residents with his massive jaws, using a spear as a toothpick, never really sat well with me. In fact, the first film I ever saw in an actual cinema was the 1976 remake. The Dino De Laurentiis version eschewed Willis O’Brien’s carefully orchestrated stop-frame animation for the man in a costume approach. I was back to the haunting image of the gorilla suit, and this time it filled a huge silver screen and not just our little rented Rediffusion TV. I seemed to have a tough time with real-life apes too, at least when they were taken so far out of context that their tangible relation to nature was almost eradicated. Back in the 1970s British small screens were often frequented by PG Tips tea adverts featuring living, breathing chimps. They would ‘act’ out 30-second little comedy skits to pedal hot beverages, and would invariably be dressed as bespectacled old ladies, pin-stripe bank managers or piano playing bowler-hatted workmen. Though as a child I would have had no idea about the kinds of cruelties or indignities those poor creatures suffered in the process, the commercials still tapped into a fragile subsection of my psyche, though meant to lure me in with family comedy I knew there was something deeply troubling about that parade of cajoled animals on display, even to my juvenile understanding, it seemed a distinctly disturbing bit of monkey business. Though my own fears may be personal, there is no doubt that the gorilla, chimp or approximation thereof, has become a handy and reliable trope in the world of the horror movie. While not as prevalent as the vampire, zombie or masked slasher figure, the monstrous ape or primate has presented us with ample nightmarish genre-based thrills.
Many features which followed Balaoo including early Raoul Walsh entry The Monkey Talks (1927), or even the prehistoric The Lost World (1925), with its inclusion of the missing link character, seemed to feed into the still raging battles going on between the fundamentalist Christian right and Darwinist science. The famous ‘Scopes Monkey Trial’ of 1925 would certainly have helped to focus the world’s media on such incendiary issues. Ken Russell would deal with the idea of reversed evolution and regression in his weirdly trippy body-horror, Altered States (1980), starring a distinctly primaeval William Hurt. Conversely, the ape, or simian, would also become linked to the idea of youth and vitality and implied sexual voracity, when the first of Voronoff’s ‘Monkey Gland’ experiments were carried out in the 1920s. This would entail taking thin slices of baboon testicles and implanting them into a patient’s scrotum to encourage ‘the rejuvenation of old men’. And although this reads like the plot of a bad low budget scary movie, for a while it became a fashionable craze for an ageing wealthy elite. But by the early 30s, it was the world of cinema that was transforming, not man. Not only was sound in film a normality, but American studios like Universal were also about to show us what scary movies looked like, and it would take the star of the smash-hit Dracula (1931) to really take the idea of horror and the ape to a new disturbing level.
Having allegedly (and inadvisably) turned down the role of the monster in Frankenstein (1931), Hungarian born Bela Lugosi found himself the star of Robert Florey’s Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), an adaptation of the celebrated Edgar Allen Poe story. In it, mad scientist Dr Mirakle (Lugosi) masquerades as a carnival attraction using his ‘trained’ ape Erik, to demonstrate theories of evolution to the Parisian crowds of 1845. However, his true intentions are much, much darker. Rue Morgue is a pre-code film and it shows. It’s hard to imagine this plot, which involves an enforced human/ape breeding programme, getting through the censors in the 40s, but here it plays out in all of its sickeningly bizarre zeal. Lugosi, who had not yet sunk into poverty row, is excellent as the nutty professor type, his bushy uni-brow and bouffant curls giving him a pleasantly unpleasant countenance. It’s beautifully shot too, Karl Freund, cinematographer on Dracula and director of The Mummy (1932) and Mad Love (1935) creates an atmospherically creepy world of distorted silhouettes and persistently disquieting viewpoints. Deserted streets become blank illuminated stages where the promise of unthinkable acts may occur in an orgy of guilty and not so guilty pleasures. Most unsettling though, is Erik himself, particularly when presented as either a looming shadow, in a German expressionist nod to the past, or as a real-life chimp in full excruciating stock-footage close-up. Lugosi, in his less fussy years of morphine addiction and ailing riches, would later return to related subject matter, first in Monogram cheapo The Ape Man (1943) and subsequently in the unspeakably bad Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952), but Rue Morgue, despite being a less than successful venture for studio chief Carl Laemelle Jr, remains a strange and quietly unsettling monochrome creature feature of near unparalleled perversity.
There are, of course always uncomfortable hints of, or even more blatant examples of racism linked to many early 30s productions, which often presented the exotic, native or darker-skinned character as dangerous, savage or animalistic. King Kong, for example, is unquestionably jingoistic in its depiction of the islanders, and Kong himself might be seen as a brazenly discriminatory cartoon, i.e. a tall dark foreigner, preying on prejudiced audience fears about people of colour stealing away ‘the white man’s woman’. Many movies also examined how human interference – particularly animal/ape experimentation – could lead to less than ideal results. In the Hammer sequel, The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), Peter Cushing as the infamous doctor, transplants the brain of an orangutan into that of a chimp, only to see the latter devolve into a raging cannibal. While in the barmy US/Japanese exploitation effort The Manster (1959), news correspondent Larry Stanford (Peter Dyneley) grows a simian-like second head when he unwillingly becomes the guinea pig in a brand new cosmic-ray induced drugs trial. The highly profitable Planet of the Apes series of the 60s and 70s also impacted briefly on the horror world, most bizarrely with the Mexican wrestling picture Night of the Bloody Apes (1972), and most cheekily when US distributors rebranded de Ossorio’s Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972) as Revenge of Planet Ape (1972). However, not all films have presented us with such schlock. Another production arguably gave us something slightly more nuanced, exploring the more subconscious anxieties and concerns which lurk beneath the surface of our fragile sense of civility.
George Romero, best known for his allegorical living dead franchise, was acutely adept at using horror to propound his blood-splattered brand of stateside satire and social commentary. What’s more, as proficient as he was at presenting us with new takes on the classic monster, particularly with the zombie, or the vampire in Martin (1977), what he really understood was human weakness and societal failings. With Monkey Shines (1988), based on the novel of the same name by Michael Stewart, Romero offers us a dark thriller that examines our deep-seated fears about what happens when we lose control to more insidious forces.
After being hit by a truck, law student Allan Mann goes into surgery to save his life, but the botched operation leaves him a paraplegic. In an effort to support him in his new everyday existence, Mann is awarded a chemically enhanced Capuchin monkey called Ella, who is meant to act as trained personal assistant. While the bond between primate and human initially seems to work, their odd connection begins to deteriorate when Ella starts to exhibit an irrational and controlling hold over the helpless Mann. In this sense, the film becomes a daringly uncomfortable exploration about the nature of unhealthy relationships, power and domination. Ella, is essentially a distillation of human obsession, rage and jealousy. Strangely the movie has more in common with the likes of Misery (1988), Fanatic (1965), or even Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), than other monkey movies, in that it gives us an off-kilter story of imprisonment, domestic abuse and a destructive form of unrequited love. Yet, just as we might begin to see this as another ‘psychotic female’ vehicle, the plot reveals that it is indeed Mann’s own anger – undoubtedly linked to his temporary emasculation – which is being absorbed by Ella, leaving us to question who or what is abusing who. In another sense, Monkey Shines might also be viewed as an anti-vivisection narrative, Ella, at least in part, becoming a metaphor for nature fighting back against the crueller extremities of scientific ‘progress’, and of course, as others have pointed out, the inverse Kong echoes, where a large man is held prisoner by a small female monkey, cannot be ignored.
The pairing of ape and Hollywood will doubtless continue, Kong Versus Godzilla (2020), a reworking of the 60s Toho classic, would appear to attest this, and as fun as that movie promises to be, it won’t quite hold for me the same level of fascination as the eerily seductive horror films of the past. A big-budget spectacular with ultra-modern CGI type effects might look more impressive to the 21st century Netflix crowd, but it won’t offer the same kind of creeping thrills that a black and white pre-code film, might, or an overlooked cult oddity from the vaults of the extreme. I am possibly alone in my thinking, I hope not, but until another weirdly disturbing monkey flick comes along, I’ll continue to keep an eye on that half-closed wardrobe door from my childhood, wondering if I’ll ever hear that ominous grunt again or catch a glimpse of a flea-bitten gorilla suit hiding deep inside.