Horror movies often manifest from a culture's deepest and darkest fears. It is no coincidence that Godzilla was born in Japan only a few shorts years after two atomic bombs were dropped on its cities. As nuclear energy became a reliable power source, more and more horror movies created monsters from various nuclear accidents. Mad scientists are a trope of their own. What is Jurassic Park but a cautionary tale about scientists playing God? Unfortunately, all too often our fears are dark indeed, and the horror films from those times expose our culture's black soul.
Horror films often rely on a mysterious Other - some unknown or misunderstood entity that enters society and destroys it. This Other can be something benign like space aliens, or monsters from the deep, or it can be something much more disturbing brought forth through racism, misogyny, and hate. This isn't exclusive to horror, just watch an old western movie and see how they depict Native Americans, but horror seems to magnify some of our worst tendencies. Or maybe it just holds a mirror up to it.
It is difficult, sometimes, as a film lover to watch old films (and sometimes modern ones), films that you otherwise love and see how poorly they treat minority characters and women. I watched the original King Kong on the big screen just before the shut-downs began. It was an amazing experience. I love that movie, but it is difficult not to notice that it is also a film about a large, black ape brought over from some exotic island to New York where it proceeds to steal a beautiful white woman and kill all the men-folk.
This is not in any way to suggest that we should put those films away, or not watch them. But a recognition that our cinematic history is a cultural one and our culture has not always been great. Or, indeed considering everything happening as I write this, one that continues to struggle. What will people say about modern movies in 100 years?
But this is not an essay on how horror films depict minorities, but a review of a new Universal Horror collection from Shout! Factory. Looking at the cover of these films, two of which depict white women in the hands of large, black apes and reading their titles - The Monster and the Girl, Captive Wild Woman, Jungle Woman, and Jungle Captive - it isn't difficult to see why I preface my review with a discussion about the negative stereotypes these types of films promoted. And yet these films surprised me too in the ways they were not at all like what those posters and titles led me to expect.
The Monster and the Girl is one of the films with a large gorilla holding onto a woman in the poster. I came expecting a story about some white woman traipsing about some African jungle getting stolen by an ape but what I got was something totally different. It begins with a trial. Scott, a church organist (Phillip Terry), has been arrested for shooting a gangster. Numerous witnesses saw him do it, or rather they heard the shots and saw Scott standing over the body with a gun in his hand. In flashbacks, we learn the true story.
His sister (Ellen Drew) was forced into sex slavery for the gang and when Scott came to confront them about it somebody else shot the gangster, throwing the gun at Scott's feet. But none of this matters because Scott is convicted and killed. Ah, but the real story is that some mad scientist buys the body and puts Scott's brain inside a gorilla's body. Let's just say the ape gets the revenge Scott so desperately deserved.
This is a strange little film. For two-thirds of its runtime, it is a courtroom drama and not a bad one at that. But then it changes into a nutty mad-scientist/monster movie which is goofy fun. But the two don't mesh well. Once the gorilla gets going, I've lost all interest in the courtroom stuff, but it doesn't last long enough to make it worthwhile either.
The remaining three films are a trilogy of sorts in which an ape is turned into an exotic woman who is turned into an ape-woman who is turned into a woman who is turned into an...well, you get the picture. It begins with Captive Wild Woman.
I'm not a fan of critics calling audiences of older movies unsophisticated as a way of saying they may have been thrilled by a film that seems very dated or tame by today's standards. People from the 1940s could be very sophisticated, they could notice when a special effect looked fake, or when an outdated stereotype roared its head. Reviews of King Kong from its original release date complained the effects looked fake. Audiences were never stupid, but they've always rolled with the best special effects of the time.
I may be a hypocrite then when I note this film may have played well for audiences that perhaps had not been to a circus or watched animal tamers on television or had not yet streamed Tiger King on Netflix. It still would if you could find someone willing to watch an old black and white film and who had never seen wild animals in the flesh or on the screen. Personally, I've watched enough of that elsewhere to only be bored with it in this film. These days, I mostly feel sorry for those poor animals who were undoubtedly not treated well, both in the film and I'm on set.
Unfortunately, Captive Wild Woman has very little else going for it. A guy comes back from Africa with a bunch of wild cats and a big ape. The ape is very intelligent and the guy has big hopes she will do very well in his circus. But really he longs to be the star lion tamer in an act that will put lions and tigers (but not bears, oh my!) in the same arena.
Meanwhile, a mad scientist sees the ape and figures he ought to steal it so that he can transplant another woman's excessive sex glands into it. Also someone else's brains. This turns the ape into a beautiful, exotic woman (Acquanetta, a Native American actress who played a lot of beautiful, exotic women in b-movies). She's magically able to tame the wild beasts just by looking at them. This should make her a natural for the circus, but Dude can't let her steal the spotlight so he does the act in the cage and she saves his arse staring down the animals from the sidelines.
Jealousy turns her black (I mean that quite literally for her skin color turns several shades darker), then into a half-ape/half girl then back to ape form. Remember me talking about how horror movies often have sketchy notions on race and gender? This one has them a-plenty, but I'm already running long. The story is hooey, and they use a whole lot of lion-/tiger-taming footage which again may be exciting for some, but I found tiresome. However, the mad scientist stuff is pretty great.
The sequel Jungle Woman is worse. You'd think a movie with a runtime of 61 minutes would want to cram in as much stuff as possible. But for the first 20 minutes, it is mostly flashbacks featuring scenes from Captive Wild Woman. This one also begins with a trial. Well, first, it begins with Dr. Fletcher (J. Carroll Naish) being attacked by someone as he walks towards his house. In shadows, we see them struggle and then Fletcher kills the someone, Paula Dupree, or the Ape-Woman as she's called when she's less pretty. The trial concerns Dr. Fletcher's murder of her.
The judge questions the doctor, then he questions the doctor's daughter (Louis Collier) and her fiancee (Milburn Stone) and their answers come in flashbacks to Captive Wild Woman. Once Jungle Woman gets going, we learn that the good (or mad) doctor stole Paula Dupree's body (sorry for the spoiler but it is hard to talk about this film without spoiling the ending of the other one). Turns out, she wasn't dead just injured and he nursed her back to health.
It is real nice having a beautiful, exotic lady hanging out in your sanitorium, but then she gets all jealous of the daughter and fiancee (as former ape-women are apt to do) and starts a-murderin'. They hunt her down, she attacks the doctor, and he kills her (I guess that's a spoiler again, but as noted the killing happens in the first few minutes of the film, and we thought she was dead at the end of the first movie, so maybe it isn't a spoiler after all?). The trial ends. The movie ends. What's next?
What's next is Jungle Captive, which might just be the best movie in the bunch. Like any good horror movie villain in its third film, you just can't keep a dead ape-woman down. Another mad-scientist (Otto Kruger), this one with a mad-henchman (Rondo Hatton - who has a face made for villainy), steals the ape-woman's corpse and uses science to bring her back to life. But bringing a half-ape/half-woman back to life isn't the thing that's gonna get him on the cover of magazines (because after all, how many dead ape-woman are there in the world?) so he's "forced" to steal some more glands (and maybe a brain) from an unsuspecting woman. They still call her human form Paula Dupree but it's no longer Aquanette doing the acting work, but Vicky Lane.
That darn henchman has been leaving a trail of bodies every time he goes to the store to fetch something and eventually the cops catch up with the whole operation. The girl is rescued by the love interest. The bad guys are caught. The ape-woman is killed again, but since there are no more sequels, we can assume this time it's for good. Or can we?
This is the fifth collection of Universal Horror films from Shout! Factory and with four films in each set, that's 20 movies. I'm not saying they are scratching the bottom of the barrel with this set, but I think you can see it. These are b-movies. They are loaded with problems, not the least of which are their depictions of race and gender. But they are also goofy fun. If you like low budget horror movies from the vast Universal catalog in the 1940s, then this set is for you.
Each film comes with a very decent looking 1080p transfer. They come with the usual trailers and image galleries and there is an audio commentary for each film from a film historian.