Wednesday, October 03, 2012

“White people shouldn’t live too long out in the jungle.”

In 1951, Curt Siodmak, a screenwriter probably most famous for the very excellent Lon Chaney Jr. Wolf Man, wrote and directed Bride of the Gorilla, which recycled a ton of elements from The Wolf Man.

In South America, a brash young plantation manager is having an affair with his employer’s beautiful young wife. There’s an argument at dinner and he gets fired by the old man, and the argument continues outside. The two struggle briefly, and the manager lets a deadly snake bite the old man and kill him. This would be great news for our protagonist, but the deed is seen by the creepy old native witch who works on the plantation. She was following our protagonist to get revenge on him for abandoning a local lover, and she takes the opportunity to curse him (and starts slipping a magical plant into his drink to facilitate the curse). The manager inherits the plantation and marries the widow, but soon starts seeing himself transform into a bestial creature. Not coincidentally, a bestial creature begins terrorizing the region at night, and a local police commissioner begins investigating.

Barney Chavez: Raymond Burr! Clearly not Hispanic. Or Spanish. Barney is a terrible plantation manager who slacks off constantly and is juggling at least two love affairs before his boss fires him and the fateful confrontation happens. Afterwards, things seem pretty great for him, he gets a profitable estate and a beautiful bride that loves him. Then he starts seeing his hand get hairy, then sees a gorilla costume instead of his reflection in the mirror. The curse starts driving him up a wall and he starts spending more time out in the jungle than with his wife. The natives begin whispering of the “sukara” a beast that is tall, red, and somewhat man-like (In other words, a gorilla costume). For a while its up in the air whether Barney is actually turning into a creature or its all in his head.

Dina Van Gelder: Barbara Payton plays the young, materialistic trophy wife of the plantation owner. She’s not happy in her marriage, since she doesn't love her husband and they live in the middle of nowhere. So when the young stud Barney starts up a relationship with her, she goes for it. Blinded by love, she doesn't realize (at first) that Barney’s really responsible for her husband’s death; she loves him unconditionally. Dina bet on the wrong horse though, since Barney starts losing it and would rather frolic in the jungle than spend evenings with her. Yes, he cheats on her with the Jungle. She still loves him and wants to get them away from the plantation, which leads to dire consequences.

Klaas Van Gelder: Paul Cavanagh plays Dina’s sickly husband. He’s not in the movie long, but gets to express his intense dislike of Barney and feels bad that he can’t make Dina happy. Then it's snakebite time.

Dr. Viet: Tom Conway plays the family physician who gets caught up in investigating the mysterious goings-on. He’s ALSO got romantic feelings for Dina, but she doesn't even notice, probably because he’s older than Barney and thoroughly boring. 

Police Commissioner Taro: Lon Chaney Jr. is also clearly not Hispanic, but plays one anyway. He’s effectively the hero of the movie, a local boy made good who came home and is now putting the pieces of a murder mystery together. He’s also a creature between two worlds, but he knows it (and doesn't kill farmers in the night). City educated and sworn to uphold civilized law, he’s also well-versed in local legend and superstition and the more…flexible form of justice found in the jungle. 

Al-Long: Giselle Werbisek plays the creepy housekeeper and witch woman. She’s got an illegal plant that she can do magic with. The locals all hold her in awe and fear. She actually witnesses Van Gelder’s death from the bushes but doesn’t do anything about it, instead leaning over his dead body and cursing Barney Chavez to become like an animal. At the inquest she gives false testimony that helps acquit Barney, but then she holds what she knows over Barney’s head and quietly keeps drugging him with the plant. She comes across as sinister and unlikable.

                               Man, I wish I had this as a .gif

This was one of the few movies directed by Curt Siodmak. Siodmak was an interesting guy. Born in Germany in 1902, he was part of the mass exodus of Jewish filmmakers who fled the Nazis prior to World War II and he had a long, healthy career as a screenwriter and novelist. His older brother Robert Siodmak had a much more prominent career as a (more successful) director. 

As far as the visuals of this movie go, it's okay I guess. The budget is obviously low and the gorilla costume is not very good. I presume the filmmakers realized this, as they kept it off the screen as much as possible. Sure, it was probably also minimally used to build tension and uncertainty, as they use it in reflections and for hands, but I think the look of the gorilla costume was also a factor. The rest of the movie is a very workmanlike production.

Written by Curt Siodmak, I really can’t help but focus on the similarities to The Wolf Man. Its got a curse, a gypsy-like wise old woman, the elements of a love triangle, the notion of the bestial nature of man as a curse, and its even got Lon Chaney Jr. The major thematic difference is that Barney Chavez is a brutal, unsympathetic murderer and Larry Talbot was a sympathetic, likable guy. Outside of the commonalities, the dialogue, characters, and plot are all quite pedestrian. I suppose it's also worth noting that gorillas are not native to South America. At all.

Original music by Raoul Kraushaar and Mort Glickman (uncredited). It’s…there, in a forgettable way. 

The movie essentially takes Siodmak’s Wolf Man premise and recycles it into the South American jungle with an ape. Curt Siodmak cribbing from his earlier, better script but with a much lower budget is somewhat interesting, but not particularly compelling. There are worse movies out there, but considering the talent involved in making this, Bride of the Gorilla is simply mediocre and mostly boring. Sure, it's in the public domain and easy to find, but you're not missing anything by not seeing it.

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