Bride of the Gorilla

Bride of the Gorilla
Bride of the Gorilla— It’s a lurid title and at the same time more than a bit ridiculous. It didn’t start that way. The original title was to be The Face in the Water; it was to be screenwriter Curt Siodmak’s big directorial debut. Ah, but often things just don’t turn out, as we shall see.

The movie opens with Lon Chaney Jr. narrating over some stock footage of jungle animals (which looks to have been shot at a zoo) about the primordial spirits inhabiting the jungles since long before the advent of Man. Chaney’s voice and stiff reading, combined with the hodge-podge of stock footage give the film an Ed Woodish opening.

I’m fine with that, but in the interest of full disclosure, it’s been pointed out that all my taste is in my mouth (and even that’s been called into question.) What I like or don’t like aside, I’m pretty sure that’s not what Siodmak was wanting. He was looking to make a picture in the vein of Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People, an elegant, minimalist sort of monster movie driven by the power of suggestion. It’s nice to want things, I suppose. Moving on . . .

After the Lon Chaney’s Wild Kingdom opening, we’re introduced to the cast: Old Rich Cuckold (Paul Cavanagh), his lovely wife Much Younger Hottie (Barbara Payton), and The Comically Named Barney Chavez (Raymond Burr). Chavez, the foreman who runs Cuckold’s plantation, is a lout who covets his boss’s wife. In fact, Chavez is busy putting the smooth moves on the lady of the house when he should be overseeing the workers, who are so dumb they apparently kill themselves in horrible workplace accidents unless Barney is there to keep an eye on them. We know this because Cuckold mentions it when he bursts into the room to chew Barney a new one for slacking off. Barney isn’t impressed.

One his way out, Barney runs into Young Cute Maid, who goes into “Why joono love me no more? Eet’s HER, isn’t eet?” spurned girl mode and receives the “Aww, I never loved you anyway!” in return. Young Cute Maid bursts into tears, running for comfort to Fake Maleva, her witchy grandmother or mother or something like that, who also serves in the household. It’s pretty clear Fake Maleva is nonplussed with Barney. Things are about to get Tales from the Crypt all up in here now, dawg!

Later, Cuckold fires Barney which results in the least dramatic murder scene ever filmed, which has Old Cuckold coming out on the short end of the stick. I’m not even kidding about the lack of tension. Your average laundry detergent commercial is more gripping. Fake Maleva observes the murder which gives her added justification for what using her witchy powers to exact justice.
After an indecently short period of time, Barney and the widowed Much Younger Hottie get hitched, making Barney lord of the manor. Fake Maleva, using a forbidden poisonous plant with magical properties begins her revenge. She begins secretly slipping a poison derived from the plant into Barney’s drinks. In short order Barney’s behavior becomes more erratic as he melodramatically pines for the jungle he once despised. At night, transformed, he prowls the jungle.

This is the where the “gorilla” in Bride of the Gorilla comes in. When Barney believes himself transformed, he sees himself as a gorilla. Is Barney going mad from poisoning? Is he possessed by the spirit of the Succarath. Whether he actually physically turns or not is left open, taking a page from “Cat People.” It doesn’t work here. I’ll leave the rest of movie for you to discover.

Lon Chaney is totally wasted in this movie (insert alcoholism joke here). His character, Taro, the police commissioner is a man of the people elevated in status. He’s educated and thoughtful but also superstitious and fearful. Taro bridges the traditional native culture and the modern. He’s Larry Talbot minus the wolf, though he hogs what little pathos the movie can muster, he’s only the exposition delivery man. Taro could have been an interesting character in the hands of a different actor. Maybe Richardo Montalban? Poor Lon Chaney is in this movie only because his last name is Chaney and that gives the film some marquee value.

Raymond Burr is equally miscast. He performance is all over the place, from subtle to raging melodrama. This was before he became a big star on Perry Mason. He almost got cut from the film due to his weight. Co-star Barbara Payton, who had some clout at the time, lobbied on Burr’s behalf, saving him the role.

While Chaney’s career by this time was heading south and Burr’s was just starting, female lead Barbara Payton’s was just past its zenith. Under contract with Warner Bros, she was loaned out for this picture as punishment for sleazing around set with anyone and everyone. Her promising career was about to sink into a sea of boozing and promiscuity which would eventually lead to her being arrested a few years later for prostitution. Here she’s still quite alluring. You can see why every guy she meets wants her. She’s fine here. This part calls for a pretty face in the femme fatale mode and Payton fits the bill.

Beyond the miscasting Chaney and Burr, the screenplay has problems. Siodmak, the man who pretty much thought up everything you know about werewolves for the 1941 classic The Wolf Man, tries to recycle that same magic here and fails. In The Wolf Man, we’re with Lon Chaney’s Larry Talbot. We sympathize with him. He’s a regular guy carrying an abominable curse. There is no escape.

Conversely Burr’s Chavez is wholly unlikeable. We know he’s coming to a bad end and we’re untroubled by it. Chavez’s possession by the Succarath, in contrast to Talbot’s literal transformation, is largely suggestive, which would be fine if we cared about him. In The Wolf Man, we see everything. He’s frightening. Instead of Jack Peirce’s amazing wolf man make-up, Burr’s Chavez makes due with a costume shop quality gorilla suit. When we do get the monster reveal it seems almost comical.

Jack Broder, the producer of the film, was interested in turning a buck. His stint as a horror film producer was largely an extension of his purchasing the theatrical re-issue right for the Universal Classic horror in the early 1950’s. The ten day shooting schedule left nothing for ambition and art. In a quest to capture dollars, Broder re-titled the film from the classier and more coy sounding The Face in the Water to the sensational, almost exploitative Bride of the Gorilla. I have to admit Broder was right. The only reason I watched it was the title, which is both ridiculous and memorable.

Siodmak went on direct a few more films (The Magnetic Monster, Curucu: Beast of the Amazon, Love Slaves of the Amazons, Ski Fever) and some television, all of which is intriguing for its awfulness. Though Siodmak was a lackluster director, as a writer, his contribution to monster pop culture is immeasurable. He’s the Homer of Universal’s Classic Monsters Illiad.

Starring:
Barbara Payton
Lon Chaney Jr.
Raymond Burr
Tom Conway
Paul Cavanagh

Director:
Curt Siodmak

Screenplay:
Curt Siodmak

 

 

One and a half of five Vincents

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