Monday, October 17, 2011

Captive Wild Woman (1943): or, I'm Going Ape for You, Baby

October Horror Movie Challenge, Day 16!

Daring circus man and animal trainer Fred Mason (Milburn Stone) returns from a 2-year journey with a cargo hold full of big cats, zebras, and one very intelligent gorilla named Cheela (Ray "Crash" Corrigan in one of his patented and excellent ape suits). Girlfriend Beth Coleman (scream queen extraordinaire Evelyn Ankers) is happy to have him back, and introduces him to mysterious Dr. Sigmund Walters (a never-more-dapper John Carradine), a brilliant glandular specialist who has been treating Beth's friend Dorothy (The Big Sleep's Carmen Sternwood herself, Martha Vickers) for an overabundance of "the sex hormone." Of course Dr. Walters is a scientist of the extremely MAD persuasion, and hopes to use Dorothy's hormones and his own surgical know-how to transform Cheela into a human/ape hybrid, which will be the first of a race of supermen to help him rule the world, blah blah blah.

He succeeds beyond his wildest expectations, for when the bandages come off Cheela has become the smokin' hawt Acquanetta. However, when the simian sweetie figuratively goes ape for Fred, the strong (sexual) emotions cause a glandular chaos in her system, which results in her going ape literally. As Dr. Walters targets Beth for his next lethal transplant and Fred finds himself at the mercy of a cage full of storm spooked cats, Cheela's animal and human natures fight to decide the fate of all involved.

They sure don't make 'em like this anymore. Captive Wild Woman is a briskly paced mad science thriller whose one-hour running time is packed with action, thrills, and more than a little post-Code perversity. Director Edward Dmytryk does a nice job juggling the circus and laboratory scenes, and even the lengthy lion-and-tiger-taming sequences (comprised mostly of footage lifted from the 1933 circus flick The Big Cage, according to Tom Weaver's excellent book Universal Horrors) kept me on the edge of my seat. (And would likely be the scariest thing in the movie to a modern, ASPCA-sympathetic viewer.) The half-ape/half-woman makeup by the legendary Jack Pierce is, of course, excellent.

The cast is full of wonderful genre actors of the era, including Fay Helm, who played alongside Ankers a couple years earlier in 1941's The Wolf Man, as Dr. Walter's ill-fated nurse. Carradine gives a remarkably restrained performance as the mad doctor, and Corrigan's ape-acting is great as always. While Acquanetta was billed as "A New Sensation in Savagery!" she's not really given much to do in her non-speaking role--still, her exotic beauty and big, expressive eyes make a definite impression.

A fun second-tier Universal flick I'd been meaning to check out for a long time, and am very glad I did. A great Sunday-afternoon popcorn muncher: 2.25 thumbs.

"Gimme some sugar, baby!"

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