If one is going to make a shitty movie, don’t be a burden on the audience. Get in and get out before people start getting bored. Running time can often be the difference between an amusing jaunt through the world of substandard cinema and a hateful experience. In general: the shorter the better. Other filmmakers should take a lesson from writer/director Curt Siodmak. He went to the extreme with his 1951 flick, Bride of the Gorilla. It tests that general rule about running time, for Siodmak and company brought this sucker in at an astounding 66 minutes. That’s a long episode of Game of Thrones, not a feature film. Yet, I watched the damn thing, and it did indeed pass in little over an hour. And, believe it or not, that was all the time it needed. This is a shitty movie, without any doubt, but Siodmak did make a tidy little package.
In South America (this is a red flag right away — the only gorillas in South America are in zoos), landed aristocrat Klaas Ven Gelder (Paul Cavanaugh) has it all. A sprawling plantation, a beautiful house, a young and beautiful wife (Dina, played by Barbara Payton), and a live-in foreman who has the hots for Dina (Barney, played by Raymond Burr). Maybe that last thing isn’t so good. In fact, Barney turns out to be serious trouble.
Klaas knows what Barney and his wife have been up to, and sends Barney packing. But Barney confronts Klaas in the garden of the jungle estate and murders Klaas, with the aid of a venomous snake. The local police chief, Taro (Lon Chaney, Jr.), can’t prove that Klaas was murdered, even though everyone knows it — including a witch (Gisela Werbisek) who happens to be hanging around the estate all the time. She witnessed Barney kill Klaas and, combined with Barney’s earlier jilting of the witch’s granddaughter, puts a curse on him. Barney will slowly lose his mind, convinced he is turning into a fearsome ape.
Soon after Barney and Dina get married. Barney takes over running the plantation. But the curse begins to take hold. Barney spends more and more time in the jungle. Animals begin turning up mutilated. The locals are convinced a mythical beast is loose in the jungle, when the beast is their very own jefe. Barney’s mind continues to deteriorate, leading to denouement out in the jungle.
While watching this movie, I was struck at how similar the plot is to any number of stories from EC Comics of the era. A restless wife falling into the arms of a trusted employee was a trope in Crime SuspenStories, while adding the native witchcraft angle was a staple of the horror comics like Tales from the Crypt and The Haunt of Fear. Those familiar with EC’s output will find it impossible not to see the parallels.
EC wasn’t known for narrative sophistication, though, and neither should this flick be. It’s all pretty rote and 1950s. The only odd thing about the plot is that there is some amount of nuance. For instance, it’s up to the viewer to decide Dina’s level of culpability in the whole affair. The film doesn’t make the decision for us by making her situation black and white. But that’s about the nicest thing remaining to be said about this flick.
Payton and Burr had no chemistry at all, which make those painfully awkward love scenes of cinema’s past even more unendurable. It’s like watching cinderblocks kiss.
Burr must have held a patent on seriousness. There is no actor in the history of Hollywood who had a higher scowl to smile ratio than Burr. His acting style was one of oppressive seriousness, which made him perfect for the role of a high-ranking official during an emergency. In the role of Barney, it just makes him look like an anger junky. It’s hard to gauge the quality of the performance when it’s so easy to get lost in its tough guy caricature.
However, it is Lon Chaney, Jr. who is the shittiest, and therefore, the most precious, aspect of this flick. Chaney is of English and French ancestry, yet there he was, playing a South American cop. Not only that, Siodmak’s screenplay is chock full of philosophic observations from Taro. In the words of Taro, regarding the hex put on Barney, “My native mind is filled with these superstitions.” Siodmak couldn’t quite nail the dialogue, and Chaney was an incompetent ham, so these sequences are high comedy, especially for those of us who find our forebears’ racism pretty funny.
For a movie that’s so short, it feels longer. Normally, that’s a bad thing to write about a movie. In this case, it means that the film is complete. There’s no fat to trim and not much else to add. It’s something that Siodmak got right. But there’s oh, so much that is bad, mainly the dialogue and the people who speak it. Despite the small praise, Bride of the Gorilla slips down into the bottom half of the Watchability Index, at #146, in between The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia, and Samurai Cop.