RETURN OF THE APE MAN (1944) Blu-ray
Director: Philip Rosen
Olive Films

An exemplary “Poverty Row” horror production which has never been given a legit home video release before, 1944’s RETURN OF THE APE MAN was the second-to-last picture Bela Lugosi starred in for ace B movie producer Sam Katzman for his Banner Pictures Corporation and Monogram Pictures. The series of low budget shockers were dubbed by fans as “The Monogram 9”, and although this comes only a year after THE APE MAN (which had Lugosi hunched over and in full simian make-up) this is a sequel in name only, having nothing to do with the plot and characters of that public domain favorite. Much to the surprise and joy of classic monster movie collectors of a certain age, RETURN OF THE APE MAN now makes its way to the Blu-ray format (as well as DVD), courtesy of Olive Films.

Obsessed with his theories about eternal life, Professor Dexter (Bela Lugosi, THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN) and his younger, more upstanding research partner, Professor John Gilmore (John Carradine, HOUSE OF DRACULA), revive a drunken tramp (Ernie Adams, THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES) that they have had frozen in sub-zero temperatures for four months (and despite his disappearance making newspaper headlines, they get away with it, sending him happily off with a five-dollar bill). Further attempting to prove his theories that life can be sustained indefinitely, Dexter, along with Gilmore, travels to the Arctic (through the miracle of decades-old stock footage). They uncover a frozen prehistoric man embedded in a glacier and bring him back to Dexter’s basement laboratory. When they thaw out the grunting, bearded Neanderthal man (Frank Moran, THE CORPSE VANISHES), he turns out to be a total uncivilized brute that can only be tamed by fire. Keeping the ape man in a cell, Dexter has an idea to transplant a segment of a man’s brain into his skull, and he drugs young Steve Rogers (Michael Ames, VOODOO MAN) — the fiancé of Gilmore’s beautiful niece Anne (Teala Loring, BLUEBEARD) — for such experimental purposes. Steve is spared when Gilmore comes to the rescue, but this incident causes him to cut ties with Dexter. Naturally, the cunning mad scientist double-crosses Gilmore by putting a part of his brain into our unhinged friend, but despite the fact that he now has the partial mind of an intelligent man of science (as well as a classical pianist) and has acquired the power of speech, he’s still a disobedient killing machine that finds it easy enough to bend his prison cell bars and let himself loose on society.

THE RETURN OF THE APE MAN may not be the best of Lugosi’s “Monogram 9”, but frame for frame (and only an hour long) it’s arguably the most fun. The film has all the ingredients that make poverty row schlock-fests irresistible, and unlike most Monogram horrors (and likely due to the success of Universal’s FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN) there’s an actual monster here, albeit a silly but appropriately homely and menacing ape man played by character heavy Moran. George Zucco (who was by this time a name star in Universal and PRC horrors) was slated to play the ape man, but had to back out due to illness. Due to his contract, his name stayed in the credits, so he shares third-billing with Moran even though he only appears in the film for seconds as the ape man (in a scene where he’s lying on the slab) and can only be seen in full make-up in one publicity photo (which appears on the back cover of this Blu-ray) posed in the middle of Lugosi and Carradine. Lugosi is great here, as the fanatical scientist “married to his profession”, whether he’s seen smoking a cigar and being bored at a living room social, his repeated articulating of the word “fool” as only he could, or chasing an ape man down what’s supposed to be a Manhattan street dressed in a tuxedo and holding a blowtorch. For fans of classic horror stars, this is the best cinematic teaming of Lugosi and Carradine you’ll get (they also appeared together in VOODOO MAN the following year and Bela’s final curtain call, THE BLACK SLEEP). Leading man Ames would of course revert back to his real name Tod Andrews to appear in such genre films as TO HELL IT CAME, BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES and THE BABY. Director Phil Rosen was also responsible for SPOOKS RUN WILD (the first pairing of Lugosi and The East Side Kids) as well a handful of the Monogram Charlie Chan programmers of the 1940s.

THE RETURN OF THE APE MAN has never received any kind of home video release before, even through budget companies, as it’s not actually public domain, the fate of many a Monogram horror picture. Olive Films has obtained the rights from Paramount (who now own a handful of Monograms) for this Blu-ray, and that’s cause enough to celebrate, as we’ve only had gray market copies transferred from 16mm prints to contend with in the past. The film is presented full frame (1:33:1) in 1080p HD with Paramount’s elements varying (much like Kino’s Blu-ray presentation of THE INVISIBLE GHOST); it doesn’t look nearly as good as Olive's Blu-ray of VOODOO MAN. There are decent gray scales, black levels are always deep and inky, and there’s plenty of filmic grain on display (and it’s apparent that no DNR was applied, thankfully). Detail and textures are not bad, but they either appear on the softer side or are impressively sharp (on a few rare occasions). Nitpicking aside, the overall presentation is far better than the bootlegs that have been circulating, with just enough speckling, nicks and other blemishes to remind you that you’re still watching a Monogram cheapie. There are no spliced frames or missing footage due to film damage, so the entire show is intact here. The Blu-ray’s English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track has clear enough dialogue and the stock music that you’ve heard a hundred times before also fairs well: all in all a perfectly good track for a Monogram oldie. There are no extras on the disc, but optional English SDH subtitles are included. (George R. Reis)