Captive Wild Woman directed by Edward Dmytryk
1942 had been a very good year for the Universal horror film, with the releases of The Ghost of Frankenstein, Invisible Agent, Night Monster and The Mummy’s Tomb, and as 1943 began, and America entered what was very possibly the bleakest year of the WW2 era, the studio continued to pump out scarifying entertainments for its audiences. In March of that year, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was released; June saw the premiere of Captive Wild Woman, the first film in what would eventually be a trilogy; August saw the studio’s rendition of The Phantom of the Opera; October would witness the opening of Son of Dracula; and November would see the studio’s release of The Mad Ghoul. (December ’42, I might add, was also the month in which producer Val Lewton, at rival studio RKO, began to offer the public his own brand of unique horror films, starting with Cat People and continuing into 1943 with I Walked With a Zombie, The Leopard Man, The Seventh Victim and The Ghost Ship … a serious challenge to Universal’s dominance in the horror market.) Of that Universal quintet, Captive Wild Woman was the one that this viewer had never seen before, and since the film stars two of the preeminent horror players of that decade, Evelyn Ankers and John Carradine, it was with great anticipation that I recently plopped the DVD in to watch at home. And while the film did not, unfortunately, quite live up to my expectations of greatness, it yet proved to be more than an entertaining experience.
The film introduces us to wild-animal hunter and trainer Fred Mason (Milburn Stone, who most will recognize as Doc Adams on TV’s Gunsmoke, but who also appeared in The Mad Ghoul; this film’s sequel of the following year, Jungle Woman; and 45’s The Frozen Ghost), who has just returned from a two-year trip to Africa. He is greeted on the docks by his girlfriend, pretty blonde Beth Colman (Universal star Evelyn Ankers, the Chilean-born British-American actress who was perhaps the foremost “scream queen” of the ‘40s, and who would ultimately appear in such horror fests as ‘41’s Hold That Ghost and The Wolfman; The Ghost of Frankenstein; ‘43’s Son of Dracula, The Mad Ghoul and Weird Woman; ‘44’s The Invisible Man’s Revenge; as well as The Frozen Ghost), who gives him the sad news that her sister Dorothy (Martha Vickers, perhaps best known to filmgoers from her role in the 1946 film noir classic The Big Sleep) has recently been suffering from some kind of glandular disorder and been sent to the gloomy old pile known as the Crestview Sanatorium. This hospital is run by a cadaverous and mustachioed gentleman named Sigmund Walters (Carradine, whose other Universal credits that decade would include The Invisible Man’s Revenge, ‘44’s The Mummy’s Ghost and House of Frankenstein, and ‘45’s House of Dracula; he would play the Count himself in those last two films). While Fred gets down to the business of training his new animals at Whipple’s Circus, owned by the gruff but lovable Fred Whipple (Lloyd Corrigan, who would appear in Universal’s She-Wolf of London three years later), Dr. Walters gets down to his own less-wholesome business: that of using the glandular secretions of various animals to change living matter into whatever shape and arrangement he devises!
After stealing an enormous gorilla named Cheela from the Whipple Circus (and murdering the poor sap who had done the job for him), he injects Dorothy’s glandular secretions into the brute, and transforms the ape into … something else. When his pretty assistant, Nurse Strand (Fay Helm, who had appeared the previous year in both Night Monster and The Wolf Man), objects to the proceedings, saying that the doctor has gone too far, and that the new creature might look like a human being but will always be a wild animal, the doctor kills her outright and transplants her brain into Cheela’s noggin. Thus, the wild gorilla is transformed into a beautiful brunette whom the doctor introduces to his friends at the circus as Paula Dupree (and played by the South Carolina-born actress Acquanetta, nee Mildred Davenport, who would go on to be dubbed, for some strange reason, “The Venezuelan Volcano” and who would appear in Universal’s Jungle Woman and Dead Man’s Eyes the next year). Paula seems to have a tranquilizing effect on the lions and tigers that Fred is endeavoring to train, and is thus hired by Whipple to stand by in case of trouble. But trouble looms when Paula, who never speaks a single word, becomes jealous of the loving relationship between Fred and Beth. In a rage, she begins to revert back to her ape form, and later, in some bizarre-looking hybrid form of gorilla and woman, goes to Beth’s bedroom at night to kill…
Now, in a film that purports to be one of horror, Captive Wild Woman unfortunately only boasts a few scenes that might be deemed even remotely scary. The scene just mentioned above, in which the half-reverted Paula creeps into Beth’s bedroom at night, is surely one of them, to which I might add the scenes of Mason getting into the cage with those big cats. And indeed, this film features some of the nastiest-looking tigers and lions that you have ever seen (“pretty vicious looking,” Walters rightfully opines of them), which Mason endeavors to train with whip, pistol and chair. These scenes comprise a good bit of the running time of the film (which I believe only runs to a brief 60 minutes) but are absolutely riveting. Of course, Milburn Stone would never have consented to get within 100 feet of those vicious animals, and so professional animal tamer Clyde Beatty stands in for the actor in the film’s long shots; sadly, the insertions of Beatty for Stone are more than a little obvious. But other than that, the film does not offer much in the way of frights.
Still, it has plenty enough to offer. Ankers, for one, has rarely looked more gorgeous, and her character here is both levelheaded and spunky. Carradine makes for a wonderfully hissable villain, and Cheela the gorilla is surely an imposing-looking creation. The big ape is here played by Ray “Crash” Corrigan, the professional stuntman and actor who, utilizing his own gorilla costumes, played a giant ape in around two dozen films, including Tarzan and His Mate (’34) and the wonderful Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (’52), and who is also fondly remembered for portraying the title monster in the 1958 sci-fi classic It! The Terror From Beyond Space. The film has been helmed in a very streamlined manner by Canadian director Edward Dmytryk, who had given us the wonderful Boris Karloff film The Devil Commands in ’41, and who would later be responsible for such classic film noirs as Murder, My Sweet (’44), Cornered (’45), Crossfire (’47), and The Sniper (’52), as well as such cinematic classics as The Caine Mutiny (’54), Raintree County (’57), The Young Lions (’58) and Walk on the Wild Side (’62). The film’s screenplay by Griffin Jay (who was responsible for such Universal films as ‘40’s The Mummy’s Hand, ‘42’s The Mummy’s Tomb, and The Mummy’s Ghost) does not waste our time with nonessentials, and the film’s lensing, by cinematographer George Robinson (who would ultimately leave his mark on such Universal creations as ‘39’s Son of Frankenstein, The Mummy’s Tomb, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Son of Dracula, ‘44’s House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, and the world’s foremost camp classic, ‘44’s Cobra Woman), is often a thing of genuine beauty, most particularly the nighttime shots.
And yet, despite the solid acting contributions by the film’s players, and the more-than-professional talents of the picture’s filmmakers, Captive Wild Woman remains at best a minor installment in the Universal horror canon, and it is difficult to believe that such a lesser film would spawn no fewer than two sequels. In the first sequel, Jungle Woman, Ankers and Acquanetta return, but the latter this time portrays an ape woman named not Cheela, but Cheena. In the third film of the series, 1945’s Jungle Captive, Paula is portrayed by an actress named Vicky Lane, who this viewer has not previously encountered. Word on the street has it that both of these sequels are even lesser films than the original, which I am telling you here is nothing to get overly excited about to begin with. Still, as a Universal horror completist, I would certainly be interested in catching up with them one day. I am particularly interested in seeing the gorgeous Ankers in another of her featured roles, and am curious to see whether or not Acquanetta gets to have a single word of dialogue in the second film. To be fair, though, hers is a compelling presence in Captive Wild Woman, without a single word of dialogue to her credit. And she might just have the nicest pair of legs (excuse me … in ‘40s parlance, that would be “gams”) that you have seen on screen in a very long time … a special effect in their own right! Indeed, the sight of Acquanetta in her minidress might just make any male in the audience cry into the night like a howler monkey himself!
I’m interested in the guy who played the ape and had his own costumes!
Well, Marion, here’s the Wikipedia entry on Ray “Crash” Corrigan, including a list of every film in which he appeared as a gorilla…. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ray_%22Crash%22_Corrigan