The Neanderthal Man: Inspector Henderson goes ape
For those viewers who are wondering if actor Robert Shayne ever incarnated another role besides that of Inspector Henderson on TV’s Adventures of Superman, a quick skim of his IMDb credits will reveal the answer to be a most definitive “yes.” Besides playing the part of the tough-talking best friend of Clark Kent with ever-increasing frequency on that show, which ran from 1952 – ’58, Shayne, it seems, has dozens upon dozens of film and TV appearances to his credit. But those fans who would like to see Shayne as the top-billed, leading-man star of a theatrically exhibited motion picture should be made aware of The Neanderthal Man, which was released by United Artists in June 1953. Despite its DVD availability today via an outfit known as Cheezy Flicks, the picture — minor entertainment though it might be — is yet intelligently scripted, well shot, and finely acted by its largely “no name” cast.
In the film, Shayne (here, for some unfathomable reason, listed in the cast credits as “Robert Shane,” and sporting a moustache that makes him initially unrecognizable, although that wonderful voice cannot be missed) plays the part of Prof. Clifford Groves, who, soon after we first encounter him, is being scoffed at by his fellow members of The Naturalists Club. Groves has just put forth his pet theory that primitive man had a brain just as advanced as our own, and with complex emotions to match. In an attempt to prove his theory that the mind of Java or Neanderthal man was just as capable of mentation as that of modern-day Homo sapiens, Groves attempts a “reactivation of the dormant cells of the mind of Man.” He later injects himself with his new serum, and the viewer has little doubt as to the outcome … especially since a supposedly extinct saber-toothed tiger has lately been spotted around the professor’s isolated home in the Sierras! And indeed, Groves does soon turn into a vaguely apelike creature, with an enormous noggin and with decidedly homicidal tendencies! Can visiting naturalist Dr. Ross Harkness (Richard Crane, who some may recall from 1959’s The Alligator People) and Groves’ daughter Jan (pretty Joyce Terry) put an end to the slayings before the sheriff, game warden and understandably frightened townspeople shoot the prehistoric marauder down?
The Neanderthal Man has at least three sequences that make it worthy of commendation, despite the Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide‘s assertion that the film is “colorless and cheap.” In the first, that saber-tooth jumps atop the windshield of the game warden’s car, and the close-up shot of its snarling mug is fairly startling. In the second, Harkness discovers a series of photos of Cella — Groves’mute, Mexican housekeeper — in the professor’s lab. Cella had been given an early, experimental version of the good doctor’s serum, and her increasingly hideous visage in the snapshots really is something to see. In the third memorable scene, the Neanderthal Man carries off sexy waitress Nola, here played by cult actress Beverly Garland, who gets to scream her head off in this, her first appearance in a horror film. (Beverly would also go on to star in The Alligator People six years later.) But the film has several other fine points to offer. Its transformation scenes are reasonably well done, and the FX by Jack Rabin and David Commons are pleasing. The B&W cinematography here by Stanley Cortez is at times most impressive, too (Cortez also lent his skills to such classic pictures as Smash-up: The Story of a Woman, The Three Faces of Eve and The Angry Red Planet).
Director E. A. Dupont has brought his film in in a no-nonsense manner (the compact affair clocks in at a mere 78 minutes), while the musical background by Albert Glasser really does keep things atmospheric. Glasser’s “psychotronic” credits, by the way, are MOST impressive, including contributions to such wonderful ’50s sci-fi fare as Monster From Green Hell, Beginning of the End, The Cyclops, The Amazing Colossal Man (all from 1957!), Giant From the Unknown, Attack of the Puppet People, War of the Colossal Beast AND Earth vs. the Spider (all from 1958!). Finally, the film’s script, by co-writers/co-producers Aubrey Wisberg and Jack Pollexfen, is a bright one, and never insults the viewer’s intelligence. But ultimately, the film does belong to Shayne, who makes the most of his leading role here; unsympathetic as Groves may be — he insults his peers and houseguest Harkness, is terse with his daughter and dismissive of his fiancée Ruth (gorgeous Doris Merrick) — Shayne yet makes us feel for the poor, misguided genius. Bottom line: Although the theatrical poster for this film engaged in some typical hyperbole for the era (“What primitive passions … what mad desires drove him on? He held them all in the grip of deadly terror … nothing could keep him from this woman he claimed as his own!”), the film itself remains a modestly satisfactory achievement, and is of course required viewing for all fans of Robert Shayne…