Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Captive Wild Woman (1943)

I’ve always said that you can’t go wrong with a movie that features a guy in a gorilla suit. And if the movie also features John Carradine as a mad scientist, you really should have a sure-fire winner on your hands. Universal’s 1973 picture Captive Wild Woman is proof that in sufficiently incompetent hands even such guaranteed ingredients for success can let you down.

Fred Mason (Milburn Stone) works for a circus, capturing wild animals and training them. He has just returned from Africa with no less than twenty lions and tigers, plus an added bonus, the most fearsome jungle creature of all, a gorilla. Mason dreams of not merely training the animals, but actually doing a major circus act featuring both lions and tigers (which as everybody knows are natural enemies in their jungle home).

His girlfriend Beth is worried about her sister, and has had her placed in an exclusive sanatorium run by the famous specialist Dr Sigmund Walters. Dr Walter (John Carradine) believes that glands are not merely the answer to all human illness but also the key to the creation of a super race. Through Beth he gets to meet the circus people, and to se the animals being trained. He is very excited by Cheela, the female gorilla. She could prove very useful to him in his experiments.

Being a mad scientist he immediately hits on the idea of creating a gorilla/woman hybrid. It turns out that Beth’s sister Dorothy was suffering from an excess of sex hormones, so if he can inject her surplus hormones into the gorilla he should end up with an ape-woman. He’ll need a human cerebellum though, but fortunately he has an annoying female assistant who is starting to cause trouble (some nonsense about medical ethics) so has no problem getting his hands on the requited human brain. The result is just what he had hoped for - Cheela has now taken on the form of a human woman. A beautiful, strangely exotic woman. He christens her Paula Dupree. And being a mad scientist, he has hypnotic powers over her.

It turns out that Paula has a strange effect on lions and tigers. This is presumably because they’ve seen Tarzan movies and know that gorillas are the king (or in this case queen) of the jungle. Fred decides that Paula could be useful to him in his animal act, exercising a calming effect on the big cats. This works quite well, but unfortunately Paula isn’t quite human. She has strange animal passions and lusts. She has a particularly strong lust for Fred, but Fred has this annoying girlfriend. The expected plot developments play our exactly as you would expect.

The biggest problem the movie has is the very extended animal training sequences. They’re much too padded out, and modern audiences will find them distastefully cruel. They’re mostly there to disguise the extreme thinness of the plot.

This movie reminds me a lot of another movie in the same Universal boxed set, Night Monster. It’s a basically good idea very poorly developed. The idea of human/animal hybrids wasn’t original, but making the hybrid an attractive female with a confusing mixture of human and animal emotions and lusts was a promising variation on the basic idea. Sadly though the movie doesn’t focus enough on Paula herself, so we don’t really get to know her well enough to feel her tragedy. Part of the problem may have been that Paula was played by Universal’s new discovery, an exotic beauty named Acquanetta. The studio billed her as The Venezuelan Volcano although she was actually born in Wyoming. It’s difficult to judge her acting based on this film because she’s given so little to do and has no lines, but one suspects that the studio had little confidence in her ability to do anything more than look exotic and glamorous.

John Carradine does his best to rescue the movie, giving one of his best insane scientist performances, and being even more crazed and monomaniacal than usual. The other performances are fairly forgettable.

Edward Dmytryk directed, but the low budget and the use of stock footage for many of the animal sequences mean he has few opportunities to show any real flair. At only 61 minutes the movie still feels much too long, but at the same time the important scenes involving Paula really needed more time.

It’s a moderately entertaining time-killer that could almost succeed as a silly fun camp classic if it were not for the unpleasantness of the animal scenes.

The DVD transfer is very good, but I’m really starting to wonder if the effort put into this Universal Horror: Classic Movie Archive boxed set was worthwhile. So far I’ve seen two of the five movies, and they’ve both been duds.

1 comment:

Samuel Wilson said...

I have very vague memories of seeing one of the Paula movies in my childhood, but I can't remember if it was this one or one of the others. Even then it struck me as very strange when a lot of stuff would strike a kid as strange. Thanks for the review.