Bride of the Gorilla (1951)
BRIDE OF THE GORILLA
Notes: If Curt Siodmak hadn’t written this too, it could have been considered a plagiarism of his hit from ten years earlier, The Wolf Man.
Barney Chavez: Raymond Burr
Dina Van Gelder: Barbara Payton
Commissioner Taro: Lon Chaney, Jr.
Voodoo Priestess Al-long: Gisela Werbisek
Klaas Van Gelder: Paul Cavanagh
Doctor Viet: George Sanders wannabe Tom Conway
Larina: Carol Varga
Gorilla: Steve Calvert
Written and Directed: Curt Siodmak
Produced: Jack Broder
Assistant Producer: Herman Cohen
Summary: Stock footage of various animals precedes Lon Chaney’s narrative intro: “This is jungle. As young as day, as old as time.” “Beauty can be … deadly.” And we are to hear a tale in which “The jungle took the law into its own hands.” He awkwardly uses the phrase “verdant labyrinth” and waxes eloquent but befuddled about “natural law.” We see the ruins of Van Gelder manor, and a ceiling fan fallen in the dust.
A humorless and perpetually threatening Barney Chavez, plantation manager to old man Klaas (Class?) Van Gelder (one who gelds?), grumbles about problems with workmen and glances fondly back to the time of slavery. “Aren’t we all slaves?” “Not me, I’m free.” What is apparently supposed to be passion seems more like intimidation as he tells Dina Van Gelder that the jungle is not an appropriate place for a fine lady like herself. She should be wearing “pretty things.” Why, there are even bars in the windows. She defends herself: “My life is here with my husband.”
Report comes of further worker trouble and a man has died. We hear that “White people can’t live too long in the jungle.” Barney Chavez nearly brawls with another guest but Dina insists, “Don’t fight before dinner.” Dina ropes Barney into a conversation she was having about marriage. “Marriage is a contract. A civil contract,” is Barney’s declaration. She wants to include love somehow in the equation.
At the dinner table, Klaas Van Gelder reads a fairly dark biblical selection. There’s mention of a smallpox outbreak locally, and Van Gelder, clearly fed up with Barney, fires him. Barney non-chalantly requests his dinner first, but the tensions force everyone from the table, having had only a few sips of water.
On his way out of the house, Barney spurns a local girl, Larina. Meanwhile, the local doctor, Viet, tries to calm down Van Gelder regarding the supposed sparks of passion between his wife and Barney: “A woman buried in a place like this. [No wonder she] gets a little mixed up.” Van Gelder rants: “Barney Chavez was like a beast, an animal with animal instincts.”
An old voodoo priestess (really a jungle gypsy) named Al-long, though she chides, “I warned you to stay with your people,” vows vengeance for Larina’s heartbreak: “The jungle shall hunt him to his death.” Barney confronts Van Gelder and completes the biblical excerpt concerning revenge. Van Gelder punches Barney, who returns the favor but punches the old man into the path of an oncoming snake! Van Gelder dies, as the voodoo priestess looks on. Barney returns to the house and proposes to Dina that they run away: “The world’s much bigger than this jungle.”
Police Commissioner Taro (Lon Chaney) is told that Van Gelder died of suffocation and shock brought on by the venom. Barney is belligerent. The jungle gypsy saw Van Gelder die but declares to all that Chavez was in Dina’s room the whole time. The Commissioner, appropo of nothing, ruminates aloud on feeling alienated from his own people: “I seem to be standing outside their code of law.”
The gypsy possesses an illegal “plant of evil,” used for spells. It wards off sickness and curses, but having it in one’s possession is also a curse. A policeman insists, “I don’t believe in black magic.” It’s a heck of a juicy plant, and the gypsy squeezes about a martini-glass full of evil juice.
Barney and Dina are married now, celebrating their reception, and the gypsy provides a drink “for the master.” Commissioner Taro has Dina sign a document with what he considers her real name, Van Gelder. When it’s Barney’s turn he sees his hand on the document begins to turn into the hand of an ape. He runs into another room, followed by the doctor. His hand is now okay, but he’s in a panic to be alone.
Later in the bedroom with Dina, she notices his distraction. “Sorry you married me?” “No, why should I be?” he responds, apprehensively. The jungle noises get to him, sounding like music. He can identify particular birds and claims he can hear snakes out there. Despite Dina’s protest, “You can’t go in the jungle at this time of night,” he runs off into the jungle. We see a snake again. He sees his hands transforming into ape hands. There’s a reflection in the water of an ape.
Barney is discovered unconscious in the garden. He is brought to bed, muttering “Not my hands.” The doctor asks Dina, “Happy?” “Very.” But recap of the shock-and-suffocation diagnosis on Van Gelder introduces tension. “A woman always knows a man’s feelings about her,” warns Dina. She insists, “Barney is my husband, for better or worse.”
Doctor Viet speaks next with the Commissioner, who tells him of legends of a creature that tears apart animals with its claws and feeds upon their remains: either a puma, or a giant ape, or “the Sukuroth, the jungle demon.” There’s scapegoat potential here. Then the Commissioner begins babbling again, this time concerning his having gone “to university” where he learned to approach matters with no emotions. Hence his confusion being back among his people. He knows Van Gelder was murdered, but he knows it “emotionally,” he opines. “Barney Chavez will be brought to justice. The jungle will see to that.” A call comes in concerning a death: “It’s killed already? This is serious.” Commissioner Taro, while taking his sweet time putting on his gun belt, invites Doctor Viet along.
Despite his supposed affinity for his people, the Commissioner is insulting and bullying about their having trampled the crime scene. One local reports having seen a big red beast who walked around on two legs. “Like a man?” “No, like a beast that walks like a man” (indicating that the beast is the primary element). To try to capture the creature they have laid traps and used goats for bait.
Barney seems to undergo a transformation. He sees an ape in the full-length mirror and punches it. Dina, fully clothed, is asleep at the foot of her bed. The camera approaches and we see ape hands looming. But upon retreat, Dina awakens and grabs a gun from under her pillow. She goes to the livingroom and shoots wildly out the French doors into the jungle. Viet and the Commissioner disarm her and learn that Chavez is in the jungle again.
Dina searches for Barney with a rifle. She finds him caught in a leg-trap next to a goat. Once bandaged, Barney again proposes they leave for Paris and London. The gypsy woman, deciding like me that there’s too much Raymond Burr and not enough ape, prepares more evil plant-juice.
The ever-intuitive Commissioner Taro, with characteristic arbitrariness in his utterances, remarks, “I’ll be glad when the rains come.” He has more papers for Barney to sign. “I hope it’s the final papers,” says Barney. “We do not sign the final papers,” comes a thoroughly extraneous allusion to coroners’ certificates. Barney and Dina plan to run off to Rio: “The past is dead, stone dead.” Dina insists, “It’ll be all right once we’re out of here.” Doctor Viet asks Dina if Barney takes drugs. Somehow, based on Barney’s dilated eyes, Viet has diagnosed poisoning. The gypsy says, “He went away. I saw him crossing the green, for the jungle.” But “it’s suicide” to be in the jungle at this time. Dina adds, “It’s suicide for me too, waiting for him.” A fat prospective buyer of the plantation wants to move the deal along, but “My husband’s the boss of this house,” insists Dina. The fat man remarks, “Well, I wish my wife could hear that.”
When a dirty Barney returns finally, he has changed his mind and refuses to sell the plantation. He’s fed up with Viet: “He’s in love with you.” Barney has decided that “The jungle’s my house; it belongs to me.” “Out there in the jungle, out there everything’s different.” Barney comments on his hands, his improved hearing, the fact that he “can see further than ever before,” and that he “can climb as if I had wings.” His olefactory senses are keen too: “I can smell a thousand smells.” In the jungle he feels “strong, powerful.” “It’s all in your mind,” cries Dina. “The animals talk to me. I understand them. They’re afraid of me.” But both decide they’re tired and need a nap. “When it’s night, I’ll show you the jungle.”
The workers appear at the door and quit. Afraid that the creature is on the loose, they want their pay. The foreman notes the dried blood on Barney’s hands.
Viet gives Dina a drink and she frets, “He thinks he’s a jungle animal…. He was rational until a few days ago.” Viet is still caught in the chemical paradigm: “He looks to me like a man who’s been poisoned…. There are drugs that cause hallucinations, schizophrenia, manic-depression.” Viet’s theory is that Barney is manifesting his guilt over the murder of Van Gelder: “He has to be put away; he’s dangerous.” If he thinks he’s an animal, then he’ll think he has “the right to kill.” (?) Although Dina insists she is not afraid of Barney, Viet feels it is their duty to “have him placed behind bars.” Viet acknowledges that he is in love with Dina. But Barney “is my husband, for better or worse” — a sentiment that didn’t seem to apply to her previous marriage.
The gypsy prepares more evil juice. Barney raves to Dina that “Death can’t touch me.” He tells Dina, “You don’t know the jungle.” “Yes I do, and I hate it. I hate it more than any woman who’d take you away from me.” Barney acknowledges that Dina hates the jungle, and “that’s why it hates you. It wouldn’t protect you.” Though Dina reminds Barney of his promises to love her forever, he runs off. She follows. He turns to her — “How do you like my jungle?” — and assures her that he’d rather be shot than go back.
Viet, sporting a rifle, enters the house calling for Dina. Taro is there, having discovered the plant and noting that the gypsy is responsible (though he’ll never discover the motive). The two decide to track Barney out into the jungle. Taro is ready: “I know the jungle, Doctor. Out there my senses are those of an animal.”
In the jungle, Dina shoots at nothing in particular. We follow, through a hand-held camera, her panicked running. She screams and falls unconscious. We see an ape hand. A leopard roars. An ape seems to be carrying Dina. She screams again, and Doc and Taro head towards the sound. They shoot repeatedly into a leafy tree. Out falls Barney, and Dina. Barney crawls to the water’s edge and sees his reflection: an ape face. No one else sees this, and he collapses, dead. Dina seems okay but it’s unclear. The film ends with more bizarre narration from Lon Chaney, focused again on jungle law, “like something that’s been haunting the earth for millions of years.”
Commentary: The film should have been called The Curse of the Were-Ape. In any case, it’s disappointingly chatty and largely without deep, significant lines that might give one the impression of subtle psychological levels. Unlike with The Wolf Man, Siodmak has decided here to make the metamorphosis entirely delusional on Barney’s part. Therefore the audience gets insufficient footage of the ape-suit. Although ee get some subjective shots in which ape hands appear from our own perspective, the one scene in which we glimpse the ape carrying Dina violates the intended psychology of the film.
It is interesting that guilt manifests in alienated hands, as with the Macbeth phenomenon.Otherwise, what is this guilt? Barney never seems sorry for the murder, nor does he seem to be repressing it either. Is the guilt Oedipal? (The old authoritative father figure is killed by the main character who subsequently marries the widow.)
The worst muddle is the “jungle law” insistence. What kills Barney is not mysterious “jungle law” — it’s a gypsy with plant-juice and a lot of bullets. And we never find out why the house was in ruins at the start of the film. The only positive review concerning this film has more to do with the enjoyment of watching it for the first time with a class full of Monster Studies students who also laughed at the absurdities.