Face the Spinal Frontier


Bela Lugosi wants your spinal fluid. But it’s not like that makes him a bad person. For Bela is afflicted with an unfortunate condition, the result of peculiar off-screen experiments which have left him part-simian, part-Hungarian. Bela is THE APE MAN.

In fact, this terrible medical mishap seems to have resulted only in a full beard, hairy sleeves, and a worrying tendency to sleep with a gorilla. Perhaps he’s not so much a mutant as  a colossal pervert. But anyhow, the upshot is, he needs human spinal fluid extracted from a live victim donor, and anyone who has their spine drained will suffer instant death (WordPress doesn’t do actual blood-dripping letters, but I want you to imagine them in that last word).


THE APE MAN, manufactured by celebrated bottom-feeding indie producer Sam Katzman, is possibly the dingiest film I’ve ever seen. Though the plot is ludicrous, and sends itself up in the most blatant manner (one erratic idiot character who lopes purposelessly through the action for the whole film, declares himself to be the author at the end), all nascent laughter dies and decomposes in your throat, done in by the effluvial miasma of shame and dissipation hanging over the proceedings like a urine-soaked veil. Nothing good happened to anybody in this film. Lugosi was on his way down, sinking into formaldehyde-swigging alcoholism while gamely attempting a physical performance that strives to suggest the neanderthal, attaining only the symptoms of serious biological depression. The rest of the cast are on their way up — but this ninth circle of the cinematic inferno is as high as they got.

Fiona couldn’t watch this, and young Louis, our ward, observed that the soundtrack made him feel like he had Q-tips in his ears. Billy Graham once suggested, ludicrously, that the very celluloid of THE EXORCIST was infested with a physical evil. Preposterous of course, but I would readily believe that THE APE MAN’s reels are saturated with a pervasive photochemical form of despair, a grimy liquid misery hardened by experience and then projected forth as light, but a strange light that actually makes rooms grow dimmer, more subdued, nearer to death.

I had to watch THE APE MAN, even though I knew from extracts how soul-besmirching it is, because I’ve vowed (“I swear by Kharis and Imhotep…”) to see every movie depicted in Denis Gifford’s horror movie book. But you don’t have to go near it, and I’d advise you not to unless you’re suffering a massive excess of spinal fluid and you need an absorbent substance upon which to vent.

I mean, I still quite enjoyed it, but it’s not as good as THE SEVEN SAMURAI.


Study this image. Can’t you just feel the hope evacuating itself from every orifice in your body?

28 Responses to “Face the Spinal Frontier”

  1. Arthur S. Says:

    Bela looks a dead ringer for Jean-Louis Barrault in THE TESTAMENT OF DR. CORDELIER. And the plot sounds like BOUDU + MAX MON AMOUR.

    I have to say that I have never liked Lugosi as an actor or a star and never understood the great fuss over him. His only great film and performance was THE BLACK CAT and Karloff wipes the floor with him on that one.

  2. Oh, that’s not Lugosi in the bottom image. The guy with the Barrault-like build is the weirdo who turns out to be the alleged screeenwriter.

    I just ran The Gorilla and Lugosi’s very good in that. You could see how he could have played straight roles — it would have been nice to see him in a noir. I prefer Karloff myself but I don’t necessarily think weighing them against each other is productive.

  3. I liked his makeup as a manimal in The Island of Lost Souls, which is what the first image brought to mind. His face was more thoroughly hirsute, not to mention frizzy. Didn’t Ray Davies write a Kinks song based on this character? Probably not, since the tune’s more chirpy than dingy. Lugosi’s okay, he never set my world on fire but I can understand his iconic status as one of the greats of the horror film. It’s not so much him I like but rather him in context.

  4. I like seeing him in things like Ninotchka, a bittersweet glimpse of what might have been.

    The Ray Davies ref sounds right, but I can’t quite place the song. Certainly would imagine a Ray D apeman doing a lot more leaping around than Lugosi gets up to.

  5. Here it is, and quite a pepper-upper too, to bad Lugosi never got to hear this…

  6. That would lighten the gloom of a Sam Katzman production! I consider it a certainty, based on hearing the song and viewing the film, that Davies never saw the movie. It would be simply impossible to feel that upbeat afterwards.

  7. I suspect Ray Davies was a true lover of cinema, then and now…

  8. Ray’s turn in Absolute Beginners is a highlight.

  9. I remember hearing Celluloid Heroes in my late teens on the radio. I was working the midnight shift as the desk clerk in a halfway house in the early Seventies, and had the radio keeping me company through the night. It moves me now just as it did then. Simplistic, sentimental, yes, but still effective nonetheless.

  10. There’s always a bit of wit hanging around in Davies’ stuff though — as romantic as he gets, there’s a slight distance permitted by the humour.

    Saw him live a couple years ago and he was terrific.

  11. I also saw him live within the past couple years, for free at an outdoor venue not far from where I live… There’s both wit and heart in his music, which is why he’s an enduring favorite if mine. Love the song “Days”, almost breaks my heart every time I hear it.

  12. “Terry met Julie
    Waterloo station. . .”

  13. Love it… “Waterloo Sunset’s fine…”

  14. My Davies expert in Brooklyn denies the Terence Stamp-Julie Christie connection: Terry and Julie were a relative of Davies and his girlfriend, I believe.

    But the connection, even if spurious, between 60s English pop and 60s English film stars is quite pleasing.

  15. Christopher Says:

    I used to have that Kinks album with Celuloid Heroes..”Everybody’s in Show-biz”…I always loved it when Rock stars sang about old movies..It helped inspire in me that its ok for my generation take an interest and pursue these kind of things!..
    Yeah..they should put the Kinks Apeman video on as an extra on the blueray special edition version of The Apeman..:o))…What is it about Monogram and their love for gorilla suits?

  16. In the early Sixties DC Comics discovered that if they put a gorilla on the cover of a comic book, most ANY comic book, then it would sell more copies. So that’s pretty much what they did. The idea of Blu-ray Monogram films boggles the mind… can you imagine the overabundance of public domain films on Blu-ray? Now that’s some kind of craziness there. But who’s to say it can’t happen?
    There was once a rumor of a Brian Eno/Julie Christie tryst, but I can’t recall the established legitimacy of such a dalliance.

  17. Christopher Says:

    I wonder if the thinking was at those Poverty Row studios,was that if they could sink a good amount of money in a decent Gorilla suit,they’d have a monster they could use again and again..Worked for me..I couldn’t wait for a gorilla to show up in the Three Stooges..”Could this be the day they will have the gorilla? ?:oo??”

  18. I find it slightly hard to figure out why gorillas and bats featured so prominently in horror movies, since they never looked convincing. But then, a producer I know embarked on a no-budget werewolf movie, when the werewolf if probably THE monster you can’t do without a decent budget (especially as you need to do a transformation or two as well as the beast itself).

    It looked kind of like a highland cow.

  19. Christopher Says:

    …A highland cow…could be a frightning thing in its own right..Living here in Texas and being a huge outdoor lover,I’ve camped many times on land leased out by Ranchers..Few things are more disturbing than sitting alone by a campfire at night and suddenly hearing the shuffle of feet coming your way and then behold a pair of large eyeballs set far apart from each other and hovering a mere 5 feet from ground,come out of the darkness and gleem at you from across the firelight! =:oO

  20. My mother has a morbid fear of cows.

  21. Arthur S. Says:

    I love the Kinks a lot too. Actually I’ve only recently got into them.

    “Girls will be boys and boys will be girls
    It’s a mixed-up all shook up world except for LO-LA.”

    In Philippe Garrel’s LES AMANTS REGULIERS he uses the stunning THIS TIME TOMORROW in full to create probably the only successful musical number to rock music.

  22. Hmm, let me think. I guess it depends what you allow as a musical number. And rock music. I suspect bits of Velvet Goldmine might fit the bill — it’s not my favourite Haynes film but some of the numbers are beautiful. And I’d definitely include bits of Tommy — Tina Turner, Elton John, Paul Nicholas.

    But you’re right, in that it’s much harder to think of good examples than you’d expect.

  23. Arthur S. Says:

    Maybe PERFORMANCE, that Mick Jagger song counts but that seems like a music video edited into the film rather than a musical number. Music videos narrate the song just like that, whereas musical numbers peform the song as part of a whole. That bit in Les Amants Reguliers is firmly an example of the latter.

  24. What’s been lacking is a real collaboration between a great songwriter/performer and a great filmmaker, where the numbers are at the service of the film. I get the impression that Bowie was keen to make that happen, but couldn’t find the right collaborator. And it would have had to be a collaboration on Bowie’s terms, which may be the problem.

  25. I’ve been watching these two clips obsessively since last night, the first has strings and horns, and the second is possibly the most thrilling piece of music I’ve ever seen performed live…

    My apologies to anyone who feels I might be a bit self-indulgent in posting these, but hey, what the hell…

  26. Thanks for the tunefulness. I’ve loved all the Garrel extracts I’ve seen, time to stop dipping my toe in and take the plunge.

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