Edward Dmytryk, 1943
Starring: John Carradine, Evelyn Ankers, Milburn Stone, Acquanetta
A blend of circus drama, mad scientist movie, and werewolf film (except there’s an ape woman instead of a wolf man), this ridiculous outing represents a pretty solid example of what “B movie” meant both to Universal and to American audiences in the early ‘40s. It’s hard to image that the biggest war the world has ever seen was going on during the filming of Captive Wild Woman.
Fred Mason, an animal trainer at the local circus, has recently returned from a safari with a number of new animals. His prize find is a female gorilla named Cheela (unmistakably a man in a suit), who exhibits unusual intelligence and strangely human behavior. Meanwhile his fiancée Beth is concerned because her sister Dorothy has been experiencing a number of health problems and is currently staying at the clinic of renowned endocrinologist, Dr. Walters. Walters meets Cheela and is desperate to buy her, but when the owner of the circus won’t sell, he has her kidnapped. Working with Dorothy’s “over-sexed” glands, Walters injects Cheela with an experimental serum (and a freshly stolen human female brain) that transforms her into a beautiful human woman. Calling her Paula, Walters takes her to the circus where she saves Fred from the big cats. As a result, he gives her a job, but she falls in love with him. His relationship with Beth arouses insane jealousy and her animal instincts, transforming her back into her natural form and resulting in a few murders.
For two reasons, I can’t really say that this is a good movie. First of all, it mercilessly rips off Jacques Tourneur and Val Lewton’s haunting were-cat film The Cat People (1942) -- but it strips away the elements of dread, atmosphere, and psychological terror and only uses the idea that a jealous woman transforms into a beast when her sexual jealousy is aroused. The second reason is that I hate movies with evil apes and monkeys. Though Cheela the gorilla is far from evil and merely acts in accordance with her instincts, I’m just not a fan of simian horror.
There are some other rough spots, namely the fact that the film is padded with footage of animal taming sequences, especially big cats, from other films like The Big Cage (1933). Though these aren’t exactly on the level of Italian movies like Cannibal Holocaust (1980), the scenes still serve as a reminder of how cruelly circus animals were once treated (and still are). It makes no sense to fill out the plot, which practically races by, even though there are a number of things that could have been further developed, such as Cheela/Paula’s character.
The cast does a decent job and is packed with Universal regulars. John Carradine steals the show, as always, as the absolutely frothing-at-the-mouth scientist. Evelyn Ankers (The Wolf Man, much of the Inner Sanctum series) is an average actress, but looks great, thanks to the Vera West costumes, and has a decent command of the female lead role. Acquanetta, dubbed the Venezualan Volcano by Universal despite the fact that she was from Wyoming, is lovely to look at, but is an appallingly bad actress. It makes a certain amount of sense that she’s playing a character who isn’t actually human. Her human-ape transformation scenes are decent and definitely benefit from being designed by Jack Pierce (Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein).
I really don’t think I can recommend Captive Wild Woman, but there are probably plenty of people who will get a kick out of it. There are two sequels, far worse than this film: Jungle Woman (1944) and Jungle Captive (1945), which I couldn’t bring myself to review. In Jungle Woman, Ankers and Aquanetta return and the film sloppily explains that Paula/Cheela didn’t really die, but was revived by an unsuspecting doctor, this time played by the delightful J. Caroll Naish. Paula falls for yet another man and her jealousy again emerges. The less said about the third film, which features none of the original cast, the better.
If you’re really curious, you can find Captive Wild Woman as part of the Universal Horror: Classic Movie Archive, which includes other rare/forgotten horror films like The Black Cat (1941), Man Made Monster, Horror Island, and Night Monster.