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Sunday, October 27, 2013

Captive Wild Woman (1943) review


John Carradine (Dr. Sigmund Walters), Evelyn Ankers (Beth Colman), Milburn Stone (Fred Mason), Acquanetta (Paula Dupree/Ape Creature)

Directed by Edward Dmytryk

The Short Version: One of Uni-horrors underrated variants is this bizarre concoction of mad scientist ideology mixed with stunning lion and tiger taming via Clyde Beatty's THE BIG CAGE (1933). Beautiful Arapaho Acquanetta got her lead starlet status off to a hair-raising start as the result of despicable David Carradine's tampering with female glands and a preoccupation with primates. A bestiality subtext is toned down, and barely noticeable during the films brief 60 minutes. Jack Pierce shows off some awesome ape makeup on a few occasions. Animal lovers may cringe at some of the circus sequences, but if you ever wanted to see a lion and a tiger fight in a cage, this is your movie. Even with its brisk pace, some may not find the film so wild after all with its limited monster moments.

Fred Mason returns from Africa after a two year jaunt, and brings a number of wild animals back from his expedition. Among these are a female gorilla named Cheela and a deadly, dominating lion named Nero. A noted, yet crazed endocrinologist named Dr. Sigmund Walters makes a monetary offer to Mason for Cheela, but he refuses. The mad physician abducts the primate and uses it for glandular experiments involving female hormones. Walters transforms Cheela into a beautiful human woman and gives her the name of Paula Dupree. Walters introduces Paula to Mason, who is unaware of the doctors sinister experiments. Paula soon falls in love with Mason, but upon discovering his relationship with Beth Colman, Paula's animal instincts rise to the surface resulting in a horrifying transformation.

The 1930s, 40s and 50s were filled with movies that showcased apes in their narratives. Many films were built around them, featured them in a movie title, portrayed them as antagonists, or they were used for comedy effect. Edward Dmytryk did very few genre pictures, but CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN is among the best of Hominoidea horror. 

Where so many ape movies had gorillas making off with beautiful girls, this film reverses that cliche for a Kongette taking a liking to a man. There's ample opportunities for the script to explore overt bestiality to ramp up the horror aspects, but the film never goes for it. Stricter censorship of the 1940s wouldn't have allowed it, anyways. The hint of sexual shenanigans between the species remains just below the surface at room temperature.

To get it out of the way, viewers expecting a lot of monster action will be disappointed. Others with lower expectations will be rewarded with an occasionally risible 60 minutes of SciFi-horror. It's yet another in a long line of movies about science tampering with the allure of the unknown that -- by escapist cinema standards -- will surely lead to calamity. In this case, the scientist in question is more than mad, he's murderous, and has no compunction about killing a few people to further his experiments.

John Carradine gives the title wild woman a run for her money in several deliciously evil scenes. The wiry actor with the devilish visage is so good at being bad, you can almost smell the villainy permeating off of the screen. When we first meet him, Dr. Walters is congenial enough. But not long after, his penchant for criminality shows itself and escalates from there. Carradine's mad doctor is akin to Dr. Frankenstein, if more twisted with his self-serving ambitions. He's the true antagonist of the piece.

Carradine had a unique face that perfectly suited these sorts of roles. He really hit his horror stride by the 1960s, but starred in a great many genre pictures beginning in the 1930s -- many of them classy representations of horror cinema. He was the most prolific of horrors 'Big Guns', and appeared in a lot of crap, too. The actors most high profile works were made between the 30s and 50s. After that, his career was dotted predominantly with the aforementioned crap.

The exotic Acquanetta was formally introduced here playing the title mute female prone to primal rage. Born on an Arapaho reservation in Wyoming, she later went to New York and became a model. There she was marketed as 'The Venezuelan Volcano'; as told to Tom Weaver she was dubbed as such because "nobody [cared] about Indians." Her movie career was fairly brief -- ending abruptly in the 1950s after apparently walking off the set of TAKE THE HIGH GROUND (1953) -- this resulting from a mistaken bit of communication. Prior to that, the actress returned to her ape woman role for the first sequel, JUNGLE WOMAN (1944). She speaks in that one. Vicky Lane took over the role for the third and final film in the trilogy, THE JUNGLE CAPTIVE (1945).

Fans of the wildly popular western television series GUNSMOKE (1955-1975) will be surprised to find Milburn Stone as the lead protagonist (yet he's third billed) in what is ostensibly a circus bound horror picture. Stone played Doc Adams on the iconic western series its entire 20 year run. In his movie career, he did scant few genre pictures. For CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN, he plays the courageous wild animal trainer/adventurer, Fred Mason. He returned for the first sequel reprising the role. Stone's animal trainer character seems partially based on real life danger seeker, the famous lion tamer Clyde Beatty. 

Dmytryk's movie is riddled with stock footage -- much of it taken from Beatty's THE BIG CAGE (1933) -- another Universal picture. With the camera at his back, Stone resembles Beatty; and an attempt was made for the actor to have a similar hairstyle to match the renowned animal trainer. The lifted scenes are noticeable via there degraded film stock. Still, these circus sequences with Beatty risking life and limb in a massive cage filled with about a dozen lions and tigers are spectacular. The shots of Beatty holding a chair in one hand, a whip in the other, and a pistol at his side leave an indelible image when the big cats snap, or run towards him; even more harrowing are the bits where the animals attack one another and chaos devours the screen.

The inclusion of this huge lion named Nero is of special interest. In the picture, Nero is said to be particularly vicious. While wrangling the big cat in Africa, Mason states the lion killed four natives, so his participation in the cage is designed to add to the suspense. What makes the addition of Nero of value is that Beatty had used a lion dubbed Nero in his acts. This wild beast was especially dangerous in that he had attacked Beatty on multiple occasions. In Detroit during the winter of 1932, Beatty was hospitalized for 18 weeks after one bout with Nero nearly killed him. Despite his numerous brushes with death, articles of the day reported that Nero was Beatty's favorite cat to work with. He had his own traveling circus that was, at the time, the second biggest next to the Ringling Brothers. Unfortunately, bankruptcy forced its closure in 1956. A merger with Cole Brothers got it going again in 1959.

Taking everything mentioned above out of the equation, CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN remains little more than a standard 'B' programmer, albeit a very entertaining one. The stock footage is melded well into the movie, but there's so much of it, and it's not all taken from Beatty's fearless mingling with about a dozen clawed maulers in a big cage. These scenes are exciting on their own; and are so overwhelming in their awe, you're likely to forget the sort of film you're supposed to be watching. The musical score is made up of stock tracks familiar from other Uni-horror quickies of the day.

Jack Pierce designed the impressive ape makeup in its various stages. Pierce was the premiere monster maker in those days. He designed the look of Lugosi's DRACULA (1931), and the elaborate extremes of Karloff's monster in FRANKENSTEIN (1931). Others included THE MUMMY (1932), WHITE ZOMBIE (1932), THE WOLF MAN (1941) and lesser known Uni-horrors like MAN MADE MONSTER (1941). The scene where an enraged Walters chastises his ape woman creation for wrecking all his efforts foreshadows John Chambers' award winning makeup from PLANET OF THE APES (1968). Ray "Crash" Corrigan's bulky full body ape suit used here looks better onscreen than some others from this time period. The late stuntman/actor was also inside the suit for these scenes.

Edward Dmytryk's movie is a crude, cheap, yet highly effective low budget movie that exploits its spare parts and spare change to the films advantage. The big top setting provides an economically feasible excuse to utilize the incredible Clyde Beatty footage while Carradine is a right sadistic scientist masking his murderous tendencies for the betterment of mankind. It's a curious combo that, ironically, successfully sells its thrills more with man-eating cats than chest pounding gorillas. Moreover, the plot moves along at a brisk clip for this unusual, obscure slice of circus horror.

This review is representative of the Universal Horror Classic Movie Archive 2 disc collection.

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