Ape-woman experiment gone bad!
After watching The Mad Ghoul (1943) the other day, I was in the mood for another Universal horror and went for director Edward Dmytryk’s Captive Wild Woman (1943). Ghoul actors Evelyn Ankers and Milburn Stone appear, with Stone in a leading heroic role, and the story similarly centers the horrors on a doctor gone mad with his experiments on humans. The movie’s action is split between the workplaces of the two important men in Ankers’ life: Stone is the lion tamer at the Circus where she’s a secretary, while John Carradine is the evil genius at the creepy and isolated sanatorium where her circus performer sister (Martha Vickers) is being treated. Vickers suffers from unexplained weakness and a wasting disease attributed to a glandular disorder and Carradine is a renowned expert in that field, as his secret basement lab full of failed animal experiments will attest.
Stone has returned from two years in Africa gathering dozens of new tigers, lions and zebras, (no bears, oh my) that he’ll be training for the circus acts. He also brought one unique and prized specimen which promises to be the star attraction, a female ape that he’s managed to train during the ocean crossing. This ape is affectionate toward and highly protective of him, but scares the stripes and fur off all the other animals. While visiting the circus, Carradine shows great interest in the animal training and decides this ape is perfect for the next stage of his work. He plans to mix hormones and glandular substances to create a species graft, a powerful and highly intelligent human-animal hybrid. Carradine gets a circus handler (Paul Fix) to release the ape and then “pays” the poor guy by pushing him within the creature’s reach to get torn apart. He then mixes Vickers’ cells with the ape’s, and throws in his own nurse’s brains (poor Fay Helm gets a nice speech before she goes) to create his ideal being. Acquanetta plays the ape’s human form, whom Carradine names “Paula.” Much like the Incredible Hulk, she transforms back into ape form when she’s angered or emotionally distressed, so you wouldn’t like her when she’s mad. But you will like Jack Pierce’s make-up work on her and the Wolf Man-style changes she undergoes.
When Stone’s ambitious mixed lion-tiger act goes bad and he nearly gets killed, Acquanetta saves him by using her ape qualities to intimidate and control the giant cats. This feat lands her a glamorous costume and circus job as Stone’s assistant. Soon she grows more possessive of Stone, and in a moment of jealous rage she devolves, tries to kill Ankers, runs back to Carradine and requires another woman’s brain graft if she’ll ever look like Acquanetta again. On the big opening night of the lion-tiger taming act, Ankers gets a panicked call from sister Vickers to come save her from further “treatment” by Carradine.
The plot of Captive Wild Woman is of course far fetched–which of these horrors isn’t–and at times laughably bad, and I enjoyed it. At one hour long, it’s totally gripping, and there’s no slack in pace or action. There are one too many displays of lion and tiger training and fighting in the cage, and the catfight footage gets brutally realistic, but because Stone is always one wrong move from disaster, those sequences are riveting. His scenes with the killer animals are intercut with real footage of trainer Clyde Beatty, and they fool nobody; it’s easy to spot huge differences no matter how similarly Stone holds his chair, whip and gun. But even though Stone was acting to nothing, you feel his fear, and believe he’s sweating bullets while holding back real animals.
This early Dmytryk has style with an interesting overhead shot in a cafe, and loads of nice, stark contrasts and spooky atmosphere. Fittingly for a horror picture, two major thunderstorms figure into the plot, most notably on the big night when Stone must unveil his act with a bunch of spooked animals and without the safety net his mysterious assistant provides. Acquanetta doesn’t say a word in the whole film, or get much to do other than look beautiful and stare the circus animals into submission, but she does that just fine. She’s more interesting in her emotional moments, whether she’s revealing an unrequited love for Stone or shifting from hating Ankers to being grateful when her romantic competition helps release her from Carradine’s control. Carradine is a big attraction here as the initially classy expert who reveals himself to be a slick and egotistical insane scientist. He’s the “mortal who went beyond the realm of human powers and tampered with things men should never touch.” And for a small movie about as big a theme as that, Captive Wild Woman is a fun one.