Kantedlaas Van Gelder (Paul Cavanagh), owner of a jungle plantation in South America, is murdered by the plantation foreman Barney (Raymond Burr) who is in love with van Gelder's wife Dina (Barbara Payton). The jungle police commisioner Taro (Lon Chaney, Jr) knows in his gut it was murder but can't prove it, so closes the case even as Barney & the recently widowed Dina are getting married.
Dr. Viet (Tom Conway, coming off pretty well as a poor man's Ronald Coleman) is likewise certain Barney's a killer but medically could only say his friend Klaas died of a snake bite. He warns Dina that Barney's surely a killer, but she knows the doctor is in love with her so he may have a selfish reason to want her to believe the worst. And even if she did believe it, she doesn't care. Her marriage with Klaas had been loveless. If Barney really were a bad man, his love of Dina if nothing else is genuine. She takes seriously her vow "for better or worse" which as things turn out won't include much better.
As villains go, Barney isn't completely heartless, for Dina's right, he really really does love her. But being a rotter capable of murder, it's nothing to him that he has previously seduced the house maid, native beauty Larina (Carol Varga). He throws her aside for Dina, & Larina goes into a pouty funk.
Larina's protector is the aged cook, Al-long (Gisela Werbisek). She's a native witch & she secretly saw how Barney killed Van Gelder. She wants to avenge both Larina's heart & her slain employer. With prayers, curses, & a concoction made from an hallucinogenic plant, Al-long poisons Barney, who afterword becomes convinced he's nightly turning into an ape-like creature of the jungle.
All this may sound like Bride of the Gorilla is the trashiest of B films from the 1950s. Yet for all its kitsch value, this is actually a good film.
Raymond Burr puts a great deal into his role. His transformation into an ape-monster is apparently only in his mind. With his drug-heightened senses, he becomes wildly enamored of the jungle. He is having a mystic communion with nature such as one might expect from religious drugs of South America. The love he feels for the jungle, rather than horror, gives his character unexpected depth.
Lon Chaney Jr. also has more to do than one would expect of such a film. Taro was born in the jungle, but educated in the west. He returned to his jungle home half a stranger. His government position of authority & his westernized manner sets him apart. He knows, however, that the jungle will not abide injustice, & if he cannot prove van Gelder was murdered, the jungle needs no proof.
Even Barbara Payton, who manages most of the time to look like a pulp fiction heroine from the cover of an old mystery novel, is given a worthwhile character to play. She knowingly closes her eyes to the certainty that her first husband was murdered, & she refuses to be afraid of Barney even as he undergoes an emotionally (if not physical) beastly transformation & begins to love the jungle more than he loves her. Whatever is happening to Barney, real or in his mind, Dina plans to stand by him, & indeed is still at his side right to his final fate.
Sometimes the film implies there is a degree of literal transformation, but the only time we see the idiotic gorilla suit is when Barney imagines himself a gorilla while looking in the mirror. The fact that there's otherwise no hoky gorilla costume makes the film more credible. We do see transformation of Barney's hands & arms, but only through his point of view; no one else ever sees it, though locals & plantation workers believe they have seen the demonic Sukarath killing cattle in the night.
It was so easy for jungle films of the era to be mildly to intensely racist without meaning to be, yet this film has respect for what it presents as native mores & methods. It adds a convincing level of emotion for each of its characters, & Barney's response to his heightened or animalistic awareness of the jungle has deeper mystery than usually conveyed in a mere monster flick. This is a film that stands on its own, miles above the usual level for the ape-menace genre.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl