Universal Horror Collection: Vol. 5

JUNE 23, 2020

GENRE: MAD SCIENTIST, PREDATOR
SOURCE: BLU-RAY (OWN COLLECTION)

As Covid-19 continues to wreak havoc (and very stupid/selfish people continue to spread it by being stupid and selfish), it's looking more and more likely that the fall will be spent not at my usual film festivals and repertory screenings, but in my own home 24 hours a day except for the rare trips to the grocery store (and the drivein, bless it). The thinnest silver lining to this grim future is the fact that being forced to stay home means I'll have more time to watch old horror movies during the season, something I love doing but rarely have the time to. There's nothing that gives me that life-affirming jolt of nostalgia like staying up late watching a selection of Universal, Hammer, and AIP horror movies with a cup of (oft spiked) hot cocoa, but I'm often pulled away for a 35mm screening of something more recent, or a Screamfest/Beyond Fest premiere. Probably won't be the case this year!

With that in mind, I hope Scream Factory keeps these Universal Horror sets coming, because they're a perfect fit for that kind of late night, "Maybe I'll fall asleep but it's OK" comfort viewing. With Universal releasing deluxe editions of their big guns (i.e. Frankenstein, Dracula, etc) themselves, Scream Factory has been cranking out four-film sets of the studio's B-movies from the same era; the sort of films that probably wouldn't get picked up individually but when packaged together (with historian commentaries on each one to sweeten the deal) become quite attractive additions to the collection. This fifth volume focuses on "Jungle" horror from the early '40s, with The Monster and The Girl along with the "Cheela" trilogy that began with Captive Wild Woman and was followed by Jungle Woman and The Jungle Captive.

Now, the 1940s are generally considered to be the weakest decade for horror (thanks a lot, WWII!), but Universal was of course the company to get around that thanks to The Wolf Man and the entertaining "Monster Rally" films that followed. But alas, despite the two sequels, Cheela never quite found herself joining the likes of Larry Talbot and his frenemies. One could argue that the timeline wouldn't match up, since these three films seem to be taking place in the time they were produced instead of some vague yesteryear, but it's not like the continuity made any goddamn sense across the "Monsterverse" anyway, so they could have thrown her into the mix if they wanted to despite the anachronism.

Then again they couldn't even keep much consistency within the series itself, so perhaps it's better they didn't muck it up further by having her interact with Dracula. In Captive Wild Woman (the best of the lot), a circus trainer finds a female ape named "Cheela" (played by a guy in a suit) in the jungle and brings her back to the States in order to train her along with all the other animals he captured (mostly lions and tigers - real ones in this case). John Carradine shows up as a mad scientist type who wants to turn this intelligent ape into a human, and using his own assistant's brain and the body of a patient he turns Cheela into "Paula", a lovely woman played by Acquanetta. But Paula shares Cheela's devotion/attraction to the trainer guy, and gets jealous about his traditionally human fiance, which turns her back into her animal form - very Cat People, admittedly. However she only scares the fiance - as a "monster", she's quite heroic, going after only Carradine and then, during the climax, some animals that have broken free of their cages and attack the trainer.

All of this is summed up at the top of Jungle Woman (complete with recycled footage - in a movie that only runs 60 minutes! Charles Band must have seen this as a lad), but despite the attempt to present it as a direct sequel, the film then goes off in a different, largely disconnected direction as "Paula" is revived and finds herself committed at a sanatorium, where she sets her sights on her doctor's would-be son-in-law (the trainer and his fiance from Captive Wild Woman pop up early on but then disappear with little explanation). But this time she never turns back into Cheela as we saw her in the first film, and since there's no wild animals to cause a threat, she goes after innocent people (including a dimwitted fellow patient who has a crush on her, poor bastard). A few dialogue snips and it could very well just be a movie about an insane woman. It's enjoyable enough, but even with Acquanetta returning it feels like a very different character.

The actress sat out the third film, The Jungle Captive, with Vicky Lane taking over in a film with an even flimsier connection. None of the other characters return, newspaper headlines suffice to briefly explain the connection before Rondo Hatton (!) steals her corpse from a morgue, bringing it to yet another mad scientist who is trying to make human/animal hybrids. This time around, instead of her becoming obsessed with a handsome (and taken) young fella, Hatton becomes kind of infatuated with Ann, the scientist's assistant who is being held there (they need her blood for the experiment). Of the three films it's got the most traditional horror elements and action (there's even a car wreck!), but it's a good thing I accidentally watched it first (didn't realize it was a sequel) because anyone showing up for "Captive Wild Woman 3" would be disappointed or even confused, since it's so far removed from the series' origins. Even if you ignore the recasting of Paula, her role in the film is almost unnecessary, as the focus stays mainly on Hatton's growing conscience and the cops who are trying to find the assistant/solve the murder Hatton caused at the morgue. But on its own, it's a decent little mad scientist tale, and Hatton's character is more interesting than his usual "Creeper" appearances.

That leaves The Monster and the Girl, a true outlier on the set as not only is it unrelated to the others, but it's not even a true Universal movie (it was produced by Paramount and bought by Uni later). It's also needlessly confusing, with a flashback-heavy opening half hour devoted to a mob plot where a guy is framed for a murder while trying to save his sister from a prostitution ring (!). At the halfway point, the guy is killed and his brain is put into a gorilla, allowing him to avenge his own murder as an all powerful beast, which must feel kind of awesome for him since he was a clumsy square kinda guy as a human and probably would have gotten instantly killed all over again if he had to use his own body. The gorilla scenes are pretty great, but you'd be forgiven if you checked out by the time they finally arrive when the movie is essentially almost over since it too is only an hour long. Watchable, but of the four movies on the set it's probably the last I'd ever revisit.

The accompanying commentaries are a mixed bag; the most interesting is fittingly for the best movie - Tom Weaver on Captive Wild Woman. He's got the usual biographical info for the actors, but he also tracked down a lot of the production history for this film as well as The Big Cage, the earlier film from which most of Captive's circus footage was obtained. I also enjoyed Greg Mank's discussion on Jungle Woman, especially since he rightfully notes how horror-lite the movie is, and both Mank and Weaver also discuss the unfortunate racial issues with the two films (Acquanetta was a black woman, but claimed to be Venezuelan to keep her career afloat). The other two are less interesting; in fact Scott Gallinghouse doesn't even make it all the way to the end of Jungle Captive before running out of things to say. Ideally they'd just have all of these guys sit together and do all of the movies since there's definitely a "more is merrier" law to these historian tracks, but as far as solo ones go, they're certainly better than average.

Scream Factory has been putting these volumes out every three months almost like clockwork, and hopefully they continue the trend as that would put the next one out in September, when my "old horror movies" itch really starts to go off. I haven't watched every film on the 3rd and 4th volumes (and missed the 2nd one entirely somehow), so if Volume 6 isn't out in time I still have a few to tide me over. But as the Blu-ray format continues to be "last-gen" (even Scream's parent Shout Factory is starting to release 4K UHD discs) it seems the time to get these "filler" kind of movies the proper presentations they deserve is inching closer to being done with, I truly hope they are already working on it in some capacity. It's become a nice thing to look forward to every couple of months; enjoyable movies plus bonus history about the legendary horror studio's golden era to soak in thanks to the omnipresent commentaries!

What say you?

2 comments:

  1. I feel the same way about Universal/Hammer horror--I'm glad to get these sets whenever we can get them, but they're basically perfect for October viewings. (If I could make a suggestion, check out Murders in the Zoo on the 2nd volume if it's one of the ones you haven't seen--kind of an interesting proto-slasher.)

    Volume 5 is an interesting collection; I'd never seen Jungle Captive before, and it turns out it's probably my favorite of the trilogy. I was also kind of impressed by how well these movies kept up with continuity by having them all set pretty much right after the other (unlike The Mummy series, where the later sequels would probably be taking place in the 2000s?). Not sure the Cheela Trilogy is an all-timer or anything like that, but they're fun enough.

    Also, there will be a Volume 6 in late August! It's going to have Shadow of the Cat, a Hammer that's never been released in the States. I'm super excited, even though it looks like Vol 6 might be the last one. I really wanted to get Curse of the Undead on one of these things. Maybe Scream will save it for a standalone release.

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  2. This video sums up almost everything wrong with the Gorilla Girl film series: https://youtu.be/AIo5TaTEU3k

    It’s a great concept for sure, and who doesn’t love some classic John Carradine, but by the third installment it’s a complete disappointment. I would’ve loved to see her interact with Universal’s Big Three, but completely understand why they never did. It’s still rather odd that the far-more-popular Mummy series never crossed over with it, either 🧐

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