Whatever poor Bela Lugosi may have done in a past life, the man did not deserve The Ape Man, arguably the worst of his Monogram horror clunkers. Viewed today, it seems that screenwriter Barney Sarecky and infamous director William Beaudine (whose nickname "One Shot" was earned helming movies like this) were out to humiliate the proud Hungarian actor at every opportunity. They had the man, who once turned down the Frankenstein monster because he found the role demeaning, walk about the entire film in a manner that was supposed to appear simian but ended up looking merely foolish. They gave him an Anglo-Saxon name, Dr. James Brewster, without bothering to explain that familiar Middle European accent. And they provided him with a spiritualist sister (Minerva Urecal), whose character name, Agatha, Lugosi of course was incapable of pronouncing. To compound matters, they wrote in a mysterious character named Zippo (Ralph Littlefield), who, in a silly porkpie hat, drifted in and out of the narrative being annoyingly mysterious, only to reveal himself in the end as "the author of the story." "Screwy idea, wasn't it?" he says blithely putting the final nail in Lugosi's coffin.
Lugosi's Dr. Brewster had experimented with a spinal serum derived from the fluids of a gorilla. The dedicated medico naturally tested the serum on himself and now appears incapable of walking upright, in dire need of a shave. Needless to say, the only antidote is human spinal fluid (which Lugosi pronounces "fluit"). Accompanied by screaming headlines such as "Ape man killer still on the loose!" Dr. Brewster and his gorilla henchman (Emil VanHorn, whose simian suit paid his rent for years) stalk the dark streets for human prey. A couple of wisecracking reporters (Wallace Ford and Louise Currie, both surprisingly tolerable) briefly wander into harm's way, knocking each other over the head with prop vases. Happily, for unexplained reasons, the gorilla suddenly turns on his master and breaks his neck, ending the nightmare for all concerned, including, one would imagine, Lugosi himself. Typical for cheap Monogram, Lugosi stayed in his ape-like makeup throughout, the expected transformation scene never materializing. The critics were understandably severe -- "Monogram's writer didn't have to wipe the dust from Bela Lugosi's Ape Man, he had to take the mold off," chuckled the Daily News -- but as horror-film historian Tom Weaver so succinctly put it: "Despite their ruinous effects on Lugosi's career, had these Monogram pictures been made without him, they would not merit discussion today."