2 New on Blu: The Vampire’s Ghost & Return of the Ape Man

| October 31, 2017

One thing I love about Chicago’s own Olive Films is the company’s dedication to the obscure, particularly where their horror releases are concerned, which is my #1 preoccupation. Though they’ve certainly put out some more mainstream films like Cujo (1983) and The Monster Squad (1987), I’m always far more excited to see them showing some love to lesser horror sequels like Night of the Demons 2 (1994) or Witchboard 2 (1993), and especially the older monster movies like It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958) or The Monster of Piedras Blancas (1958). Add to those the terrific pair of Freddie Francis films Olive’s released and the cult classic The Thing with Two Heads (1972) and you’ll find Olive’s Blu-rays have been played in my household countless times!

So when Olive puts out horror on Blu-ray I take note. Of great interest to me lately have been their B-picture releases, including the likes of Piedra Blancas and The Return of Dracula (1958). These are movies you’d have seen on double bills back in the 1950’s, but aren’t all that well-known today, making them prime targets for a company like Olive who seem to specialize in rediscovery titles. This is very much the case for the pair of 1940’s horror B-pictures that hit Blu-ray from Olive this week as well, two titles begging to be rediscovered: The Vampire’s Ghost (1945), and the Bela Lugosi and John Carradine-starring, Return of the Ape Man (1944)! Each of these films is fascinating in its own right, but these two Blu-ray releases combined give us an invaluable window into what was broadly happening in B cinema in the 1940’s.

As such, while they may appeal to wider audiences like Cujo or Monster Squad, I wholeheartedly recommend The Vampire’s Ghost and Return of the Ape Man to anyone fascinated with horror history.

The Vampire’s Ghost combines so many tropes of the era into one moody, slow-burn horror tale. Co-written by The Big Sleep’s Leigh Brackett from one of her original stories, the film finds a (now very dated representation of an) African village stalked by a vampire. Only, the vampire, Fallon, isn’t some monster hiding in the shadows. He’s a pillar of the community, running a popular bar/gambling house, like a cross between Dracula and Casablanca’s Rick. Eventually, the locals must band together to bring an end to the horrors Fallon brings with him, and the film culminates in an impressively violent, if all-too-brief, final showdown between the townsfolk and Fallon at a jungle temple.

Return of the Ape Man is a far less classy, though no less quintessentially 1940’s B-picture, affair. In it, Bela Lugosi and John Carradine (both of whom obviously played Dracula!) play scientists who uncover “the missing link” during a trip to the arctic, a creature part-human, part-ape. Though they often declare the beats to be “more ape than man,” the titular ape man is really just a cavemen-type with long hair and a beard. Nothing ape-like about him except perhaps his desire to kill those perceived as threats, which is everyone. So Lugosi’s Prof. Dexter determines to give him part of a human brain that he might be able to tame the prehistoric beast and converse with it. As a result, he removes part of his more morally-sound colleague’s (Carradine) brain, places it in the beast, and finds that—surprise, surprise—the ape man hasn’t been tamed at all and instead goes on a murderous rampage. By comparison to The Vampire’s Ghost, it’s a clearly much cheaper production, but it’s every bit as compelling given its pedigree and incredible amount of camp.

While these films are presented in their respective Blu-ray releases without any accompanying special features, you do not often see films from the likes of Republic or Monogram given such pristine, beautiful HD transfers. The Vampire’s Ghost appears cleaner and sharper than I imagine it’s looked since it first showed in theaters in 1945 with only the occasional speckling and light scratch seen in the transfer. Return of the Ape Man is treated to no less an impressive transfer, though the film itself was clearly often quite soft, bordering on out-of-focus. This is no doubt the result of issues with the production itself rather than Olive’s transfer, Ape Man being a film Monogram only deigned to distribute, making it a lesser release from an already “Poverty Row” studio.

About the Author:

Jef is a writer and educator in Chicago, Illinois. He holds a degree in Media & Cinema Studies from DePaul University, but sometimes he drops it and picks it back up again. He's also the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com and is fueled entirely by coffee (as if you couldn't tell).

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