Friday, August 17, 2018

The Monster and the Girl

The Monster and the Girl
Stuart Heisler

The Monster and the Girl opens in a courtroom where Scott Webster (Phillip Terry) is on trial for murder. He’s accused of killing a man who lured his sister, Susan (Ellen Drew) into a life of prostitution through a sham wedding. Scott was framed but he's found guilty and executed. Thankfully(?) a scientist puts his brain in a gorilla body and Scott has a second chance to exact revenge on the criminals who ruined his sister’s life.

"Sure, I lied to you, forced you into prostitution, and sent you brother to the electric chair,
but does that make me a bad person?"
The most surprising thing about The Monster and the Girl is how much respect the film gives to its pulpy subject matter.  We are not just tossed into the brain swapping; the viewer is given a lengthy court sequence with flashbacks to Susan’s crushing realization of her faux marriage and her coercion into prostitution. There are also a few tough scenes of Susan pleading with gangsters to save her brother. When it finally gets down to some gorilla-style revenge, it is done so almost exclusively through shadow and suggestion. The Monster and the Girl is much more invested in long lingering shots of the gorilla’s soulful eyes rather than necks getting snapped. In a way, the story feels akin to the weird fiction of the time, as much is left to the viewer's imagination.

The Monster and the Girl’s main strength is also its biggest fault. Things are maybe just a bit too reserved. This is primarily a noir-revenge film, and it wouldn’t have changed the story at all to just have Scott escape prison and go on a killing spree. So given that we have a killer gorilla on the loose the film almost steadfastly refuses to use its most lurid element. The first killing we are told about via a radio news broadcast, after that most of the attacks are simply the gorilla lunging out of the shadows and the film cuts away. I think the story needed one full-on attack at the climax as a counter-point to keep all the previous action from feeling the same.

"All that snoring and somehow I'm the monster?"
I went into The Monster and the Girl expecting it to be a threadbare production like many killer ape movies from around this time. Although it isn’t a large production and is relegated to just a few sets, it is a wonderful looking film. It is filled with moody plays of dark and light. The gorilla suit isn’t quite as convincing in full body shots, but the moments of just its face watching and waiting for potential targets or former siblings are genuinely touching and unnerving.  The cast also does a great job. You hate the gangsters and you feel bad for Susan and Scott. There is a lot of emotion at play here and it helps elevate the film from just being a standard gorilla on the loose movie.

The Monster and the Girl is a minor classic and manages to pack a lot of things into a run-time of barely over an hour. This is no shambling shoddy ape suit movie, it is a carefully made and occasionally thoughtful noir story that just happens to feature a brain transplants and a killer ape.

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