Celebrating the tatty brilliance of the traditional monster movie ape suit.
Nothing quite reveals the sort of person that is watching a film more than their reaction to a low-rent ape suit. If they fall about laughing with ridicule, then you know right away that there is little point in trying to have any serious conversation with this person about the finer aspects of low-budget cult cinema. But if they let out a little squeal of delight, then you know you’ve found a kindred spirit. Well, at least I do. In all of film history, nothing is quite as delightful as the terrible gorilla costume. If I know that a film is going to feature an actor pretending to be a ferocious ape in a moth-eaten costume that wouldn’t convince the most paranoid pithecophobe, you can be sure that I’ll be clearing the decks in order to watch it.
Not, let’s be clear – here are limits to what I am talking about here. To hit the mark, the gorilla suit must be supposedly an actual gorilla – if it is meant to be someone dressing up all along, then it doesn’t count – as much fun as the finale of The Pink Panther is, at no point are we supposed to be taken in that these characters in gorilla suits are actually gorillas. Nor is there room for other creative interpretations – no stop-motion, no animatronics, no puppets. And no half-decent make-up and costumes combos, ruling out the likes of Planet of the Apes and the 1976 King Kong. No, we want a stuntman in a threadbare ape suit that may well have made its way through several different films, getting tattier as it goes.
Surprisingly, there were actors in Hollywood who specialised in playing apes. Ray ‘Crash’ Corrigan, Charles Gemora and Steve Calvert were amongst the men who carved out a career playing ferocious gorillas – in some cases, their main qualification for the part seemed to be owning a gorilla costume, thus killing two birds with one stone.
It’s perhaps fitting that the movie gorilla looked so unlike its real-life counterpart, given that the portrayal of gorillas as fearsome, brutal monsters with a curious desire for human women couldn’t be further from the truth. Gorillas have been terribly libelled by moviemakers – but then, who wants to see movies about gentle jungle dwellers? The mythical ape is rather more exciting than the real-life creature.
Here, then, are a selection of cinema’s more extraordinary ape suits from jungle adventures, horror movies (for reasons unknown, apes seemed to be a staple of haunted house movies for many years), mad scientist stories and wacky comedies. The terrible ape suit lasted until the end of the 1970s, when even low-budget films began to feature more realistic prosthetics.
The ape suit wasn’t just seen on screen. Gorillas made unlikely partners for burlesque dancers and glamour girls in magazine pin-up shoots and proved great props for Hollywood stars in press shoots and public appearances.
Today, the traditional ape suit is now only seen in deliberately retro projects just as the movie Monster Gorilla or the art projects of Lisa Roet, where its presence is a knowing nod to a lost past. It’s hard to imagine audiences being terrified by these clearly unconvincing costumes now – indeed, hard to believe that they ever were – but we’re always up for a revival of the form, even if it is very knowing in approach.
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That publicity still from The Strange Case of Dr RX is a real cheat…nothing remotely that interesting happens in the actual movie!
At least when Charles Gemora appeared with Laurel and Hardy in “The Chimp” (as illustrated above) and “Swiss Miss” it was intended to be funny, and indeed it was, but most other hybrids were meant to be scary and thrilling, though it usually ended up in producing as many laughs as Stan and Ollie did, albeit unintended, maybe the worst of many being in the unforgettable Grade Z Sci-Fi epic “Robot Monster” (1953), which not only had a rather paunchy actor in a tatty, flea-bitten ape suit, but also an incredibly cheap looking toy-like space helmet on top, presumably to disguise the fact that the gorilla face mask had probably worn out or was absent, due to the film’s budgetary limitations.
The gorilla costume in Robot Monster is actually the same one seen in later films like Konga and Hillbillies in a Haunted House. It was owned by actor George Barrows, who basically played Robot Monster for free (though that’s not him, but a British actor, in Konga)
It certainly seems as though buying a gorilla suit was a sound investment for the jobbing actor back in the day.
This is one of my favourite Reprobate articles to date. I go ‘ape’ for Gorilla movies. I think they look great! I was just recently marvelling at the Karloff ‘The Ape’. I am sure more learned film-freaks than I will confirm that the very same gorilla suit is seen in many films – and in photo sessions such as the William Mortensen one seen above. The Japanese film ‘Half Human’ features a splendidly primitive looking beast. And I was in nirvana upon viewing recently the excellent Charlie Chan At The Circus – ecstasy on all fronts, not only featuring (as one might expect) a circus setting (itself usually a guarantee of a good time), but also a prime specimen of movie-gorilla. Gorillas and Circus-folk are the secret life-blood of celluloid. Gorillas In Film is a book that needs to be written, a definitive study is a more worthy subject for the film student than some current trrueful trifle. ‘Abandon realism all who enter – as with the pantomime horse, we need not convince ourselves to buy into the potency of the symbol’. I put that nonsense in quotes, because I totally buy into all screen gorillas, even the tangental Ro-Man of Robot Monster. Let us not forget Rick Baker’s sterling revivals of the ’70s and ’80s – Schlock, Man W/2 Brains, Shrinking Chick. Let us not forget Ape Sex Mania – Tanya’s Island – Max Mon Amor, Marco Ferrera – wait a sec, these are all convincing examples – scratch that, forget em …
P.S. Fans of ‘Star Trek’ will notice Janos Prohaska repurposed Snowpuff as The Mugato.
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