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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