Apes Need Women! Larry Buchanan’s Jungle Curio Mistress Of The Apes

Exploring an odd jungle romp from one of cult cinema’s more eccentric directors.

Larry Buchanan is one of the more interesting ‘bad’ film directors. Not because his movies are really any good – though they are far from all being awful – but because the stuff he’s shot shows an eccentric vision of some sort. As with many ‘bad’ filmmakers, even his worst movies tend to have something about them and I’ll take that over the bland and anonymous directors who now clog up big-budget Hollywood, making interchangeable films to order. Buchanan’s work is decidedly odd – for every trashy sci-fi shocker like Zontar The Thing from Venus or Mars Needs Women, there’s a curious biopic like Goodbye Norman Jean or Hughes and Harlow: Angels in Hell. He made the bizarre ‘what if?’ The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald in 1964 and the crazed conspiracy theory movie Down on Us (which has Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin being offed by shady government agents!), as well as the sub-Bergman Strawberries Need Rain and the burlesque film Naughty Dallas. Writing him off as a mere schlockmeister seems rather short-sighted to say the least and perhaps one day he’ll enjoy the same sort of retrospective appreciation given to the likes of Andy Milligan and Al Adamson.

He certainly did his fair share of cheesy schlock though, and few of them were cheesier or schlockier than Mistress of the Apes, made in 1979. On the original release, this story of forbidden love tried to sell itself to the largely untapped bestiality enthusiast audience, though in true exploitation movie style, it doesn’t quite deliver what the title – or Boris Vallejo’s poster art – implies. OK, it doesn’t deliver it at all. I hope you are not disappointed. What the hapless viewers instead get is a mixture of bad acting, shoddy production values and incomprehensible dialogue that is a little too dull to be a classic ‘so bad it’s good film’ – but is still oddly fascinating in its own eccentric way.

The film opens with a bunch of thugs breaking into a hospital looking for “the heavy powder” (not unmixed concrete, in case you wondered), before having a shootout with the two slowest cops in America and causing pregnant patient Susan (Jenny Neumann) to take a tumble from the operating table and miscarry. It’s a doubly bad time for her, as her husband has vanished, presumed dead, while on safari in Africa. His cameras have been found though, and somehow, the blurry shots it contains are instantly identified as showing Homo Habilis, a previously undiscovered missing link between ape and man (though from the look of the ape-man shown in the photo, there are dozens of the species wandering through every town centre in Britain every day).

Determined to find out what happened to her hubby, Susan sets out to visit Africa, alongside publisher David Thurston (Walt Robin) and his wife Laura (Barbara Leigh). Thurston is shown early on to be a wrong ‘un as he takes cheesecake photos of his secretary (a woman with the world’s most annoying voice who he tells to “shut up and function”) and later insensitively keeps referring to his guns as ‘babies’ in front of Susan, who is, you might recall, fresh from the hospital after miscarrying. And sure enough, it soon turns out that he was behind hubby’s murder (having delegated it to killers for hire like Russ Meyer regular Stuart Lancaster) in what seems to be a needlessly complicated scheme to seduce Susan. Sadly, despite Thurston’s subtle seduction techniques, Susan isn’t quite ready to move on – she is, after all, only in Africa to begin with to try to find her missing husband and so was never a good bet for infidelity – and so he moves to Plan B, which seems to consist of having his wife raped and tied up. I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time but it doesn’t really feel like the best way of winning anyone’s love. Susan, meanwhile, has made contact with the mysterious but not at all hard-to-find ape-men and is soon dealing with her marital loss by bedding down with the Homo Habilis who saved her from a not-particularly aggressive gorilla (a particularly magnificent man-in-an-ape-suit). This sudden change of heart must’ve been a considerable slap in the face for Thurston when you think about it – apparently, even a sub-human ape man is more attractive than he is.

Anyway, more stuff happens, the female leads (and a couple of native extras) take their tops off, some people are killed and it all fizzles out into nothing with Susan deciding to join the tribe permanently. Sorry if I’ve spoiled anything there.

While the film is, on the whole, a rather slow-moving affair with little to hold the viewer’s attention, there are nevertheless many mind-boggling scenes here – the ‘fast moving’ ape-men (or, more accurately, the sole ape-woman) who appear to be standing quite still, the scenery-chewing Walt Robin and the general idiocy of the entire film. It has the right elements to be memorably trashy but unfortunately, it plods unnecessarily for much of the running time. Barbara Leigh – who, but for a cruel twist of fate, might have been Hammer’s Vampirella a couple of years earlier (she eventually appeared on several magazine covers in costume) – looks good without her shirt on but has little to do apart from play the victim, while Jenny Neumann has little emotional variety and we never care very much about her plight – especially after she falls in bed with the first Homo Habilis who comes along. So much for her marital vows. However, even without the aforementioned moments of ludicrous pleasure, the film would be worth a look simply for the two outlandishly brash songs by ‘The Missing Link’ that appear on the soundtrack, one of which has the classic lyrics “They can hear her voice/Ringin’ far and wide/She’s the queen of the jungle/And the monkey’s pride!/Ape – lady!/The mistress of the apes.” Up there with the songs from Queen Kong in terms of apetastic awfulness, they suggest that Buchanan’s tongue may well have been in his cheek during this film, at least in post-production when everyone finally realised how bad it was and tried to make the best of it by pretending that they’d been making a camp classic all along. Well tried, Larry, well tried.

In the end, even if Mistress of the Apes is less than it could’ve been, it’s certainly an oddity – weird cinema enthusiasts will definitely want to tick it off the list. And to be fair, it’s better than John Derek’s infamous atrocity Tarzan the Ape Man, which the film sometimes resembles, but which it precedes by over a year…


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