Public Domain Movies

Public Domain Movie: The Ape (1940)

The Ape (1940) – Boris Karloff Movie Review

I’ve lost track of how many films I’ve seen about mad scientists with an unhealthy obsession with spinal fluid. The Ape is yet another one to add to the list, but at least this time the mad scientist has noble intentions. Dr Bernard Adrian (Boris Karloff) needs the spinal fluid as the main ingredient for a serum that he hopes to use to treat one of his neighbours.

The neighbour in question is a young lady named Frances Clifford, who is young and pretty and comes complete with her very own wheelchair. Francis reminds the doctor of his dead daughter. He was unable to save his daughter, but he is armed with more knowledge now and is determined that Frances will walk again.

Frances has a genuine fondness for the Doc, but she and her mother seem to be the only people who have any time for him. The rest of the townsfolk just don’t like him at all and the Kids throw stones at his home while their parents debate the best way of running him out of town. In the manner of many small-town-hypocrites, though, they are not above asking him for medical help when it is needed. In fact, when an ape escapes from a visiting circus and mauls its keeper, the sheriff and his men take the injured man to Adrian’s house faster than you can say, “Man badly hurt. Sorry to bother you, doctor.” Their good deed of the day accomplished, they then continue their search for the missing ape.

Up until this point the doctor has been treating Frances with spinal fluid extracted from cats and dogs, but the results have been less than satisfactory and he sees the injured keeper as a godsend: “Man, the highest kind of animal.”

Boris Karloff - The Ape (Movie Poster)
Boris Karloff – The Ape (Movie Poster)

“Hey, doc, what you gonna do?”

“I’m going to write you into medical history… and I’m going to keep a promise.”

The keeper dies, of course, but the new serum causes the feeling to return to Frances’ legs, and with a little coaxing from the doctor, she even manages to move her feet. Adrian is ecstatic. He is also careless and when he returns to his lab he allows the rest of the serum to roll off his table and onto the floor. The glass phial breaks and he has no way of obtaining more.

Adrian’s luck is not all bad though, the ape has been drawn to the laboratory by the scent of its keeper, and this presents the doctor with a unique opportunity. He throws some chemicals into the ape’s face and then kills it. After this, he uses its skin to make an ape suit. He is the only person who knows that the ape is dead; so while the townsfolk search for the ape, Adrian, hidden inside his hairy disguise, searches for new donors, and as the body count rises, Frances seems destined to leave her chair and stand on her own two feet.

The Ape is not a great film, but it is only about an hour long, so if you do feel like you have wasted your time by watching it you will not have wasted enough of it to feel guilty about. If you are a Boris Karloff fan, however, The Ape is a must-see movie because, even though the story is so thin it’s threadbare, Karloff is a good enough actor to make his scenes seem almost believable. Notice the emphasis on the word ‘almost’. He was a good actor, not a miracle worker. If you want to watch The Ape and make up your own mind about it, you can do so right here and now; just scroll back to the top of the page and hit the play button.

Additional Information

Director: William Nigh


Boris Karloff
Maris Wrixon
Gene O’Donnell
Dorothy Vaughan
Gertrude Hoffman
Henry Hall
Selmer Jackson
Dr. Bernard Adrian
Miss Frances Clifford
Danny Foster
Mother Clifford
Jane (Adrian’s Housekeeper)
Sheriff Jeff Halliday
Dr. McNulty