Altzheimer's, Andy Serkis, apes, baboon, Bela Lugosi, Brian Cox, Bride of the Gorilla, Caesar, chimp, chimpanzee, Chris Atkins, Congo, curse, Daedalus, Doctor Who, gorilla, Greek, Horror, Icarus, In the Shadow of Kilimanjaro, John Lithgow, King Kong, Link, Lon Chaney, Mars, Monkey Shines, monkeys, monster, mythology, orang-utan, Planet of the Apes, primates, primitive, Ray Harryhausen, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Roddy McDownall, Roman, sci-fi, science fiction, Shakma, simians, The Ape Man, witchcraft
They are often depicted as the primal and, therefore, frightening face of human nature. Primates, the class of animals to which humans also belong, are often the source of our primitive fear. We sometimes refer to them as our “cousins” in the animal kingdom, but in horror and science fiction they are our nightmares in the flesh. They kill by attacking us or by spreading disease. Either way, they are dangerous or to be feared, because in horror and science fiction, primates are human-like and just as unpredictable as we are.
Stories often involve the shady and bleak world of animal experimentation or exploitation. The humans get the monkeys to perform for entertainment, or force them to endure pain and suffering because it will aid us in some way. Just like in real life. Whatever we want, the primate does it or is forced to do it. Until, that is, it fights back.
Some of the films take on elements of a slasher movie. One victim after another is stalked by the predator, with a final survivor. Sometimes there is more than one, but usually the outcome is bad for the primate.
Several stories are set in Africa. Sometimes, like King Kong, it begins on a primitive island or deep in the jungle where, of course, humans first invaded and captured the wild and free animals.
I first became absolutely fascinated by these stories when I watched King Kong (1933) as a little girl. Monster movies were always televised on a Friday, early evening, and I loved them! Unlike Ray Harryhausen, my fascination was not due to animation. It was due to narrative. It was only later in life, as an adult, that I saw there were even deeper layers to the story. However, King Kong deserves a blog article of its own so I’ll avoid going into depth on the subject until a later date.
As far as I know, King Kong is the first movie to depict primates as monstrous. In 1943, The Ape Man starring Bela Lugosi came out, followed by Might Joe Young (1949).
Bride of the Gorilla (1951), starring Lon Chaney, is about the jungle (wildness) versus civilised behaviour. When Barney lets a snake kill his boss, an old woman curses him with a “plant of evil”. The old woman is a “wise woman” or “witch” who uses black magic. Barney hears the “call of the wild” from the jungle on his wedding night. He leaves to go into the jungle, which he appears to now be more in love with than he is with his wife. His doctor believes he has been poisoned, and that the natives have many potions that can drive a man out of his mind and cause psychosis. He also thinks Barney killed his boss, and his wife may be a constant reminder of his guilt of killing her first husband. What they don’t know is that the potion has caused Barney to turn into a gorilla!
In 1968, the first Planet of the Apes film came to screens. Surprisingly, the movie got a G rating, for ‘general audience’. When I first saw this film, probably round about the age of six or so, it terrified me on the same level as Doctor Who at that age. Of course, having two big brothers meant that scary science fiction was often viewed in the house, so I spent a lot of time behind the sofa in those early days! I was really surprised to learn it wasn’t more along the lines of an A or even 15 (which, of course, wasn’t a rating that existed back in the sixties).
The film showed us what it would be like if the tables were turned and animals treated us the way we treat them. After crash-landing on an alien planet, Taylor is captured by apes who can talk and act like humans. He is befriended by Cornelius and Zira who help Taylor escape.
However, Doctor Zaius is a religious scientist Taylor calls a “fanatic”. He refuses to listen to reason, especially if it goes against his religious knowledge. On Zaius’ instructions Cornelius reads 29th Scroll 6th verse (written by The Lawgiver of the Apes):
Beware the beast Man, for he is the Devil’s pawn. Alone among God’s primates, he kills for sport or lust or greed. Yea, he will murder his brother to possess his brother’s land. Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours. Shun him; drive him back into his jungle lair, for he is the harbinger of death….
From the evidence, I believe his wisdom must walk hand and hand with his idiocy. His emotions must rule his brain. He must be a warlike creature who gives battle to everything around him, even himself… The Forbidden Zone was once a paradise. Your breed made a desert of it ages ago!
The ending proves Zaius to be correct.
It’s a very thought-provoking film, not only about how we treat our planet and how we treat animals, but also how we treat other human beings and the prejudices amongst us.
Planet of the Apes was extremely popular and there were several sequels: Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970); Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971); Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) and Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973). In 1974, there was a TV series and the following year an animated series Return to the Planet of the Apes. In 2001, a remake was made, and in 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes came to our screens. However, I will leave the latter until the end, seeing as I am working in chronological order!
In The Shadow of Kilimanjaro (1986) is based on a true story about a drought in Africa which causes baboons to go ape-shit! The baboons are predators stalking people one by one, first at night from the darkness; next in a gang attacking a lone driver who breaks down. The threat is portrayed like an unruly mob, gang or individual stalker and becomes quite terrifying as the film progresses. You do begin to wonder how on earth everyone will make it to the end of the film, as they appear to be outnumbered by the ferocious creatures who are hungry for their flesh….
Link (also 1986) is about a college professor who employs one of his female students to look after his house. He shares his house with two chimps, Voodoo and Imp and an orang- utan called Link. The professor gives the girl three rules to live by
1. Humans are dominant.
2. Always forgive the primates, regardless of what they do.
3. Don’t get involved in their squabbles. They sort them out.
Pretty soon the girl wishes she had never taken on the job, as she finds herself trapped in the isolated house on the rocky coast, trying to escape from one of the creatures which turns out to be a dangerous killer! It seems the presence of a female in the house has sent him over the edge. This is really more a story of sexism and male dominance.
Dominance also features in the film Monkey Shines (1988). It is about paraplegic Alan, who has his own personal monkey helper, Ella. The monkey has been genetically altered by his friend Jeff, a scientist who gives Alan the monkey as a gift. Ella loves Alan and seems to want to do things just for him, but everything starts to go wrong when Ella begins to carry out acts of revenge on behalf of Alan, unbeknownst to him. Alan and Ella seem to be telepathically linked, as Alan begins to take on the monkeys rage and starts to have unusual mood swings. Once he realises what is going on it is a pure battle of will to defeat the nasty little simian.
In Shakma (1990), we find ourselves in another research lab. Roddy McDowall is the professor and game master (which sounds an awful lot like gay master every time it’s said – I can’t help but think that is deliberate!) who engineers a game for his students. Meanwhile we know that an aggressive baboon called Shakma has not been euthenised and has killed other primates in the lab. The film has elements of the slasher as well as fairytale characters such as a hero, princess and villain. Most of all Shakma is a film about brain vs brawn, but will intelligence win when up against such a vicious enemy? I was honestly a little unnerved by the ferocity of the baboon, but the titles assure the audience that he was well-treated…
Congo (1995) is an adventure story about a rescue expedition, which is also about finding the ultimate diamond. It also features a rather adorable gorilla called Amy, who can use sign language. She has nightmares about the jungle except when she paints images of it. Amy wishes to return home to the jungle and her keepers decide to take her back to the Congo. They team up with the rescue expedition as they are all going to the same place. Like a traditional adventure film, there is only one woman and a bunch of men.
The story is one of greed for material possessions, and there are many things to thwart the group on their way, not least of all the ultimate threat of the killer silver gorillas that have annihilated the original expedition. The terrifying creatures are ready to defend the temple in the jungle and the diamonds that are the cause of so much greed. If this film hasn’t been made into a game, I’d be very surprised!
Finally, the most recent ape film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes was made in 2011, and began in a laboratory. A doctor thinks he has found a potential cure for Altzheimer’s (ALZ1-12, a virus), but his test subject goes wild and is shot. The programme is closed down. However, the doctor discovers the wild chimp had a baby. The baby chimp, which he rescues and calls Caesar, shows signs of exceptional intelligence.
Caesar is well-named. In captivity, he becomes the general of an army of apes that he trains himself. He steals some ALZ virus to enhance the intelligence of the other apes in order to escape.
Apart from the name “Caesar”, there are a few other little nods to ancient Roman and Greek mythology, including Icarus and Mars, the mention of whom should warn us that there is trouble ahead. Mars is the Roman god of war, and Icarus is the son of Daedalus. Icarus flew too close to the sun and died as a result of his ambitions – for anyone paying attention there’s a helicopter scene near the end where this reference ties in. There’s also a scene very reminiscent of a gladiatorial fight between Caesar and his rather nasty keeper in the “sanctuary”, at which point we also find out something extremely surprising about Caesar! (But I won’t spoil it).
Caesar shows compassion for his good keeper, though, and is reluctant to kill. He is able to make tactical decisions to lead the other apes. You can’t help but admire and respect him, and you hope that he survives the battle.
I’d definitely recommend seeing this film. You’ll love it! In fact, the only thing I didn’t like about this film was that it had to end! Andy Serkis does a fantastic job playing Caesar. There’s apparently another one, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, due out next year, and I can’t wait! I’ll definitely be going to the movies to watch it on the big screen.
On one hand I love these films, on the other hand, they are sad reminders of the greed and stupidity of homo sapiens. I despair at the treatment of some people towards our animal friends and I despair that we push Nature to a point where She turns round and slaps us very hard in the face…
Until next week, be kind to all creatures, the planet and each other. Your friend, A.D.