“Jungle Woman” (1944)
by A.J. Hakari
It’s odd that the Bride of Frankenstein turned out to be the most enduring female figure from Universal’s storied cavalcade of monsters. She’s a neat character with one of the most recognizable looks in film history, but that the studio never produced another feminine frightmaker that even came close to matching her iconic status is kind of a bummer. Then again, Universal didn’t exactly try that hard, as their only effort at building a franchise around the concept of beauty as the beast yielded an obscure trilogy of B-grade chillers about, of all things, a were-ape. 1943’s Captive Wild Woman spun the fantastic story of a jungle creature transformed into an exotic supermodel, and while the bulk of it came off as a cheesed-up riff on Cat People, it was still pretty fun and served as a unique response to the male-dominated horror shows that came before it. But I wish I could be as kind to its first sequel, Jungle Woman, a movie that pays so little mind to the conceit at its core, it ends up making a solid case for why it shouldn’t even exist. It’s a flavorless affair in the first place, but add in the shadow of Universal’s monstrous legacy looming over it, and you’ve got yourself audiences afar rendered both disappointed and bored out of their skulls.
When we last left Cheela the wonder ape, she met a tragic end in the chaos of a circus riot…or so it seemed. Luckily, kindly Dr. Fletcher (J. Carrol Naish) was there that night, and after purchasing the body for experimentation, he eventually manages to revive the plucky primate. But soon after her return to life, Cheela flees and turns back into her human form, that of a young woman named Paula (Acquanetta). The good doctor even takes her on as a patient, completely unaware of her primitive heritage and how it’s about to put the lives of his loved ones in danger. You see, Paula has developed quite the crush on Bob (Richard Davis), the beloved beau of Fletcher’s daughter (Lois Collier). She demands a mate, and fueled by her jungle instincts, she’s willing to kill anyone who’s standing in her way. But will a suspicious Fletcher get to the bottom of his patient’s true nature in time to save his family from her wild wrath?
The problem with Jungle Woman is that its connections to what makes this franchise so special to begin with are tenuous at best. A quarter of the picture’s hour-long running time is comprised of stock footage taken from its predecessor, and out of the remaining minutes, Paula’s beastly form is seen for a scant five seconds, tops. That’s right, Jungle Woman is a monster movie that doesn’t really have a monster in it, and whether Acquanetta didn’t want to endure another painstaking Jack Pierce makeover or Universal was simply that damn cheap, this feature’s lack of a creature is a major distraction. It’s not even a matter of building up mystery behind Paula’s background (since we’re aware she’s actually Cheela from the start) or hiding the ape make-up for effect (since we see so little of it). All this is the product of laziness, and while I shouldn’t be surprised, given the number of genre fare at the time that was made in a hurry and existed solely to supplement more prestigious attractions, those cut corners came at the cost of anything resembling thrills and chills.
Stranger yet, however, is how clear it is that if Jungle Woman completely severed all ties to the movie that spawned it, it probably would’ve been better off. Once you boil the premise down to that of a mentally-unstable stalker who gets dangerously fixated on some poor schmoe, you realize that this could’ve easily been retrofitted to be one of the Inner Sanctum mysteries that Universal was cranking out at the exact same time. It certainly wouldn’t have raised so many questions regarding Paula, like what made her become human again after all this time, why she’s an outright villain here instead of the misunderstood anti-heroine of the first movie, and, most importantly, how the hell she learned to talk. That last part proves especially troublesome in Jungle Woman, because — as mean as it might sound — Acquanetta just wasn’t the most polished performer. As tempting as it is to chalk her stiff delivery to her trying to emulate an animalistic being’s shaky command of English, she ultimately has better luck acting with those great expressive eyes of hers than with reciting dialogue. To be fair, though, she possesses enough screen presence to help certain sequences come across as creepy as they were intended to, as in one moment where Paula terrorizes Bob and his gal pal in the middle of a lake.
Unless you’re a Universal horror junkie who simply must see every obscurity possible, it’s best not to seek out Jungle Woman. Not only is it a sixty-minute drag with hardly any tension to its name, it’s a wasted opportunity on a grand scale, piddling away the rare chance to spook monster fans with what might’ve been a female genre star. Barely possessing enough cheesy charm to help it chug along, Jungle Woman is better off buried in the past.