“Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla” (1952)
by A.J. Hakari
Boy, Bela Lugosi could never catch a break, could he? Even in a project reportedly rushed into production after he expressed a desire to do more comedies (one that went on to use his name in the title, no less), the horror star ultimately found his role in a diminished state and his talents laid to waste. This was the fate that befell 1952’s Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, a low-rent farce doubling as a vehicle for two dudes more famous for their lounge act being a nearly lawsuit-worthy rip-off of the Martin & Lewis routine than for said schtick actually being any good. Just one glance at that preposterous moniker should clue you in that high art isn’t imminent, but that doesn’t mean an appealingly zany hunk of retro cheese along the lines of all those ’60s beach musicals is out of the question. Unfortunately, while such fondly-remembered flicks had actual jokes to make and humorous set-ups to execute, Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla hasn’t an inspired zinger to its name, depending almost solely on the energy of actors who barely want to be there in the first place to instill the barren screenplay with a case of the giggles.
In thinly-veiled riffs on their own stage personas, Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo play entertainers who end up stranded on a jungle isle, en route to putting on a show for the boys overseas. Luckily, it’s not long before the two are found and taken in by a native tribe, whose fetching princess Nona (Charlita) takes an instant shine to the dashing Duke. Even better for the pair, there also lives and works on the island one Dr. Zabor (Lugosi), a scientist running experiments on the local wildlife. He agrees to let the guys stay at his place until a boat can swing by and haul them back to civilization, but his gears change after Nona spurns his affections and instead gravitates towards Duke’s arms. Suddenly, the crooner finds himself Dr. Zabor’s latest guinea pig, the unwilling recipient of a heinous potion that transforms him into a huge gorilla. In the midst of dodging the gaze of Nona’s man-hungry sister (Muriel Landers), can Sammy pull himself together in time to save his pal from going ape for good and return to his beloved Big Apple in one piece?
Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla is as antiquated as B-pictures can get, yet its insensitive aspects would do more damage, were their presence not so inherently puzzling. Among the most cringe-worthy material is, obviously, the cornucopia of jungle stereotypes forever spilling out onscreen, with the “native” tribesmen consisting mostly of white guys with tans and loincloths muttering abject gibberish for the whole ride. You’d think that the movies would’ve gotten amusing themselves with “ooga-booga” nonsense out of their systems a long time before Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla came around, yet here we have a flick feasting on about the lowest-hanging fruit possible, because that’s all it strives to harvest. The film was released at a time when audiences were well-versed in horror tropes, leading productions like Abbott & Costello’s Universal Monster crossovers to have fun with the formulas and turn them on their heads. That this thing mainly ignores such calls for self-aware deconstruction is no great surprise, but that it forsakes passing any clever dialogue or creatively comic scenarios onto viewers is virtually unforgivable. God forbid the writers be bothered to put something resembling a personal stamp on the script, as their involvement extends to establishing a situation and leaving it up to the actors to scream, mug, or pratfall their way through it.
Alright, so Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla‘s jokes connect about as successfully as a pile of King Kong’s scat, but a solid cast has been known to elevate crummy material in the past. At the forefront of this caper are Mitchell and Petrillo, whose act enjoyed a fair deal of popularity for a spell, until Jerry Lewis saw to it that the men were essentially blackballed out of show business. It’s sort of sad that their careers never really took off respectively or as a team, because even in this ill-conceived mash of monkey business, it’s obvious that they weren’t devoid of talent. Mitchell (who’d later achieve cult prominence as the director/star of 1974’s Massacre Mafia Style) has a good singing voice, and the inhumanly-lanky Petrillo — despite his hollering grinding one’s nerves to a fine powder within seconds — possesses an energy and physical presence that might have serviced him better, had the script actually been up to snuff. But as for the guy the entire picture was named after, opportunities for Lugosi to flex his comedic muscles as he’d wished are few and far between. Dr. Zabor is often positioned as the straight man against Petrillo and his frantic shenanigans, but Lugosi is given next to no reactions or lines to keep the funny flow going, basically trapping him in yet another generic retread of the tired mad scientist archetype.
Its title alone has secured Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla‘s spot on many a “worst movies ever” list until the end times, but actually watching it is another story. While it set out to be little more than a dopey comedy cobbled together to cash in on a fading horror icon’s reputation, it’s still a dreadfully laughless progenitor of the Friedberg/Seltzer philosophy of just rattling off clichés and pop culture references counting as crafting a quality gag. Even for the extremely modest goals it set for itself, Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla fails to rise to the occasion, giving us neither a flick amusing on its own merits or one teeming with ironic charm.