Curt Siodmak — The Lesser Works

Posted: January 7, 2023 in Uncategorized

I just watched Bride of the Gorilla (1951) and Curucu, Beast of the Amazon (1956) back to back, those two very minor efforts of jungle horror by Curt Siodmak as writer/director. Some spoilery thoughts follow.

It’s interesting that Siodmak did scripts for both sides of the competing trends in horror in the 40s, i.e. being a key figure in the rise of the monster rallies at Universal, and contributing to Val Lewton’s I Walked with a Zombie at RKO. I find it interesting, too, to consider the fact that his hand was far from free at either studio, from Universal vetoing the ambiguity in his original script for The Wolf Man to the fact that Lewton closely supervised and rewrote the scripts of all the films he produced.

From the evidence of Bride and Curucu, it would seem that Siodmak’s sympathies were closer to the Lewton side of that divide. And while that produces some interesting, if flawed, results with Bride, Curucu is an unqualified disaster.

Bride of the Gorilla gives Siodmak the chance to revisit his original ideas for The Wolf Man. Raymond Burr, cursed for killing the unloved husband of Barbara Payton, believes he turns into a gorilla, but all his transformations are shot subjectively, and the film leans heavily toward the psychological explanation. Having Lon Chaney Jr present solidifies the connection to The Wolf Man, and Tom Conway ties the film’s doomed plantation family to I Walked with a Zombie. (Though that film’s thoughtful-for-the-time critique of colonialism is almost completely absent from both Bride and Curucu, which are awash with racist “White Man’s Burden” nonsense, suggesting to me that the aforementioned critique came from Lewton rather than Siodmak.)

Bride has promising themes of guilt and obsessive love, and a hell of a cast, but it doesn’t really fulfill its potential. Burr and Payton know their way around film noir tropes, and there should be more heat generated by their relationship. Unfortunately, Siodmak barely gives us time to see the two together before he separates them, dispatching Burr off-screen to the jungle every night.

As well, Siodmak seems to have forgotten the Lewton formula: “a love story, three scenes of suggested horror and one of actual violence.” There are traces of that structure here, but in between Burr being cursed and the final denouement, almost nothing actually happens. Whatever danger Burr represents in his nightly romps through the jungle, we only hear about it vaguely, and see nothing.

All of this makes me all the more grateful for the studio interference on The Wolf Man. Would that film be nearly as memorable as it is if we doubted the reality of transformation? I don’t think so. The Wolf Man needs to be as overt in its horrors as its opposite number Cat People, needs to be subtle.

Still, misfire though it might be, Bride of the Gorilla has some real atmosphere and interesting ideas, and it is a masterpiece next to Curucu, Beast of the Amazon. By rights, Curucu (pronounced “coo-roo-SOO”) should have been more like a Universal monster mash. Instead, we get a cheating, crashing bore that not even Beverly Garland can save. As Heart of Darkness variants go, even though Siodmak shot on location, this makes the stock-footage-filled Monster from Green Hell look like Apocalypse Now.

Curucu’s sins are legion. It relentlessly punishes Garland’s character for daring to be independent, and demands that we regard John Bromfied’s loathsome, brutish plantation owner as our hero. And its monster, so fearsome on the poster, a) is barely seen; and b) turns out to be a fake.

I knew about the monster cheat going in, and I knew the film was going to be dull, but I was still surprised by how dismally the story was executed. The script for Curucu is one of the worst I’ve ever encountered. I say this not because it reaches the level of surreal incompetence of something like Plan 9 from Outer Space or The Room, but rather because it is the work of someone who knows better.

How did the author of Donovan’s Brain and screenwriter of The Beast with Five Fingers write such a shambles? The last, agonizingly protracted 15 minutes of the film are the worst offenders. Having revealed the truth of the “monster” a few minutes earlier, and then quickly disposed of the character, Siodmak runs out of plot (not that there was much to begin with) and gives up entirely, padding out the running time with the protracted, disjointed, pointless return journey of its protagonists. Over and over again, the music swells and the camera tilts up to the sky, as if they were desperately trying to conjure the end of the film.

Even the title of Curucu, Beast of the Amazon is a lie: not only is there no Beast of the Amazon, “Curucu” is the name of the place the monster is supposed to come from, not the monster itself.

In the annals of low-end creature features, Curucu is one of the absolute worst, relentlessly denying its target audience even the most basic fulfillment of its promises. Not even Jerry Warren went that far.

So I’m left thinking of the title of Jimmy Sangster’s autobiography: Do You Want it Good or Tuesday? When Siodmak was good, he was great, but when he didn’t care, it seems he was a “Tuesday” man. I think we can see both sides of him, the inspired and the rushed, in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, even if we factor in the massive recutting the studio imposed on the scenes with the Frankenstein Monster. This script was a gig, not a labour of love: Siodmak took the assignment because he wanted a new car. The first part of the film, focussing on Larry Talbot, nonetheless strikes me something that Siodmak really cares about, as he revisits his creation. The story is tight, efficient, and emotionally gripping.

In the latter half of the film, things become sloppier once Siodmak has to turn his attention to the “Frankenstein” side of the equation. This is particularly noticeable in the confusing way he refers to Elsa Frankenstein’s father, sometimes making it clear that he is the son of the original doctor, and at other times making it sound as if he is actually the creator of the monster.

There is enough sheer monster joy to be had in the Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man overall to get past the infelicities, but I think the film does show us a writer who could bring both his A and B game to the same project. And though Bride of the Gorilla is far from his best work, there is enough interesting stuff going on to suggest that he was still engaged with the material. In Curucu by contrast, his contempt for the film and its audience is withering.

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