Mistress of the Apes (1981)

Own it!

review by Scott Hamilton and Chris Holland
See also:

King Kong (1976)

Tarzan and the Lost City

Mighty Peking Man

Mistress of the Apes

Lava Lamp

Our rating: one LAVA® motion lamp.

Susan gets confused and tries
to attract chipmunks instead of apes.
When speaking of bad movies, certain names are legend. Ed Wood, Jr. Albert Pyun. Charles Band. And then there's the director we've never covered on this site before: Larry Buchanan.

There are two ruling schools of thought when it comes to Larry Buchanan. One claims that Buchanan's films are the satanic spawn of Hell. The other claims Buchanan's work is the hellish spawn of Satan. We feel it's time to put these rivalries to rest. Can't we all just agree these movies are horrible? Buchanan is the heir apparent to Ed Wood's ear for non-sequitur dialogue, but Larry had greater cinematic ambitions than his predecessor, often with even fewer resources than Wood had at his disposal. Buchanan also went through a phase in which he remade a bunch of Samuel Z. Arkoff movies, so not only were the movies boring and cheap but they'd already been seen in better incarnations.

Actual footage of a meeting
at Microsoft headquarters.
Even when Buchanan did manage to scrape up a few bucks, however, it's not as if the results were at all watchable. Take Mistress of the Apes, for example. (No, please, take it. Badum-cha!) It's the simple story of Susan (Jenny Neumann), a beautiful young anthropologist who, after an ugly miscarriage, takes to the African jungle in search of her husband. Hubby disappeared in that same jungle, but his gear and camera surfaced, with surprising evidence of a society of ape-men -- the missing link, which turns out not to have been so much missing as simply taking a holiday. The amazing thing is that Buchanan actually managed to film on location in Kenya, supported by who-the-hell-knows-what kind of investors, likely lured in by the fact that ape-girl movies were big business that year. (Tarzan, the Ape Man starring Bo Derek was also released in '81, though Gorillas in the Mist was still several years distant.)

Once in the jungle, Susan is betrayed by David Thurston (Walt Robin), a rich publisher friend who is underwriting the trip. It turns out that Thurston arranged for some poachers to kill Susan's husband, basically to get Susan alone. (This has got to be the most complicated plot to seduce a woman ever.) Once the tribe of ape-men has been found and Thurston's evilness is revealed, Thurston and the poachers try to kill Susan, Thurston's wife Laura (who was "just along for the ride" all the way to central Africa), and the overly-ethical guide he hired. Thurston also takes aim at the Homo Habilis tribe, further demonstrating that homo-phobia is a terrible thing. Meanwhile, Susan seeks out the "Near-Men" tribe and does her best to Fossey her way into their good graces, though she takes a couple of extra steps Dian never did. If you're wondering what those steps are, we suggest you read the title of the movie again.

So that's why Steven Spielberg
never shaves!
It would take a long time to describe everything that's wretched about Mistress of the Apes. As with so many bad movies, it's a combination of wrong-headed thinking, outlandish filming choices, and bizarre cost-cutting measures -- seemingly simple details gone wrong, snowballing into an unholy mess that causes one to gape in disbelief.

We were immediately struck by the fact that the central concept is very interesting, but completely wasted. There are paleo-anthropologists who would give their right arms, right eyes, right testicles, and the rightmost children in their family portraits for the chance to observe living examples of early hominids. We could learn so much about the nature of intelligence and humanity. But such concerns are far beyond scope of Mistress of the Apes, which pretty much equates tool use with beating people to death with stone axes. While we’re on the science of the film, we'd just like to point out how ridiculous it is for Susan to jump to the conclusion that her husband found Homo Habilis from the fuzzy picture of a partial face she sees at the beginning of the film. She talks about the pronounced brow and such, but it could just as easily be an extreme close-up of Vin Diesel in a bad wig.

Buchanan's "talent" for dialogue is also in full force in Mistress of the Apes. We're honestly not sure if Buchanan would include terms and phrases he didn't understand into his dialogue, or if the actors messed them up on the set and there wasn't time to do a reshoot. For example:

"That outfit's wearing you, Felix."
Susan: I'm sorry to leave you here to play wet nurse.
Laura: Just call me Florence Nightingale!

Later, when Thurston explains to Susan that she's the woman he really wants, despite his many paramours:

"Substitutes, nothing but substitutes. Dumb broads who make up a twosome."

Finally, one of the poachers reflects on the nature of the African wilds:

In the jungle, there are two species: the pluckers and the plucked."

Similar to his misuse of the human language is Buchanan's misapplication of sound editing. While the dialogue is mostly intelligible (that is to say, we understand the words, if not their intended meaning), the variety of jungle sounds edited into the savannah terrain are not only inappropriate, but sometimes maddeningly repetitive. There's one little bird call in particular - toowheet! toowheet! that can get inside your head and hammer away at your brain until you begin to throw furniture. Memo to budget directors of the future: invest in a varied sound library, and use it sparingly.

Mourning the death of the
audience's interest.
The final blow comes towards the end of the film, in a moment that forces viewers reconsider everything they know about the movie so far. As Susan makes contact with the tribe, the following song plays:

(Imagine this being sung by Tom Jones, in full jungle rhythm mode.)

ooh - ee-ee ooh
ee-ee ooh
ee-ee ooh

There once was a lady
Who got sick of the city
So she made herself a plan
To get out of the city
Find her roots in the jungle
Where a woman is a woman
And a man is a man
She went lookin' for a mate
But she didn't find a man
So she found herself an ape!

ooh - ee-ee ooh
ee-ee ooh
ee-ee ooh

She's an ape - lady!
She's the mistress of the apes.
She's an ape - lady!
When she calls they congregate!

They can hear her voice
Ringin' far and wide
She's the queen of the jungle
And the monkey's pride!
Ape - lady!
The mistress of the apes.

ooh - ee-ee ooh
ee-ee ooh
ee-ee ooh

It didn't take her long to get used to the monkeys
Cause they acted like their brothers in the zoo
And though at the beginning all their faces looked the same
Before very long she knew just who was who
She used her charms to tame the wild
She thought of everything - but what to name the child!

ooh - ee-ee ooh
ee-ee ooh
ee-ee ooh


This is the part of Weight Watchers
they don't tell you about.
Was all this supposed to be a parody? We can't imagine it was. For one thing, this song is just about the only funny thing in the movie. So many other genuinely unpleasant things are offered up for our enjoyment we can't imagine we were supposed to laugh at any of it. There are the obvious implications of bestiality (complete with an almost-sex scene), but there are also multiple rape scenes (Thurston offers his wife up to the poachers), murders (a naked Bantu woman is beat to death by a Habilis), and the opening miscarriage, which occurs when junkies break into the hospital for drugs and shut off the power.

If we had to say something nice about this film, we would point out that the Homo Habilis make-up is actually pretty good. The make-up effects were created by Rob Bottin and Greg Cannom, both of who would go on to win Oscars. Sure, they don't look much like what we imagine Habilis did, but it's still a valiant try. Also, the fact that Mistress of the Apes was actually shot in Kenya, suggesting that they really wanted to capitalize on the Tarzan movie that same year. A shame, then, that the movie's racial attitudes seem to date from the original Tarzan the Ape Man (1932). The victimized Habilis are portrayed against all logic as fair skinned white guys, and black people only exist as superstitious tribes people or (back in New York City) crazy, murderous drug addicts.

Our parting shot at this Buchanan masterpiece must involve its title. Though female Homo Habilis apparently do exist (Thurston guns one down midway through the film), they are noticably absent from the scenes in which Susan interacts with the tribe. Is the title derived from the fact that, during their dalliance with this blond-haired anthorpologist, the ape-men are all on vacation from their ape-wives elsewhere in the jungle? Doesn't her eventual monogamous hookup with one of the tribesmen mean that she is the mistress of an ape? Or does the title imply that Susan comes to a mastery over the tribe? The scenes in which the Near-Men compete for her affections certainly supports this theory.

The problem, however, is that the expectations raised by the title and suggestive box cover are simply too high. Short of actually filming a full-on sex scene between homos habilis and sapiens, there simply isn't any way to scratch the rather lurid itch felt by those who rent this movie in earnest. Better, we think, to go for a more overt expression of sexuality that make actually make it past the censors. Dominatrix of the Apes, perhaps? Hey, Larry -- if you can find the investors, we'll provide the script.

Own it!

This article is part of the B-Masters Roundtable Review entitled:
Click here for the Super Soaker
And You Call Yourself A Scientist!
The Bad Movie Report
The Naked Witch
Jabootu's Bad Movie Dimension
The Unknown Movies

Review date: 06/30/2003

This review is © copyright 2003 Chris Holland & Scott Hamilton. Blah blah blah. Please don't claim that it's yours blah blah, but feel free to e-mail it to friends, or better yet, send them the URL. To reproduce this review in another form, please contact us at guys@stomptokyo.com. Blah blah blah blah. LAVA® , LAVA LITE® and the motion lamp configuration are registered trademarks of Haggerty Enterprises, Inc., Chicago, IL