A young man visits his fiancée in a remote French villa where her scientist father resides. There he meets Noel, Dr. Renault's mysterious assistant, who has a strange attraction to Renault's daughter. Soon he learns Noel's true identity: he is an ape that was turned into a man by Renault's bizarre experiments! Written by
Jeremy Lunt <email@example.com>
Although I've been aware of the existence of this film for years, the sheer fact that I found next to no reading material on it in my father's books on my favorite genre (which I devoured as I was growing up) has led me to believe that it was merely just another ordinary escapist wartime horror programmer. Until it was surprisingly given a recent DVD release as part of the second entry in the "Fox Horror Classics" collection along with the higher-profile CHANDU THE MAGICIAN (1932; featuring Bela Lugosi) and DRAGONWYCK (1946; with Vincent Price) I had no previous opportunity to watch it and, now that I have, it's safe to say that it's been one of the most pleasant surprises I've had during this year's bumpy Halloween Challenge.
Unlike Universal, Paramount, RKO and even MGM, 20th Century Fox was hesitant to jump onto the Horror bandwagon and seemed to do so only half-heartedly as evidenced by John Brahm's all-style-but-no-substance werewolf picture THE UNDYING MONSTER (1942) which, incidentally, was actually paired with DR. RENAULT'S SECRET on original release as the upper half of a double-bill. I'm not sure if it's because I thought the Brahm film suffered in comparison to Universal's THE WOLF MAN that I've found RENAULT to be more satisfactory or merely because I haven't yet watched any of the latter's own progenitors the Silent French Gaston Leroux adaptation BALAOO (1913), Fox's own intriguing Silent foray into the genre THE WIZARD (1927) and Paramount's well-cast THE MONSTER AND THE GIRL (1941) or perhaps because it's undoubtedly superior to a similarly-themed contemporaneous Bela Lugosi vehicle THE APE MAN (1943) which wasn't really all that bad to begin with but, ultimately, I now consider DR. RENAULT'S SECRET to be an unjustly forgotten vintage gem of this most prolific, beloved and yet maligned of genres.
In essence, the story set in France is typical 'mad scientist' fodder with the titular ultra-Darwinian medico/part-time jungle explorer (George Zucco) attempting to prove conclusively his idol's controversial evolution theories by surgically turning an ape into a man. The cast of characters is supplemented by the doctor's lovely niece (Lynne Roberts), her fiancée who also happens to be a doctor (Shepperd Strudwick billed here as John Shepperd!), Renault's ex-con gardener (Mike Mazurki) and equally shady butler (Jean De Val), a suspicious Police Inspector (Arthur Shields) and, best of all, J. Carrol Naish as Roberts' enigmatic and highly sensitive protector Noel. The ensemble cast is generally good and sympathetic to the material at hand, but it's clearly Naish's show here in a very poignant performance as the result of Zucco's questionable experiments: a soft-spoken, love-struck handyman, subtly but effectively made to look simian in appearance via a shaggy wig and enlarged nostrils (incidentally, he would play a variation on the role as a hunchback in Universal's HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN  in which Zucco also appears, by the way). Although Zucco made a slew of similarly ghoulish potboilers around this time (and so did Naish, as already mentioned), I've only watched a couple of them myself so far; seeing him turn from a suave gentleman by day into a whip-wielding sadist with the poor, unfortunate Naish at the receiving end of it, one can't blame producers for simply offering him more of the same in subsequent years!
Being the product of a major studio (albeit a low-budgeted one and running a trim 58 minutes), the solid production values were to be expected but one other aspect that impressed me about DR. RENAULT'S SECRET was the intermittent stylishness of Harry Lachman's direction, all tinted angles (down to the very last shot of the film with Naish's lifeless body practically falling onto the camera!) and evocative chiaroscuro lighting (Zucco's own come-uppance is simply depicted as a shadowy struggle between him and the finally-rebellious Naish). I'm not about to assign auteur status to Lachman (whose last film this proved to be despite going on to live for another 33 years!) or anything, but it's a well-known fact that his version of DANTE'S INFERNO (1935) starring Spencer Tracy (also for Fox) is highlighted by a memorable nightmare sequence set in Hades and also that OUR RELATIONS (1936) was Laurel and Hardy's most polished production and one of their most satisfactory vehicles overall.
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