The Ape (1940) - Plot Summary Poster



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  • Dr. Bernard Adrian is a kindly mad scientist who seeks to cure a young woman's polio. He needs spinal fluid from a human to complete the formula for his experimental serum. Meanwhile, a vicious circus ape has broken out of its cage, and is terrorizing towns people.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • Boris Karloff stars in The Ape as Doctor Bernard Adrian, a medical researcher who has retreated from the scientific world to live in the small town of Red Creek. Dr Adrian is haunted by the deaths of his wife and daughter to paralysis (polio) and since their deaths has been working towards a cure for the condition. For the last ten years he has been conducting experiments testing his serum on animals. The doctor is disliked and mistrusted by the local population who, although unaware of what he is trying to do still suspect him of unconventional medical practices and (rightly) suspect he is connected to the disappearance of local dogs. We see the townspeople gossiping about the Doctor when he goes to Quinn, the town's druggist (Harry C. Bradley) to collect medical supplies and although Adrian is kind to the local children their parents warnings about him prompt them to pelt his house with stones. In fact Dr Adrian has only one patient the beautiful, wheelchair bound Frances Clifford (Maris Wrixon) who reminds Adrian of his own daughter as Frances is afflicted by the same condition she had. Dr Adrian is determined to cure Frances and both the girl and her mother (Dorothy Vaughan) have faith in his ability - though Frances' auto-mechanic boyfriend Danny Foster (Gene O' Donnell) is frightened by Adrian's ideas. The Doctor needs one thing to complete his experimental serum so that he can test it on Frances and that is human spinal fluid, but in order to get it he would need a recently deceased subject as the removal of the spinal fluid would kill the donor.

    An opportunity for Dr Adrian to complete his serum soon presents itself when a travelling circus comes to Red Creek. One of the star attractions of the circus is Nabu (Ray Corrigan) a huge ape. Nabu is being horribly mistreated by his cruel trainer (Isaac Stanford Jolley) and when the creature fights back and mauls the trainer it accidentally starts a fire and in the resulting confusion the ape escapes into the surrounding countryside. The sheriff of Red Creek Jeff Halliday (Henry Hall) advises that the mortally wounded trainer be taken to Dr Adrian, but as he is tending to the man the doctor realises here is a chance to obtain the spinal fluid he needs. Adrian extracts the spinal fluid, killing the trainer in the process, and completes his serum and tests it on Frances. The experiment seems to have some effect as the girl has some feeling restored to her paralysed legs, but in his excitement at the effect Adrian drops the test-tube of serum. When Adrian returns to his home to use the remainder of the spinal fluid to make some more serum Nabu the ape breaks into the house. Adrian and the ape fight, smashing the flask containing the spinal fluid in the process, and the doctor throws acid into the face of the ape before killing the beast with a knife. Adrian instructs Jane (Gertrude Hoffman), his near silent housekeeper not to tell anyone that the creature is dead as Dr Adrian has a macabre plan.

    Dr Adrian skins Nabu and dresses himself up as the ape, this will allow Adrian to go out and kill the more unworthy members of society in order to save Frances - and it is Nabu who will be suspected of committing the crimes not the good doctor. Meanwhile, we see the local bank manager Henry Mason (Philo McCullough) portrayed as a real scoundrel. Quinn the druggist accuses him of usury and when his long suffering wife (Mary Field) confronts him about his philandering he tells her that if she doesn't like it then "there is always the river" - i.e. she can go and drown herself. Little surprise then that Mason is the first victim of the disguised Dr Adrian who kills him and extracts his spinal fluid. Again the doctor tries his serum on Frances and again she feels some benefit but as the feeling returns to her legs she is unwilling to heed Adrian's urging to get up from her chair - in part due the discouragement of her boyfriend, who seems to fear losing her if she regains the ability to walk.

    However, the Sheriff is becoming suspicious of Dr Adrian and orders some of the posse of men he is leading in the search for the ape to watch the doctor's house. When the doctor dons the ape suit once again and goes out into the countryside in search of another victim he is spotted by one of the Sheriff's men and mortally wounded. As Dr Adrian lies dying from his wound Frances finally gets up out of her wheelchair to go to him and she does so Dr Adrian's ape suit seems to fade from her view. Thus, the doctor feels his murders have been justified.

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