Mistress of the Apes (1979)

Mistress_of_the_Apes_(1979)‘In the jungle there are only two species: the pluckers and the plucked.’

A scientist loses her baby when the birth is interrupted by junkies bursting into the delivery room looking for drugs. Her husband’s gone missing in Africa and his final photographs seem to show that he has discovered the missing link.

Filmmaker Larry Buchanan is a legitimate candidate for the ‘Worst Director of All Time.’ His particular talent was for taking a scene and sucking all the life out of it; leaving his actors as dull automatons mouthing his awkward, semi-ridiculous dialogue. This went beyond any limitations his various cast members might have had as it was something he achieved with monotonous regularity throughout his ‘heyday’ of the 1960s. Perhaps he had some kind of a secret sucking machine? But, having said all that, by 1979 Buchanan seemed to have developed as a filmmaker (perhaps his machine broke?) and here his actors merely appear a little stilted and uncomfortable.

But at least the film starts off with a bang! Lead Jenny Neumann suffers trauma in more ways than one when a trio of druggies raid the strangely understaffed city hospital while she’s in labour. It’s an exciting opening for a Buchanan movie, but things soon settle down into his usual, dull groove as Neumann heads to the Dark Continent (played here by Malibu State Park). She’s accompanied by heroic Garth Pillsbury, scuzzball Walt Robin and his wife played by Barbara Leigh. They seem to be representing the magazine that’s funding the trip but as Leigh comments at one point: ‘Just because l work for a gun magazine doesn’t mean I know how to use one’ throwing some doubt on the expedition’s scientific objectives.

Anyway, one of the trio is actually in cahoots with the owner of the local trading post, who had two animal poachers kill Neumann’s husband in the hope of exploiting his discovery for profit. But the lost tribe of ‘near men’ — or ‘Homo Habilis’ as Neumann helpfully informs us – prove surprisingly easy to find. Unfortunately, one of the more gun happy explorers kills the cavemen’s only woman, leaving a rather important job vacancy. But, no worries, Neumann happily steps into the breach by breast feeding an infant and having sex with one of the tribesmen. This is after she’s gained their trust by performing a subtle pantomime involving eating a banana, scratching her armpits and beating her chest. This scene would have been ridiculous anyway, but completely out of nowhere it’s accompanied by a slab of lame white-boy funk with a singer giving us the lowdown on the ‘Ape Lady’. All together now: “She was looking for a mate /She couldn’t find a man, so she got herself an ape /She’s an Ape Laydee…”

Meanwhile, there’s tiresome sub-plot of ‘cat and mouse’ between the rest of the expedition and the evil trader and his men, resulting in some half-baked gunplay and poorly staged combat. The ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ resolution is somewhat less than exciting and features the ‘near men’ who are played by some muscly blokes in face makeup.

Mistress_of_the_Apes_(1979)

Monkey see, monkey get a bit horny…

Neumann’s motivation for her strange life choices and behaviour would seem to be that traumatic opening at the hospital, which is still giving her some serious nightmares. There’s a general nod to the Ed Wood scripted ‘classic’ ‘The Bride and the Beast’ (1958) here, but Buchanan seems far more interested in trowelling on a less than subtle parallel between the dangers of New York’s urban jungle and the real thing.

I must confess a sneaking admiration for Neumann though; it’s hard to imagine Meryl Streep throwing herself into some of these scenes without calling her agent and demanding a ticket home (although she would probably have spent 6 months living with the primitive tribes in Malibu State Park learning their languages and customs). Neumann went on to appear in much bigger budgeted projects, including a supporting role in science-fiction mini-series ’V’ (1983).

This is not Buchanan at his worst; it’s simply a cheap, ridiculous melodrama without much in the way of drama and a slightly unpleasant aftertaste.

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