The early 1950’s were a boom time for science fiction on the big screen, producing a lot of genre-defining favorites like War Of The Worlds, It Came From Outer Space and Invaders From Mars. It was also an era when movies were shown in double or triple bills so that left plenty of room for independent producers to get in on the act with their own cheapies. These quickies rarely hit the aesthetic heights of the films mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph, instead trying to figure out how to spend the least money to hit the basic marks of a genre picture.
The Neanderthal Man is a perfect example of such a quickie, starting with a premise hastily cobbled together from familiar sources. In this case, the story is a blend of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde and The Wolf Man. Dr. Groves (Robert Shayne) is the catalyst of the story and an archetypal ‘50s mad scientist, an antisocial loner who is in the thrall of his own crazy scientific theories. In this case, Groves believes that man’s neanderthal stage offers knowledge and brainpower that today’s man isn’t capable to access.
Groves has been a busy man, secretly experimenting with a formula designed to push his ideas by allowing a living thing to revert back to a primitive phase. Unfortunately, a cat he tested his serum on became a big sabretooth tiger that has run rampant in the local woods. The sheriff brings in zoological expert Dr. Harkness (Richard Crane) to help him track down this beast. Meanwhile, Groves is frustrated by the rejection of his ideas by his peers and decides to test the serum on himself. Cue some man-in-a-cheap-monster-suit antics and then rinse and repeat until the film fits an 80-minute timeslot.
Before infomercials destroyed the concept of late-night movies on local t.v., films like The Neanderthal Man were exactly the kind of cheapie that television stations would use to fill their 2:00 am slot in their programming. The script, penned by producers Audrey Wisberg and Jack Pollexfen, relies on excessively chatty dialogue over action and is packed to the gills with every mad scientist cliché imaginable. There’s the occasional fun scene, the best being a moment where Groves berates his disbelieving scientific colleagues, but the chatter is mostly there to fill the time when the budget isn’t capable of offering more thrills.
The direction by German émigré E.A. Dupont is utilitarian in nature and uninspired, getting the required scenes on film with a mostly static camera. Surprisingly, the look of the film is pretty nice, with noirish black-and-white imagery created by a young Stanley Cortez a decade before he worked with Sam Fuller on Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss. The performances have a stodgy, old-fashioned quality that might charm fans of b-movies from this era, with Shayne’s hamminess taking top honors. There’s also an all too brief appearance from genre starlet Beverly Garland.
It’s a good thing the cast is competent because the effects aren’t. The “sabretooth tiger” is created via a mixture of stock footage of a real tiger plus close-ups of a laughably unconvincing stuffed animal head. The title creature is even funnier: it’s basically a stunt man wearing an ape head with a permed wig — and a polite shirt and pants combo to avoid extra expenses on a body suit. The laughs provided by these effects are probably the liveliest element in an otherwise turgid film.
In short, The Neanderthal Man is middle-of-the-road stuff as far as ‘50s sci-fi cheapies go: it’s not good enough to be truly entertaining but it’s not bad enough to provide the kind of quirky, outsider-art joy that the best bad movies provide. Thus, it is best left to those obsessed with the sci-fi of this era as they might find a certain camp enjoyment in its straight-faced approach to the cheapest of cheap thrills. Everyone else should approach with caution.
Blu-Ray Notes: In a surprise move, this film was revived as half of a double-bill disc with The Beast Of Hollow Mountain by Scream Factory, presented in a blu-ray/DVD combo pack. The blu-ray was viewed for this review. It presents the film in its original 1.33:1 full frame ratio and the results look pretty decent for a film of this budget. The interiors in particular have nice levels of detail and contrast. The mono soundtrack is presented in lossless form and deliver a solid balance of elements. There are no extras but there is a second film to enjoy and the viewer gets the choice of blu-ray or DVD formats.