The Beast of Borneo (1934)
“Mad scientist on quest for gorilla glands!”
Director: Harry Garson
Cast: Mae Stuart, John Preston, Eugene Sigaloff
Synopsis: A crazed scientist needs primates to conduct experiments to prove his own theory of evolution, so he organizes an expedition into the jungles of Borneo to capture the animals he needs.
Although it’s true that some classic movies of merit, such as The Birth of a Nation and It’s a Wonderful Life, do end up in the public domain through a presumable oversight on the parts of the copyright holders, it’s equally obvious that a lot of movies — like The Beast of Borneo, for example — end up there because nobody gives a toss about them. Because, let’s face it, there’s not much of any worth in titles like this and all those other lousy prints of low budget 1930s and 40s B-movies cluttering up YouTube and the Internet Archive.
The Beast of Borneo was directed by Harry Garson, a former theatrical impresario who made a number of movies with his lover, the silent movie star Clara Kimball Young, in the early 1920s. In fact, Garson’s incompetent direction of Kimball Young’s movies was, together with her rapidly fading looks, a major influence on the decline of her career in the early 20s, and it’s clear that by 1934 he still couldn’t cut it in the director’s chair. The Beast of Borneo is a truly wretched piece of work, with no redeeming features — other than the fact that it would prove to be the last movie Garson would ever force upon an undeserving world before his death in 1938.
Every bad horror movie must have a mad scientist, and in The Beast of Borneo it’s Doctor Boris Borodoff (Eugene Sigaloff) who is experimenting on the brains of orang-utans to prove his theories regarding evolution. When he starts running low on stock he puts in an order for replacements, but is perturbed to learn that it’s proving impossible to locate any, and that the hunter with whom he has placed his order has decided he’s not prepared to ship any orang-utans overseas for experimentation. With his work at a delicate stage, Borodoff feels he has no choice but to travel to Borneo himself — together with his hot assistant Alma (Mae Stuart) in tow, of course — in order to procure himself some prime stock.
So it is, then, that he and Alma find themselves in Moejoels — the gateway to orang-utan country — where they meet up with dashing young hunter Bob Ward (John Preston). With typically simplified good/bad, black/white characterisation we instantly sense from Ward’s kindness to both human and simian babies that he’s one of the good guys just as strongly and surely as we know that Borodoff’s a bad ‘un.
Reiterating his refusal to hunt orang-utans for the purposes of medical research, Ward eventually agrees to guide Borodoff into the jungle upon receiving the doctor’s glib assurance that he wouldn’t dream of experimenting on any of the ungainly creatures. With that, Ward, Borodoff and Alma head off into the jungle — which is where they remain for the next three weeks as they unsuccessfully try to locate one of the animals. By this time, Borodoff’s starting to get a bit ticked off, and I can’t say I really blame him. ‘Call yourself a hunter?’ I’d have enquired of Ward, but instead the doctor simply remains mute as Ward scorns him for being a quitter in front of the natives. Just then, however, some jungle bird calls four times which, to the natives who were just beginning to grow restless in the face of Borodoff’s obvious quitiness, means that they have been blessed with good luck and will find an orang-utan at any moment.
And, guess what? Sure enough, they come across one of the creatures sitting up a tree minding his own business. Trouble is, he’s a bit more savvy than you’d expect, and refuses to come down until Ward hits on the idea of tempting him with an assortment of fruit soaked in prominently displayed Gordon’s gin. Of course, with the orang-utan now in captivity, Borodoff’s true colours start to show, setting up an exciting, terrifying and altogether enthralling finale…
Ok, allow me to get all the bad points off my chest first. In case you were in any doubt, let me make it clear that The Beast of Borneo is one of the most excruciatingly bad movies it’s ever been my misfortune to see. I’d honestly rather push red hot pins into my eyeballs rather than have to sit through this God-awful joke of a movie again. It’s only 63 minutes long, but each minute feels as if it has lasted an hour as that bit in which nothing happens is followed by a bit in which nothing happens before another bit where nothing happens comes along. Absolutely nothing, other than a group of bad actors standing in front of unconvincing back projection reciting bad dialogue as if it is being read into their ear as they speak.
Of the three no-name leads, John Preston is by far the worst. To call him wooden would be insulting to wood. He and Mae Stuart, who is only marginally better and at least had the common decency to never make another film in her life, speak their lines without subtlety or grace, inserting inflections at random, regardless of whether they’re appropriate to the words they’re speaking, before staring at each other as they try to remember what to do next (‘unh, oh yeah — exit stage right’). Meanwhile, Sigaloff’s accent is so mangled it’s difficult to make out what he’s saying half the time — and yet, somehow, although we don’t know what he’s saying, we still know he’s acting just as badly as the other two. At least the baby orang-utan who serves as comic relief gives a decent performance — although it doesn’t say much for those other three bozos when they can be out-acted by an orang-utan.
The Beast himself is just a common or garden variety orang-utan, and hardly beastly at all. His stunt double dons a monkey suit to pretend to have a frankly hilarious fight with a snake during which we can just about make him out as he rolls around in the undergrowth for half a minute. In fact the only beastly thing about him is his habit of emitting this long, drawn-out groan when agitated that sounds like a slowed-down version of one of Barney Gumble’s belches. It really is a horrible noise that had my teeth on edge.
Anyway, that’s enough about the bad stuff; let’s now talk of everything that’s good about The Beast of Borneo…
(Reviewed 20th September 2013)