Drugs will ravage the heart and tear at the mental fibre of man, but nobody was hit so desperately hard as Bela Lugosi. Here, he meets a gorilla from Brooklyn. A six-day shoot crafts barely eighty minutes of footage. Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla is exactly what it says on the tin, and it is a remarkable pointer for the trajectory of the eponymous leading man. Lugosi, not the gorilla. Only one year on from this and he found himself brushing shoulders with addiction and Ed Wood. Both are poison to any career, but the problems started much earlier for Lugosi, earlier than his anonymous narration of Glen or Glenda.
Where they do start is an elusive question. A Netflix Christmas special is the modern-day equivalent to Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla. At a time when the fading stars of the Universal Monster movies were struggling for work, they took their branding to wherever they could pitch it. Abbott and Costello found themselves brushing shoulders with Frankenstein and Dracula. Despite his retention of Dracula as the role that created him, Lugosi only played the Count in the titular 1930s feature and the Abbot and Costello comedy. Moments such as that are perhaps the reason for his miserable run of form in later years. Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla is as uninspired as the title may suggest.
It does not lack clarity, but creativity. Lugosi is washed up and past his prime, but still a household name. Scenes of him as Dr. Zabor are just upsetting. “You better get some laughs this time or you’ll be collecting unemployment insurance,” is the advice he offers the men that head onto the stage before him. It is advice he should have listened to. If Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla is the great performer’s pivot towards comedy, it is a failed one. This feature is far more fascinating as a product of a desperate artist than it is as a poor man’s comedy vehicle. Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo may not have shot to the starstruck fame they had expected as an unlikely comedy pairing, but their work alongside Lugosi shows no signs of their talent. It is the old hat mentality of playing up the dumb and dumber antithesis of comedy. Poor exploitation of those basic notes that guided the likes of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, but without the charm or physical comedy that sold audiences on it at the time.
What it is for everyone involved is a last-ditch attempt to salvage notoriety. Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla is not necessarily an uninviting title. To see the former star of Universal, the face of a horrified generation, meet with an ape, is a fascinating sight to display. In hindsight, it isn’t worth it. A feature that Martin Landau once said: “made Ed Wood features look like Gone with the Wind.” An incredible dive into what makes this so poor a feature is impossible, because it all relies on the star deep in the heart of darkness, meeting with gorillas and suffering through some flatlining comedy in the vain hope that a gorilla would salvage his career. Pure monkey business, and not the good stuff.