There’s something pleasantly simple about fifties science fiction horror films. The early low-budget filmmakers would do things like stick a diving helmet on a gorilla suit (Robot Monster) or inject red dye into silicon jelly (The Blob), all in the name of creating memorable movie monsters. This naiveté carried over into the mad scientist films of the fifties as well. A perfect example of this innocence-in-filmmaking is the 1953 sci-fi camp-fest The Neanderthal Man.
The Neanderthal Man is about a scientist named Professor Clifford Groves (Robert Shayne from How to Make a Monster) who develops a serum that causes organisms to regress back to their prehistoric roots. After testing the formula on housecats, hunters in the area begin to report seeing Saber-Toothed Tigers in the woods around Dr. Groves’ laboratory. While the local game warden, George Oakes (Robert Long from Captain Kidd and the Slave Girl), and town sheriff, Andy Andrews (Western Union’s Dick Rich), struggle to track down the beasts, Dr. Groves tries the serum on himself and becomes a caveman who prowls the woods, attacking anyone he finds. Dr. Groves’s daughter Jan (The Naked Street’s Joyce Terry), fiancé Ruth (Doris Merrick from “The Adventures of Kit Carson”), and colleague Dr. Harkness (The Alligator People’s Richard Crane) hope to find Dr. Groves and turn him back to his old self before he harms any more unsuspecting townsfolk.
The evil geniuses behind The Neanderthal Man were the screenwriting team of Aubrey Wisberg and Jack Pollexfen, the same duo who were responsible for The Man from Planet X a couple of years before. One of the last films to be directed by German film pioneer E.A. Dupont (The Scarf, Return to Treasure Island), The Neanderthal Man is basically a werewolf story, only instead of a werewolf, there’s a caveman. It’s a fun trade, and it allows the titular antagonist to run around in the daylight hours (thus letting Dupont and his crew shoot during them, too). Add in the overly serious acting and some wonderfully corny visuals, and The Neanderthal Man becomes the stuff of which B-movie legends are made.
There are several instantly hilarious elements to The Neanderthal Man, but the most significant is the talk of Science (with a capital S). Dr. Groves spends the early part of the movie trying to explain his theories of regression and primal instinct to his peers and contemporaries, only to have them laugh at him and dismiss his claims. The audience laughs along with them, because his hypotheses are pretty hair-brained. Because of this rejection, Groves becomes the typical mad scientist, obsessing over his work in an effort to prove to others (and to himself) that his theories are correct. And, like all good mad scientists, he experiments on himself and becomes The Neanderthal Man.
The other unintentionally campy aspect of The Neanderthal Man is the visual effects, specifically the way in which the Saber-Toothed Tigers are portrayed. Basically, they’re normal, non-Saber-Toothed Tigers photographed wandering around in the woods. At one point, one of the cats jumps onto Warden Oakes’ car and he, along with the audience, is treated to an up-close and personal look at the creature’s head – which is just a quick flash of a stuffed cat head with huge teeth. It’s awesome. The Saber-Tooth Tiger subplot redeems itself later on in the film when one of them encounters the Neanderthal Man and really tears into him in an attack that looks like an outtake from Roar. There are still no saber teeth – those are apparently only on the stuffed cat head – but the stunt cat fully commits to its performance while mauling the Neanderthal.
Not all of the effects in The Neanderthal Man are quite as cheesy as the tigers, though. During Dr. Groves’ transformation, cinematographer Stanley Cortez (The Night of the Hunter, Shock Corridor) and editor Fred R. Feitshans Jr. (The Mummy’s Curse, The Frozen Ghost) pull off the classic stop-motion hair-growing technique that was popularized in Universal’s The Wolf Man movies, but actor Robert Shayne moves his head back and forth during the transformation, so the gradual addition of hair is more subtle – and more impressive. By no means does it look as smooth as today’s slick effects, but E.A. Dupont seemed to want to show the world that Hollywood movie magic had advanced in the ten or so years since The Wolf Man.
The music to The Neanderthal Man really pulls the movie together. The score was composed by Albert Glasser (Tormented, Attack of the Puppet People, The Monster Maker), and it’s a beautifully melodramatic orchestral soundtrack that goes right along with the overly-serious acting – it’s equal parts adventure movie and science fiction epic, all with just the right amount of Hollywood flair. During his career, Glasser scored hundreds of low budget B-movies, and The Neanderthal Man sounds like most of the others, but it sure fits the tone and vibe of the movie.
Part of the fun of classic science fiction and horror films is the ability to see the zipper on the back of the monster costume or the string that holds up the flying saucer. The best way to describe these fun-yet-flawed movies is “charming,” and The Neanderthal Man is as “charming” as they come.