Rixflix A to Z: Africa Screams (1949)

Director: Charles T. Barton // UA/Nassour Studios; 1:19; b/w
Cast Notables: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Shemp Howard, Joe Besser, Frank Buck, Clyde Beatty, Max Baer, Buddy Baer, Hillary Brooke.
Cinema 4 Rating: 4

There is a shot buried deep in the undernourished carcass of Africa Screams that also resides in a dark reservoir within my subconscious. There is no "Eureka!" to be shouted upon its discovery, as if it were a cinematic Holy Grail; it is a silly image in a short, not particularly enjoyable jungle adventure spoof, and one that is not even all that memorable even to a steadfast Abbott and Costello follower (which I would consider myself to be a medium one). In a world where alligators stand in for crocodiles in both name and in body (both real and hilariously fake) and where all natives of Africa seem to be cannibals, it's only natural that a safari would be launched to search for the Orangutan Gigantus, whose scientific name translates to "Enormous Simian Whose Smaller Specimens Don't Actually Live in Africa".

I am filled with a primal simian fear/fascination. The "fear" portion does not stem from a personal denial of mankind's biological connection to these creatures; in fact, I fully embrace it. It's not so much a fear "of" anyway; it's more a fear "for", and if anything, a lot of it rises out of guilt over the way humans are both exploiting and destroying these creatures with sheer human idiocy. And the "fascination" aspect does not spring forth in the expected "Man Show" way, where all human males are supposed to retain a fondness for laughing at the antics of "silly monkeys." ("Monkeys", by the way, is a frat boy term for all primates, whether apes or monkeys. They are all found equally hilarious, mainly when doing human-like things.) This fear/fascination lives and breathes in me because of a basic horror of the bestial, and man's (and my) inability to be able to reason with such power when it is unleashed.

My neighborhood was filled with horrors bestial, most of them unnatural or unbelievably natural. Yes, the occasional bear, fox or moose would wander through the woods surrounding our home, but these were understandable -- you know where you stand with a bear, and hopefully it is on the other side of the door from it. You learn early that they are about, and when you do see them, you are generally taught to keep a wide and respectful berth of them. But there were other things in the wood, most of them derived from the books, movies and comic books that my friends and I devoured with a passion, and which could not be controlled once they were out of their place of origin and if your imagination caused them to grow ever wilder. Thus it was that I was constantly surrounded by creatures of the dark and of the night, and the chief causes of my childhood anxiety turned out to be werewolves (perhaps man turned back to his secret bestial self?) and Gigantopithicuses (Bigfoot, Sasquatch, etc... perhaps man trapped in a separate evolutionary tack or prehistoric state?)

Instant identification with the travails of Kong and Mighty Joe Young only compounded the fascination as I grew up. And somewhere along the line, I saw Africa Screams. I know I saw it as a youth, but I also certainly forgot about it, for it was only a handful of years ago when I first got a VHS of this film (which routinely is pressed out in cheap editions owing to the nature of its rights) and watched it believing I was seeing it for the first time. I was not impressed at all, but then I arrived at "the shot". Far, far into the picture, I came across Costello's meeting with the Gigantus... and for me, it was like the scene in The Matrix where the spoon melts and everything becomes clear for Neo, or the scene in The Usual Suspects where the truth about Keyser Soze is discovered. There was a rush of memory that bolted through my cerebral cortex like quicksilver and I arrived in my head at the precise moment in my youth where I first watched this film. A whir of blazing imagery and then there was that shot of a 20-foot tall ape (which really doesn' resemble an orangutan at all) looming monstrously over fat little Costello. It was post-Kong, so it wasn't that far back, but it was not long after it, and my brain apparently stored it in my Kong/fake Kong reserve, despite Costello's intrusion.

And here is where it ends up. Numerous times over the years, in moment of solitude, usually walking alone through a darkened area, my mind wanders to those stored up memories of monsters past, and often a single image will get dredged up, stick squarely in my mind's eye and cause me to get the bejeezus frightened out of me as I progress through the stygian black. And this scene, this goofy scene with a man in a bad gorilla suit pretended to be a 20-foot tall African orangutan towering over Lou Costello, is one of those scenes. It is stuck there in a suite of images that spring forth in moments of duress -- pictures of the Patterson Bigfoot, the bionic Sasquatch, werewolves in medieval woodcuts, the Wolf Man himself, the Saturday Night Live Landshark costume, the Fiend Without a Face brain-spine creatures -- stupid, silly items all, and all of which supercede any images of real danger in my life that I have remembered. And this inane gorilla-suited creature, whose appearance in the film is completely benign, even appears over the real Kong, of whom I have never been afraid, because he was always my friend. Or maybe he was me all the time.

Unless I hit some therapy, this one is going to confuse me forever...


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