The Doctor and the Monkey (1900)
Alternate Title: Le Savant et le chimpanzé
Admittedly, this short from Georges Méliès is clearly intended as a comedy romp, but I’m including it with my “history of horror” because of its obvious relationship to later “ape on the loose” movies like “King Kong.” This monkey is less imposing, but the special effects are no less impressive for the period.
The proscenium-style set displays a split-level home, with both the lower and upper floors visible, and the floor cutting mid-way through the screen. On the lower floor is a laboratory, and a doctor, played by Méliès, has a large monkey in a cage (actually an actor in a very obvious monkey suit). When the doctor turns his back, the monkey breaks out of the cage and begins to smash up the lab. The doctor pursues him and tries to bring him back under control, but to no avail. He grabs the monkey by its tail, and the tail detaches itself and begins flailing around under its own power. The doctor grabs a broom and tries to swat the tail, but it leaps up and attaches itself to his nose. The doctor’s housekeeper runs in and helps him pull off the tail, whereupon it disappears for good. Meanwhile, the monkey has climbed up to the second level, where it is smashing stored bags of flour and other things it finds. As the doctor becomes free again, it smashes through the floor and returns to the lower level terrorizing the doctor and the housekeeper. It now tears off the housekeeper’s skirt, leaving her in her pantalettes. As the film ends, the whole house is in shambles, with the monkey in evident dominance.
Apparently this movie has been compared to later video games like “Donkey Kong” because of the split-level effect, and perhaps the destructive monkey as well. Méliès intended it to be funny, but all movies about monkeys and destruction bring out questions of evolution and the beast within humanity, and the thin veneer of civilization that holds order together. In this film, the doctor proves quite incapable of controlling his creature’s instincts, and the monkey clearly gets the better of him. There’s even a sexual aspect, both in terms of the phallus-like tail attacking the man’s nose, and in the monkey tearing clothes off of the female housekeeper. Horror film makers would be exploring these themes again in the subsequent century and beyond.
Director: Georges Méliès
Starring: Georges Méliès
Run Time: 1 Min, 30secs
You can watch it for free: here (with music).