Dr. Renault’s Secret (1942)

*. Dr. Renault’s Secret is an archetypal B-movie, not just for being inexpensively made so as to play at the bottom of a double bill but for the way it presents such a stew of familiar genre elements. Watching it one is struck by how many other movies, or types of movies, it seems to be referencing.
*. Many of these genres were already well intermixed, all circling around the idea of man’s animal nature. Dr. Renault (George Zucco) has done some experimenting and turned an ape into a man (J. Carrol Naish). So it’s one of a sub-genre of ape movies that were popular at the time, as well as such stand-bys as the werewolf and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde stories. You can also see something of The Island of Lost Souls in Dr. Renault (who is basically Dr. Moreau without the island) making his own Caliban and then keeping him in line with a whip.
*. The movie Dr. Renault’s Secret was paired with, The Undying Monster (another B-movie), fished in the same waters, with an old family curse being linked to lycanthropy. And in fact the source material here had a history as well. It’s based on a novel by Gaston Leroux named Balaoo that had been filmed in 1913 as Balaoo the Demon Baboon and in 1927 as The Wizard.
*. The familiarity goes even deeper. When Dr. Forbes shows up at the tavern in the opening scene and asks if he can get transportation to the Renault place I expected everyone to go silent or maybe spit up their ale. Renault whipping Noel and locking him up reminded me both of Island of Lost Souls and Frankenstein. What little mystery there is to the proceedings comes about partly because we expect a reclusive scientist like Dr. Renault to have a weird, lurching attendant, only named Igor. That Igor in this case is the experiment counts as a twist.
*. It’s not much of a twist that we sympathize with Noel, or that he’s the Beast who has fallen in love with the Beauty (Renault’s daughter). Nor is the idea that the ex-con Rogell (Mike Mazurski) is more of a monster than Noel that surprising. All of which contributes to making this a classic B-movie. Meaning it’s a reasonably deft rearrangement of genre elements, well-produced and photographed but not adding up to much. It’s quick though, and like the best B-pictures it makes something decent out of a whole lot of what’s ordinary.

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